Photos by Tom Parker
Only place on the planet – Chase County Leader-News
As a general rule, offices of small-town newspapers are rarely showy. A few sport big lettering on windows or storefronts as if to emphasize their importance within the structural hierarchy of a community, while others adopt a less lavish facade. It could be argued that the offices of the Chase County Leader-News in downtown Cottonwood Falls adheres to an antithetical approach. Other than a small brass plaque affixed to the wall by the front door—whose minute and weathered lettering, it might be noted, is impossible to read from the street—there is nothing to distinguish the business from any other, vacant or otherwise.
“It’s a small town thing,” says Jerry Schwilling. “We just figure everyone knows where we are.”
Which is not to say that the weekly newspaper doesn’t take itself seriously or considers itself unimportant. Schwilling, owner, editor, reporter and photographer (among other duties), has a well-defined sense of place and position reined in by an abiding sense of humor. It’s served him well during the 17 years he’s been editor and he hopes it continues to serve him until he retires to a life of music and contra dancing, whenever that might be. The newspaper, Schwilling believes, provides an essential role in the life of the community and as such is unchallenged by any outside news agency, social networking, word of mouth or even the Internet.
“This is the only place on the planet you can read about what happened in the Chase County commissioners meeting every week,” Schwilling says. “You can’t find it online. It’s the only place you can read about the Cottonwood Falls city government. We provide information on youth activities, sports, 4-H, the county fair, businesses, you name it. The newspaper has value. It’s important.”
It also retains some of the flavor of the 1800s, when local news encompassed the daily doings of the ordinary citizenry: the who, what, when, where, why and how of residents both here, gone or returning that would eventually evolve into a journalistic creed taught at all accredited universities. Never mind that in today’s newsgathering circles it amounts to little more than provincial gossip. Traditions are not lightly tinkered with and, anyway, people want to know what their neighbors are up to. In keeping with a tradition dating back to 1871 when the paper was established, Schwilling enlists a half-dozen fledgling reporters whose sole responsibility is to assemble a weekly portrait of the communities scattered across the county: who met with whom, who had ice cream socials, who went golfing.
As recompense for their weekly updates, Schwilling buys them dinner for two at the Grand Central Hotel. It’s the priciest (and ritziest) eatery in the county. “It’s an expensive meal, but for fifty articles it’s nothing,” he says. “It’s important enough to the writers that they’ll do it for free. And they don’t even have to eat with me.”
“Is that a plus?” he’s asked.
“In some cases, I think it might be.”
The paper employs one part-time reporter who covers sports and the municipalities of Strong City and Cottonwood Falls—home to half the county’s population—as well as schools. She’s a former teacher and knows education through and through, a big plus in Schwilling’s eyes. “Education is a culture,” he says. “It helps to be an insider.”
Schwilling’s beat is the county commissioners and whatever big news story comes along. He pens an occasional editorial but prefers not to.
Other employees include a high school student who cleans and preps the mailroom and helps stuff inserts, a proofreader and a bookkeeper who everyone must get along with. “She’s more important than me,” he says. “I always tell new employees that if they can’t get along with her, they can’t stay.”
Circulation runs about 1,300 and declining. With most Kansas counties experiencing a seemingly endless population freefall, Chase County isn’t exactly alone. At the beginning of the 20th century the county population was 10,000; by the century’s closing it had dropped to 3,000. For the news industry it creates a downward financial spiral. The question on many people’s minds is how depopulated can it, or will it, get. Schwilling doesn’t have a crystal ball and he’s not about to start guessing, but the initial optimism he felt when first arriving in Chase County has lost some of its luster.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he says. “Have we bottomed out or will it continue to decline? When I first came here I was optimistic that a lot of urban people were looking for a way out of the urban environments and they might come here. Make it a bedroom community, at least. If it’s happening, it’s a slow, slow evolution. And the increasing cost of gasoline makes it less viable than it might have been.”
Complicating matters is the lack of high-speed Internet. Digital subscriber lines (DSL) exist only within the major communities and not at all in the countryside. Satellite is the only option, and it’s prohibitively expensive.
Population loss, though, is just one of a host of ills that plague the rural news industry. Loss of advertising revenue in a tight economy is high on the list, as is a shrinking pool of readers. Perhaps one of the biggest problems is that in today’s Internet era people expect everything to be free, including the news. After all, they can go online and read the Washington Post, the New York Times, or any other major newspaper across the continent, or even some of the major dailies within Kansas itself.
“The Internet mentality that everything should be free—how are you going to talk to somebody with that mindset and say, you have to buy this building, you have to buy these computers, you have to have cameras, you have to be able to pay the printers, you have to shell out all this money and expect to make almost nothing in return. They don’t understand. But I am worried.”
Schwilling feels that change is coming, an evolution from print to something digital or a combination of both. Sensing the future in an online presence, several years ago he took it to the Web. Almost immediately subscribers started canceling. Advertisers were dubious and refused to sign on. Two years later Schwilling pulled the plug—and then answered to irate readers who lost their “free” news.
Rather than letting it get to him, he chalked it up as an experiment that didn’t pan out.
“At the same time, I feel encouraged because I don’t see anybody else picking this up,” he says. “When I stop printing this paper, where will that information be? I don’t think it’s going to be anywhere. Nobody is going to cover those meetings and put it online for free. I don’t think people are going to be satisfied with just not having the information. Somebody is going to have to do it, and they’re not going to do it for free.”
At 58 years of age, Schwilling says he’s at a point in his life where creating a viable Web presence sounds like too much effort. If an innovator comes forward and makes it happen, he says, it probably won’t be him.
“I want to do less and less work,” he says. “I’d like to see someone take on those responsibilities while I play a smaller and smaller role. My wife would love it if someone bought the paper.”
For a moment Schwilling lets that thought linger in the air as a big grin spreads over his face. The idea clearly amuses him. There’s also a hint of fear.
“I’d have to find gainful employment!” he says, in a tone at once stunned and incredulous. “I’d have to work for somebody else. I haven't worked for somebody in years! I can’t imagine that.”
Schwilling considers his current position the best of all worlds. He can delegate enough to enable him to get away for a four-day weekend, something he considers a transition into retirement, and he knows his job. It’s in his blood.
“Being in the newspaper business works for me,” he says. “This is a job I can do and do well. It beats any other thing I can think of.”
On a lazy midsummer afternoon a steady stream of customers interrupt his workflow. A group of young girls drop by with news of a raffle drawing, others want to pay their bills or take out classifieds. Some just want to talk because the news is fresher than down at the coffee shop. A young couple enter and shyly ask if he could run a photograph of their wedding announcement. He congratulates them and tells them he’d be happy to.
“See?” he says when they’re gone. “They’re not subscribers, but they want it for free. I don’t mind because it’s what we do.”
“And they knew where to find you,” he’s told.
After all, the Chase County Leader-News is the only place on the planet.