In 2018, Scott Brooks had just returned to work as publisher of the Waxahachie Daily Light following hip surgery when he got word that owner GateHouse Media was going to eliminate publisher positions at its newspapers.
Brooks had worked for Gate-House for four and a half years. At the time the corporation recruited him from Alabama, it had a reputation as an up-and-coming newspaper company. Once Brooks began working for the chain, though, he saw some disturbing signs that maybe the company wasn’t as committed to journalism as he had thought.
He watched as GateHouse “got its claws into not just the Daily Light but a lot of other newspapers and just destroying it. There were 45 employees when I got there, and there are six today. Their editor lives in Amarillo.”
He continued, “They made us print our product in Sherman, Texas, which, on a good day, is about an hour and 45 minutes north. They shut down all of our printing capacity. We brought in three-hundred-and-sixty-grand in printing (annually) and we lost every single dime.”
Over time, the hedge fund’s reputation has soured among many whose idealism led them into journalism.
“I’ve been in the business 35 years,” Brooks said. “They are the biggest company in the industry, and they are destroying it. It’s like it’s eating itself up from the inside.”
Last year, GateHouse and the other largest newspaper owner in the country, Gannett, merged.
The New York Times reported that the merger “all but guaranteed” the creation of a “newspaper colossus” that would result in thousands of layoffs.
Five-hundred-and-fifty papers, 300 of them weeklies, now have the same owner.
A DOOR OPENS
While working for Gate-House, Brooks was bound by a no-compete clause. It was rendered null and void when GateHouse eliminated his position.
With the help of two silent investors, Brooks founded a competing paper: The Waxahachie Sun. The first issue was published on Aug. 22, 2018.
Brooks hired two staffers away from the Daily Light, and the others he brought on had a previous connection to that newspaper.
They knew the community inside and out, and cared about it deeply. The people of Waxahachie responded to the Sun’s commitment to local news reporting, throwing its support behind the fledgling newspaper. It has 70 active advertisers and about 1,200 subscribers.
The paper is published on Wednesday and Sunday, and carriers deliver each issue in the afternoon. Sunday’s paper is delivered on Saturday. Wednesday’s paper is 10-12 pages, and Sunday’s is usually 14.
The Sun has “10 or 11 reporters,” including stringers/correspondents. They cover only Waxahachie, Brooks said. By comparison, the Daily Light has one reporter and covers all of Ellis County, he said.
The Sun avoids covering what Brooks refers to as “blood, flood and mud.”
“One, they can get that from the Daily Light,” Brooks said. “And Number 2, as soon as a car accident happens, it’s online in a matter of seconds. What (readers) need us for is to tell them the deeper story about things.”
The Sun covers “tons of human interest” stories and is “all over schools,” Brooks said. Where sports are concerned, the paper focuses on atypical follow-up stories, perhaps zeroing in on a particular person or something that happened in the game.
Unlike GateHouse, The Sun doesn’t take a shine to wire stories. The paper doesn’t subscribe to any wire services.
A check of the Daily Light’s website on Thursday revealed a number of articles from USA Today and one from the Detroit Free Press.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, The Sun is covering some state news but for the most part, “it’s just all about our community,” Brooks said.
Community coverage includes the occasional investigative piece. The paper is currently working on “an expose” of a therapeutic nursing home that has had “a real problem with COVID-19,” Brooks said.
The Sun has also exposed some political shenanigans and issues with the school district. However, The Sun’s reporters don’t chase after every rabbit.
“We reserve our energy and resources for things that are substantive and likely to impact the community,” Brooks said.
The Sun’s publisher doesn’t hesitate to express his views through regular columns, but he tries to take “a more thoughtful, deliberate approach” to the subject matter at hand. He feels that readers appreciate that.
“There’s nothing going to stand in my way from telling the truth,” he said.
Brooks said that some have accused him of bullying a particular City Council member, whose voting record he takes issue with.
“She’s a mess,” said Brooks, adding that the woman “plays the victim.”
He stated, “I’m sending a message to people like her who think that since she got on there, they can get on there.”
Brooks said his columns have also targeted some political pot-stirrers, such as those who wanted to censure the county judge a few weeks ago because he had the audacity to follow Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive orders.
The publisher said he wants those types to know that they will be exposed in The Sun “for being just wacko because they are wacko.”
PART OF THE COMMUNITY
The Waxahachie Sun is located in a building just a block away from “one of the coolest courthouses in the country,” according to Brooks. It was previously occupied by a title company and was once a barbecue restaurant.
The Sun’s staffers share the building with a law firm. The paper’s portion of the building is one story.
The building’s basement served as a jail back in the 1800’s, and shackles are still attached to the walls. Legend has it that a black man who was accused of having assaulted a white woman was hanged there.
A local guy who operates a ghost tour sometimes sets up paranormal equipment in the dark dungeon to capture orbs and such, Brooks said.
As for the Daily Light, it has sold its building and is moving to another location, Brooks said.
For now, though, Waxahachie still has two competing newspapers, although Brooks said that the Daily Light’s circulation has “imploded.”
“We knew from Day One that it was a marathon and not a sprint,” he said of the David and Goliath struggle. “We knew that we were in a 15-round fight, and I don’t know what round we’re in, but we’ve got them on the ropes.”
While the pandemic has hit most newspapers hard, May is the best month in the history of The Sun’s existence, Brooks said.
He hopes that the country will emerge from this period with a renewed enthusiasm for journalism. When there is no community newspaper, “corruption skyrockets, crime goes up” and people are much less informed about important local issues, he said.
“I think when this is all said and done,” Brooks stated, “people will discover that the only thing they need to rely on is the community newspaper.”
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