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It’s official, Mountain Home! The Observer has made it to its one year anniversary and it’s all thanks to our readers!
When I left the Baxter Bulletin in September of last year, I wasn’t sure where I would land on my feet. I was a brand new journalist, with a little over a year of experience underneath my belt, and my wife and I had left our home and safety blanket in Memphis, Tennessee to work here.
I had only been working at the Bulletin for a few months before it was sold to its current owners. After leaving, I mulled over what to do for a few weeks before ultimately deciding to create my own news outlet.
It was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life.
The Observer name pays homage to the Sarasota Observer based out of Florida’s Gulf Coast, my wife’s hometown. The name also plays into what we do: observe and report.
The news industry has changed since decades past. The heyday of print publishing is long over and the digital and information age is right on top of us.
Every quarter or so, I hear about more publications eliminating print days, going all-digital delivery, or folding up shop completely.
Just last month, the Alabama Media Group announced it was ending print publication for their four newspapers in Alabama and Mississippi.
In 2018, a new all-digital publication called the Daily Memphian was created in Memphis. It has grown to a paid subscriber base of 13,900 as of 2020. They have never offered a print product and from the looks of it, don’t plan to.
I know the news makes people jaded. Especially national news outlets. It’s why we decided to leave national news out of our paper and forgo AP syndication.
Readers can get national news everywhere they turn. It’s practically unavoidable. It didn’t make sense for us to continue to cram the divisive rhetoric down your throats.
We want to focus on local news.
Rebuilding trust in journalism
Baxter County and Mountain Home are unique in that local residents want to read the news. I’ve lived in several big cities throughout my life, and most people living in those cities could care less about the news. They might read a story or two throughout the year if it catches their interest, but that’s it.
A lot of that has to do with journalists themselves. We’re a spoiled bunch and we often misuse our position to further our own agendas. It’s something I saw in real time while I was getting started in the industry.
Most stories had a slant, often favoring one political side over the other, and those slants have whittled away at the public’s trust for several decades now. It’s why the journalism industry is dying.
In Mountain Home and Baxter County, that trust has been whittled away over the years too. The area has been severely under-served, with little to no push-back against those in positions of power. Many things that should have been reported to the public over the years never made it to ink.
With all these things in mind, we decided to push forward with creating the Observer, vowing to report on things as they are – even if it made people uncomfortable.
I think we’ve shown that we’re willing to do that this year by breaking several news stories that were only lightly touched, or not at all, by our media competition. We broke news of the ongoing lawsuit against Baxter County and Sheriff Montgomery by a former jailer who alleges that she was raped by a former deputy before being wrongfully terminated.
This was a difficult story to break. Sheriff Montgomery has always been kind to me and was one of the first government officials to sit down and welcome me to the area after I moved here. Still, rape and wrongful termination are serious allegations that need to be reported on. And while it’s still unclear how this case will play out next year, the ethical decision as a reporter was to report on the issue, even if it upsets someone that I personally like.
Another story that went under reported this year involved an FCC investigation into XL7 TV.
When I was approached by a source about an ongoing investigation into XL7-TV by the FCC over an election advertising scheme, I was skeptical. That skepticism went away after the FCC sent me a letter denying my FOIA request, stating that they would not talk about an ongoing investigation into XL7.
That letter prompted me to open an investigation that eventually led me to Dale Hoffman, the former TV host of “Down on the Corner.” Hoffman revealed that he was let go from XL7 after refusing to participate in an advertising campaign that had political candidates paying for airtime and interviews on Hoffman’s former show.
The FCC is strict with its rules surrounding elections and advertising, requiring that all candidates get equal time on air. Instead, XL7 prevented several candidates from getting their fair share of airtime by putting up a paywall that benefited not only the candidates that could afford it, but their own pockets.
Ultimately, the FCC fined XL7-TV $60,000 for their conduct during this year’s primary cycle. The Observer was the only outlet to cover the FCC’s investigation in XL7-TV.
The last story I would like to touch on involves the Baxter County Quorum Court and the Mountain Home Saddle Club. This story got a lot of traction in the area, and while I won’t rehash the entirety of the story, I do want to touch on some of the reactions to it.
The $275,000 taxpayer handout to the Saddle Club made a lot of residents upset, resulting in a fair amount of grief for Baxter County Judge Mickey Pendergrass and members of the Quorum Court.
When we write stories here at the Observer, our goal isn’t to give people grief or to attack them – it’s to report on what actually happened without injecting our own personal beliefs or feelings into a story; we leave the politics of what happened up to the public.
Promoting our community
Another big focus of creating this outlet was to create a platform that could positively promote our community and the wonderful people in it.
In the news business, the rule of thumb is typically “if it bleeds, it leads.” I can’t stand that style of journalism, which is why I avoid those stories as much as possible, unless it’s a truly important event.
I don’t think we need news stories on the fifteenth arrest of a local addict. Instead, I’ve put a big focus on writing stories about people who have a positive impact on Mountain Home and Baxter County.
Many of these stories have come in the form of small business stories over the past year. Our small business community is continuing to thrive despite the downturn in the economy. These small businesses have transformed Mountain Home’s downtown square in only a few short years, bringing life back to the area and providing new job opportunities for those in the area.
They also provide the public with things to do!
Some of my favorite stories of the year cover the amazing work over at Rapp’s Barren Brewery, which was voted as Arkansas’s top brewery earlier this year. Another of my favorites is a story about the owners of Little T’s Mini-Golf and their quest to start a new, and fun, chapter of their life.
I’ve also spent some time covering some of the unique people I’ve met in Arkansas during my travels as a journalist. There’s the story of Calico Rock’s Fredericka Silvey Johns and the amazing tales of her life as an opera singer in Europe.
Then there’s the story of Mark and Kelsey Bertel and their quest to transform and fix up many of the old properties throughout Mountain Home and the surrounding areas through their construction company.
It’s truly been a blast covering all of these amazing people and their stories and I hope to continue to be able to write about the people in this part of the world for years to come.
We have a lot of work ahead of us next year.
Our first order of business will be catching up on outstanding articles. One of the biggest lessons I learned this year was not to be overzealous on doing interviews for “feel good” stories. Right before election season started, I reached out to dozens of people and businesses for stories.
Little did I know how far behind I would fall as more of my attention was taken up by current events and the election. A major mess up on my part.
With that said, if I have an outstanding story with you, it’s coming! I haven’t forgotten about your story! I’ve made headway over the past two months and January looks like a good time to knock the majority of what’s left out.
At the same time, we’ll be potentially introducing a new writer to our newsroom for the Spring. We’ll introduce our new writer next month after the holidays are over.
For those wondering about the Observer getting into print. I am still looking into that. With the economy the way it is, it’s been difficult. While I originally wanted to refurbish a press and set it up in town, that’s looking like a long shot, so Alison and I have been looking into alternative methods of getting out a weekly printed paper to the public.
If we find a solution that’s affordable to our readers, we’ll move forward with that process. In the meantime, we’ll be launching a sale in the coming weeks to help those that want to subscribe but can’t because of inflation.
We hope that everyone has a fantastic Christmas, and we thank everyone in Mountain Home, paid subscriber or not, for their support!