Saturday, May 26, 2007

Owning your own paper: Julie Myers '91

Julie Myers '91 and her husband, Reagon Clamon '93, own the Leader News in Lytle (about 20 minutes south of the Riverwalk), serving Atascosa, Medina and southwest Bexar counties. (Its Web site is under construction)

Here's Julie:

We've owned this little start-up weekly outright since May 2002 when we bought out our last remaining partner. We began working here in November 1999 – four months after two friends of ours started it, and became one-third owners at that time. We love the freedom of pursuing whatever story we want and treating employees the way we always wanted to be treated (health insurance excepted, unfortunately), but find that trying to do journalism this way with small children at home is tough. Family comes first, newspaper second. I stay home with Molly, 2, and Luke, 5, will be a full-time kindergarten student in the fall of '07. I edit and format obituaries and a few other things from home.

We have five full-timers, counting Reagon who is the publisher, two who are almost full-time and a host of stringers, contract workers, etc. we depend on for a lot, not the least of which is enthusiasm. When ours is flagging, they pitch in mentally and physically. They're good as gold! One of them is an Aggie, too. Our editor, Shauna Lewis ('01), has been with us for almost five years!

We do some unorthodox things because we own it, and being a weekly gives us some flexibility that dailies don't have, such as giving everyone between a week, and week and a half off – paid (at least for full-timers) – at Christmastime because we print an edition ahead and just close the office. Our great distribution people come in while we're gone and take papers to the post office and newspaper racks. We know there are risks to that, but we're willing – for now – to risk missing a big story. So far we've been lucky. We hope what we can't offer in pay and other benefits is matched by our generous time-off policy and other perks of working with fun people like us and those we select, in part, based on our judgement of how well they will complement everyone else. We all get along pretty good, thanks to Reagon's steady hand on the rudder and my quaking shoulders when it gets scary (and it has from time to time).

For what it's worth, here are some things I thought were important when I was just starting out with a journalism degree and the few years afterward and what I've learned.

1. Awards.

They're nice, but they're also subjective. You should definitely enter your best work in contests for lots of reasons, but keep them in perspective. Just because you won doesn't mean you were the best and just because you didn't win doesn't mean you aren't doing a bang-up job. What do your readers/viewers think? Do they renew their subscriptions? Do you feel like you're contributing in a meaningful way that excites you (not scares you)? That's what counts.

2. Working at a metro.

C'mon, don't we all dream of this now and then if we aren't there already? When we first moved to this area from Lake Jackson about 12 years ago, I felt I was a good-enough reporter to work at the Express-News. I had worked two years at a respected mid-size daily preceded by two years at a tiny daily and won an award (see No. 1) that I thought would get my foot in the door, and it did. I interviewed with a newsroom editor for a "real" reporting job and ended up sweating over stories that ultimately appeared in the Express-News zoned editions and for which I was paid slave wages. Finally, tired of secretarial temping, I took a step down in expectations and a job as managing editor of a small weekly. I FOUND MY CALLING. I loved being able to put my stamp on a newspaper like that, and unlike my reporter years, I never got sleepy on the job. There was always something exciting I could do for a while when my energy was flagging instead of staring at pages or a computer screen. Eventually, Reagon and I ended up being co-publishers together there in Kerrville and had a blast! I haven't dreamed of working at a metro for years now. Small-town people need and deserve great, hard-hitting journalism as much as city-dwellers!

3. Getting involved.

Reagon has been the president of the chamber of commerce here in Lytle since at least 2003. My journalistic ethics were pretty rigid in college and still are (thank you A&M!). What he does would have been a definite no-no back then, but I've changed my mind on this one issue. Our town is a much better place for him taking that on. He is what was needed at the time. Lytle is a town of 2,300 people so there were few willing and able to step before a very skeptical business community and revive a chamber that had lived and died over and over again in the past. We know the risks, but they're worth it, for now.

4. A clear professional path.

Because both of us had journalism degrees and planned to work for newspapers, we soon realized it wouldn't be easy to be gainfully employed at the same time all the time or even in our profession because of employers' perceptions of the word nepotism and other fears about employing spouses or too-few openings for newspaper journalists in far-flung, rural areas. Partly because we often worked in different towns for different newspapers, we've moved 11 times in almost 15 years of marriage, which counts two months sleeping in my big brother's dining room and my parents' upstairs after Reagon got fired (let go?) in 2002, six weeks after our the birth of our first child. As the years went by, however, we just realized things were working out. We made decisions based on the best information we had at the time, talking a lot to each other and knowing when to seek advice outside ourselves. It doesn't seem complicated now, but it did 14 years ago. Now we look back and realize how everyone had a hand in getting us to where we are now, even the boss who fired Reagon (his only firing) who we thought we could never forgive. We have (and boy, were we bitter). We still party with him sometimes at Texas Press Association conventions. We may have him to thank more than anyone. Three months later, we owned this newspaper free and clear.

We do live a meager existence by the standards of most newspaper owners (or even school teachers or cops), but we live in a town we love, surrounded by a wonderful family and great people in the office and around town, and we have a lot of freedom to choose our own destiny. Life's good.


Anonymous said...

Good to see that the Lytle paper is in such good hands. I'm a Medina County native (Castroville) and have noticed that paper improving over the last few years on my trips back.

It's odd that y'all moved there from Lake Jackson, because I moved to Lake Jackson from there (working at the Brazosport Facts).

I'm now up in Austin, but I work for myself and get down to the old homeplace a lot. If y'all ever want to grab lunch at Sammys in Castroville, give me a shout.


Anonymous said...

Hey James,
I truly hope your deployment is going well. Call us when you get back so we can treat you at Sammy's (maybe even Haby's!) and hear of your newest adventure. You've crammed a whole lot of living in your young life.
If you remember fellow Aggie journalist Peggy O'Hare from The Facts, she tells me yesterday that she survived a round of layoffs there, it seems.
Keep in touch while on deployment. We'll write back (my son Luke, 5, would be excited to talk to a real soldier) And thank you for your service to us all!
Julie Myers