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Restart the Presses

When Lago Vista’s paper folded, a core group of citizens circulated a bold idea: Let’s launch a new one

Community newspapers hold up a mirror for readers. Lick your fingers, turn the page, and there’s your neighbor’s kid, the Little League slugger, staring down a pitch. Turn the page, and there’s the police chief’s guest editorial about bullying. Turn the page, and there’s the pet of the week, a cat named Gretchen, ready for adoption into a good home.

Through photographs and words, through police blotters, church event calendars, honor rolls, legal notices and coverage of city council meetings, peewee football games, fish fries, rodeos, booster clubs, livestock shows, and high school proms and graduations, community newspapers foster the kind of intimate communication that keeps people connected.

On the pages of local newspapers, residents see each others’ faces—and their own. They read stories of heroics, such as firefighters battling a structural blaze in town or a wildfire racing through the countryside.

In birth announcements, readers see those who have just arrived. In obituaries, they see those who have just departed. From cradle to grave, small-town newspapers put readers’ lives into context, revealing a reflection of the community as a whole.

But when a newspaper dies, something in the community dies as well. Such was the case in 2011, when the Central Texas town of Lago Vista lost its local paper, the weekly North Lake Travis Log, which ceased publication in mid-September that year. As time passed, several prominent citizens started expressing their concerns. They felt abandoned, without a way to communicate the needs of their growing community.

At the two-year mark of losing their paper, members of a fledgling group felt desperate. Something had to be done.

“We came to the realization that the heart of the community had disappeared,” says Clive Rutherford, a Lago Vista-based broker and real estate agent. Rutherford readily remembers how he and other residents used to criticize the former newspaper. But in its absence, Rutherford notes, community communication broke down. “We floundered,” he bluntly says.

Lago Vista, developed as a lake resort in the 1960s, is known as a haven for retirees, golfers and water enthusiasts. Yet Lake Travis, the town’s biggest tourism draw, also poses a conundrum: The lake surrounds Lago Vista except to the north, meaning there’s no easy route to anywhere. That includes Austin, which as the crow flies, is roughly 19 miles southeast. But by vehicle, the shortest drive is about 35 miles, first going northeast on FM 1431 to Cedar Park, then turning south onto U.S. 183 to head into the capital city.

Increasingly, without a reliable pipeline of local news, some residents not only felt cut off from the outside world—they also felt cut off from their own community.

Matt Underwood, then-superintendent of the Lago Vista Independent School District, worried about how to convey information to taxpayers about an upcoming $29.6 million bond election for a new high school.

The Rev. Dale Chrisman, senior pastor of Trinity Anglican Church, no longer had a dependable outlet by which to communicate with newcomers or notify his congregation of special events.

Rutherford faced fierce competition from the scores of other agents in the area, a hotbed of commercial and residential development in the rolling hills of northwestern Travis County. Without a hometown newspaper, Rutherford said he lacked a way to reach potential customers in one fell advertising swoop.

As the group grew, members started exploring ways to get a paper back. A few members approached an area newspaper about the possibility of helping launch a new publication, but nothing came of the conversation.

Shirley Davis, a history buff who helped create Lago Vista’s North Shore Heritage and Cultural Society, asked a prominent Austin figure for help: author Glenn Frankel, who was then serving as director of the University of Texas School of Journalism. Frankel, who during his tenure at the Washington Post won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting, supported the idea but told Davis he was not in a position to offer hands-on help.

Then came the first tangible sign of hope: Jim Fletcher, a member of Chrisman’s congregation and a Burnet resident, knew Roy Bode, then-president and publisher of the Marble Falls-based Highland Lakes Newspapers group. (In a transaction made official on July 1, 2014, Bode sold the group—the Burnet Bulletin, Llano County Journal, The Northshore Star and The Highlander, in Marble Falls—to Moser Community Media, a Brenham-based newspaper management company.)

Fletcher asked Bode, a veteran newspaper editor who was at the helm of the Dallas Times Herald when it closed in 1991, if he would be interested in helping Lago Vista get a new newspaper.

Bode was interested and accepted an invitation to attend the Lago Vista group’s first organizational meeting in October 2013. But Bode also was skeptical. For more than a decade before it printed its last issue, the Times Herald—the city’s oldest daily newspaper—had been losing the advertising and circulation war to its cross-town rival, The Dallas Morning News.

Bode knew firsthand how competition, coupled with shaky financial footing, could cripple a paper. Still, he was intrigued and impressed by the Lago Vista group’s determination and enthusiasm. He said he would help start a paper on one condition: To attract advertisers for a publication that would serve Lago Vista and a handful of other small locales in the surrounding area, the group would have to collect at least 1,000 prepaid subscriptions.

The group, which added members after its first meeting, immediately went to work. Rutherford, an original member, paid for a banner sign that first hung outside a Lago Vista bank and then at a business in nearby Jonestown. Emblazoned with the paper’s proposed name—The Northshore Star—the phrase “Your Local Newspaper Needs You Now!” and the subscription phone number, the banner was the first visible symbol of the group’s newspaper drive.

To lure potential advertisers and help build readership interest, Bode printed four free test issues over the span of four months, starting in November 2013. Lora Cheney, the senior advertising representative for Highland Lakes Newspapers, made The Northshore Star’s newly designed mastheads part of her presentation package when pitching the proposed publication to local businesses.

Al Schwerman, a longtime Lago Vista resident and a retired Houston businessman who had a newspaper delivery route as a boy six-plus decades ago, loaded the trunk of his car and dropped off free test issues all over town, including to doctors’ and dentists’ offices, beauty shops and apartment complexes. One afternoon, Schwerman, working as a volunteer, delivered a batch of test issues to the Lago Vista bridge club, simply intending to place the papers in view. When the 75-year-old Schwerman told one woman, yes, this is the new paper, he was practically stampeded by about 25 bridge players surging forward to grab a copy.

Schwerman got an almost unanimous yes from the group when he asked if everyone there had subscribed. And some of the bridge players even tried to convince him how important the paper was to the community.

The 68-year-old Chrisman, who has a journalism degree from the University of Texas, got accused of preaching about the new paper as much as he did God. During Sunday morning services, while making announcements, Chrisman would hold up a test issue and tell parishioners, “Do not leave church today without subscribing.”

After his Sunday morning sermons, Chrisman would stand in the back of the church and hand out free test issues to exiting parishioners while encouraging them to subscribe.

Everyone in the group distributed subscription forms and drummed up support for the new paper. Ultimately, the grass-roots strategy paid off: By February 2014, the group members had collected 1,100 prepaid subscriptions. The Northshore Star was a go: The first official issue of the newspaper, which comes out every other week, was published on Thursday, February 6.

On May 1, almost six months after the first test issue of The Northshore Star was distributed on November 21, 2013, some of the group members gathered to explain how the new paper came into existence. Sitting around a large table in Rutherford’s real estate office—which served as the newspaper’s headquarters with a reporter’s desk up front—Rutherford, Davis, Cheney, Schwerman, Chrisman and Bode talked and laughed easily over plates of cookies and cups of coffee as they put their efforts into perspective.

Davis and her husband, Dan, who died in 2012, moved to Lago Vista in 1992 a decade after he retired from the Army as a decorated lieutenant colonel. Davis said that through the years, whenever she and her husband moved to a new town, the first thing she did was subscribe to the newspaper. When Lago Vista’s paper folded in 2011, “I was really devastated,” Davis told the group, “because all of a sudden I felt like I had lost touch with my community.”

Failed efforts to enlist the help of an area newspaper led to a pivotal decision. As the group gelled, “We decided whatever happens, it has to be our newspaper,” Rutherford said. “We can’t piggyback on someone else.”

Davis, 79, nodded in agreement with Rutherford. The Lago Vista community has access to the North Shore Beacon, an online newspaper, but some older residents, she noted, don’t use computers every day. They want a print newspaper, like The Northshore Star. “If I want my news,” Davis said, clapping her palms together for emphasis, “I want it in my hands.”

Advertisers were interested from the get-go, said Cheney, who sold the first two test issues as a package. At that point, she noted, businesses had gone more than two years without a local print newspaper and had budgeted their money elsewhere. But based on the mastheads and strong editorial content, many advertisers took a leap of faith, Cheney said, some even buying two quarter-page ads at a time.

Save for Cheney and Bode, no one else sitting at the table actually worked for The Northshore Star. The members of the organizational group who helped bring a newspaper to life had always worked in a volunteer capacity. But the discussion took on the feel of a newspaper editorial staff meeting as Bode roamed around the big table, refilling cups from the coffee pot he fetched from the real-estate office’s kitchen. Bode praised the group’s community advocacy, including that of Schwerman, who has been pushing the Texas Department of Transportation to make improvements to FM 1431.

Between Lago Vista and Cedar Park, FM 1431 is a four-lane thoroughfare. But between Lago Vista and Marble Falls, FM 1431 narrows to a two-lane “treacherous 25-mile route,” as reported by The Northshore Star, with few passing lanes and poor visibility in some spots on the twisting and winding road.

Schwerman’s doggedness as a vocal citizen pursuing the road’s safety issues has added context to Star articles. A story in the paper’s January 9 test issue, under the banner headline “HIGHWAY TO THE DANGER ZONE,” described Schwerman’s efforts to enlist the help of state legislators in adding turnout, or pullover, lanes to FM 1431 to ease traffic congestion.

Bode took notes as Davis requested that The Northshore Star deliver more human-interest and history-based stories. For example, Davis said, it would be fitting for Travis County officials to build a historical park in honor of Stephen F. Austin’s Upper Colony settlement that was established almost two centuries ago along the banks of the nearby Colorado River.

The group was quick to praise the efforts of those newspaper supporters not present, including Underwood, who attended the first organizational meeting in fall 2013 as Lago Vista ISD’s superintendent. In July, Underwood announced he was leaving the Lago Vista school district to accept the same position with the Stephenville Independent School District, southwest of Fort Worth.

On a Tuesday morning in mid-May, with the school year coming to an end, Underwood took a short work break to describe what the community newspaper model means to him. “See, look there! The Northshore Star!” he said in his office, flipping through a binder of area newspaper articles about Lago Vista ISD and the new high school complex scheduled to open in fall 2014.

As Underwood noted, the North Lake Travis Log reported extensively on the $29.6 million bond election for a new high school. But two months before the election, the paper went out of business. With the cessation of articles, Underwood worried that taxpayers would lack crucial information about the proposed high school site, which included new classrooms, laboratories, athletic facilities, a cafeteria and a performing arts center to help serve the fast-growing school district.

After voters approved the bond package in November 2011, Underwood found himself nursing a new concern: How could he make sure that residents were kept abreast of school construction developments? The answer: Help start another newspaper.

But there’s a larger, more emotional component to the conversation, says the 43-year-old Underwood, a Brady native who played football, basketball and tennis in school and competed in University Interscholastic League academic events, such as poetry reading. The newspaper articles and photographs documenting his accomplishments—the snapshots of his youth—are lovingly preserved in scrapbooks.

“Those are memories I wanted for my children,” Underwood said. “And I know that a lot of parents want that for their children.”

Underwood noted that earlier in May, 40 students were recognized for academic and athletic successes, including in Special Olympics, at a Lago Vista school board meeting. What made the occasion particularly poignant, Underwood said, is that the students’ accomplishments were prominently displayed on the pages of The Northshore Star.

Without the newspaper’s coverage, Underwood said, only the parents would’ve known about their children’s successes. Newspaper articles and photos, he added, provide proof that the school system is working and help underscore the importance of a campus expansion. “Communicating the success of our kids validates the taxpayer and brings the community closer together,” Underwood said.

To some extent, as The Northshore Star tries to gain traction, Lago Vista is still disconnected, Underwood said. But, he added, the paper helps “solidify us as a community. That’s the piece we’re badly missing.”

There’s one other missing piece, Underwood said: a newspaper reporter to cover all school board meetings. Throughout the school year, Underwood acted as reporter by emailing school board meeting reports to Jim Goodson, a correspondent for The Northshore Star who covers numerous events in the immediate area, and to the weekly Hill Country News.

The healthy context here, Underwood said, is that newspaper coverage is a key component to stability within his own school administration—he invites scrutiny of the school board process by a newspaper journalist.

“The fact that somebody’s watching relieves the tension,” Underwood said. “It’s important to communicate the good, the bad and the ugly and let people know what’s going on. It’s letting pressure out of the tires.”

Camille Wheeler is an Austin writer.