One tough weekly

At the Rio Grande Sun, hard-charging local journalism is the business plan, and a documentary shows us how it works

PROVO, UT—Each week, in a small northern New Mexico town, there is a scene that connects with the journalism of a century ago: newsies on street corners hawking the latest edition. The ritual has even been know to cause traffic jams in Espanola, where people either love their weekly newspaper—the Rio Grande Sun—or hate it. But either way, most feel compelled to read what it prints.

On Wednesday evenings, some people even drive around searching for the Sun’s newsies, who wear distinctive orange safety vests, to buy a paper through car windows. With all the news of upheaval at regional and large dailies, it is good to remember that most newspapers in the US are small ones, and some of those are very good. The Sun, it seems, in particular.

The Sun is the subject of a documentary, The Sun Never Sets, which premiered in New Mexico in fall 2012. Last weekend I caught up with its editor and publisher, Robert E. Trapp, and his son, the managing editor, Robert B. Trapp, at a screening for the film about their weekly at the Newseum in Washington.

The filmmaker, Ben Daitz, chronicles the work of hardworking journalists in a place that seems to be a magnet for corruption, cronyism, alcoholism, and drug addiction. Or maybe it’s no more a magnet for such things than some other places, but just happens to have a fiercely dedicated watchdog that takes its First Amendment role seriously.

After a drop in recent years to a 10 percent profit margin, Robert B. sees the paper slowly coming back financially, with growing advertising sales and an expected 15 percent profit this year. That comes even as people leave the area because of layoffs at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the area’s largest employer.

The paper has its challenges. The readership is not large, for one. The Sun claims 29,500 weekly readers with about 11,000 paid subscribers, Robert B. says.

Another challenge is the county’s literacy problem. Only about 52 percent of county children graduate from high school, and only an average of 18 to 20 percent of third graders are “proficient” in reading, Robert B. says.

In rural New Mexico, about 38 percent of homes can’t get high-speed Internet access even if they wanted it, according to the Trapps, and many can’t afford service even when it is available. So it is not a fancy website, Facebook, or Twitter that drives Sun readers to the publication. More likely, it is the hard-hitting local investigations and fearless editorials.

Back in 1995, Smithsonian magazine called the Sun, which goes back to 1959, the best weekly newspaper in America, and the Trapps have worked hard to keep up standards. Cub reporters trained by the Trapps use public records and open meetings laws to break stories that can be the envy of their metro daily counterparts. They often lead local police and prosecutors in uncovering corruption.

It was the Sun, back in 2000, that used public data to wake up the community to the fact that Rio Arriba County leads the nation in heroin addiction. The film shows how young victims fill graves in the town’s red-dirt cemetery. When the paper first reported the addiction-related death statistics, there were 20 deaths per 100,000 population in the area. The paper is still crunching the most recent numbers, but Robert B. says that ratio will be around 25 deaths per 100,000 in 2012. That’s higher than in most US urban centers.

Then there was the business manager of the Jemez Mountain School District, at the center of the largest embezzlement case in New Mexico history. In 2007, digging through boxes of records stored under the bleachers of a local high school, a Sun reporter added up cancelled checks to figure out just how much money she had siphoned from public coffers. Unfortunately, the paper also had to cover the woman’s suicide, the day before she was to be sentenced and two years after the Sun broke the story.

There was the also the 2009 story—sorry, it is behind a paywall—of a county jail doctor who started prescribing large amounts of a psychiatric drug, Seroquel, to inmates—a violation of ethical and legal standards.

The Trapps know the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act and use it like a hammer. They school all of their reporters in the law, and won’t easily back down. Robert B. says that public officials in his county and state talk to each other, and once they know a reporter has backed down they’ll clamp down on public access.

In fact, the Trapps have gone to court in several cases to demonstrate resolve. The paper has successfully sued the Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative, Los Alamos National Laboratories, and the City of EspaƱola (among others) in efforts to publish public records that custodians thought should be secret. Between the elder Trapp, who retired in 2001, and the younger Trapp, the pair have sued every public entity in Rio Arriba County at least once and some twice for access to information.

The film includes a moving tribute to the value of small-town newspapers and to the Sun’s style of journalism from the late Tony Hillerman, the journalist and mystery writer whose work focused on the Southwest. As Hillerman says in the film:

A community ought to have a guardian angel in a newspaper looking over it, tapping it on the shoulder when it’s screwing up, giving it some editorial advice now and then. At least letting the working-class people know what’s going on, if they’re getting screwed somehow or other, as most of them are usually, one way or another…. Have a newspaper that digs into things and tells them ‘that’s wrong,’ that lets them know.

Along with its investigative instinct, the Sun takes its role as the paper of record seriously. Its police blotter is one of its best-read features, and its crime reporting takes no hostages. Everyone, including the police officer who writes the police reports, gets their names in the paper.

The Sun is also popular for its obituaries. The younger Bob will run an obituary for free if the family lets him write it, telling something about the deceased’s life, and limiting the names listed to immediate family members. “I really like to the tell the person’s story for free, but not many have taken me up on it,” he says. Instead, it’s tradition in the area to run a long list of extended family members’ names in obituaries, but very little about the life of the deceased. He charges for those kinds of obits.

The Sun has an arts section, too, somewhat unusual for a weekly paper. It celebrates the performing and visual arts of a region close to the arts hub of Santa Fe.

Reporting in a small town is challenging at times, the Trapps say. During a Newseum question and answer session, Robert B. conceded that he doesn’t have many close friends in town.

Still, if the pond of family-owned community newspapers is ever to evaporate, Robert B. says he plans to be the last tadpole in it. He predicts at least another few good years in Rio Arriba County without strong digital distribution. Until then, newsies on the street, mail delivery, and a limited website suits him—and his growing readership—just fine. He believes big city journalism has something to learn from what he and his staff do in Rio Arriba County: Don’t stop doing journalism that matters.

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Joel Campbell is CJR's correspondent for Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. An associate journalism professor at Brigham Young University, he is the past Freedom of Information chairman for the Society of Professional Journalists and was awarded the Honorary Publisher Award by the Utah Press Association for his advocacy work on behalf of journalists in the Utah Legislature. Follow him on Twitter @joelcampbell. Tags: , , ,