With Hometown Dedication, Publisher Worked to Keep Paper a Community Affair
Even on a blisteringly hot day in Marion, Kansas, Margaret Harris was not deterred from her task of tending to flowers memorializing her friend, Joan Meyer.
At 98 years old, Meyer was a stalwart in this small Midwestern town, where she was co-owner of the local newspaper, the Marion County Record. Her friend, Harris, has lived in the area for more than 80 years and says she knew Meyer for decades.
Meyer’s death one day after police raided the paper’s newsroom and her home was a shock both to Harris and the community of under 2,000 people.
Harris and Meyer had a long family connection: Their fathers fought together during World War I. Harris believes that Meyer was particularly upset about the raid on her home and paper because their fathers had risked their lives to defend their freedoms.
“So it means a lot to me to support Joan because of the war and our history together with our fathers,” Harris told VOA after taking care of the memorial outside the Marion County Record’s newsroom.
Harris, who ran a store in Marion for over two decades, used to advertise in the newspaper.
“I think it was very unfair to raid the paper and also Joan’s house,” she said. “When the police are raiding your house, who do you call?”
Police have defended the August 11 raid, saying it was over a complaint that a local restaurant owner had filed against the paper. And the publisher — who is also Joan Meyer’s son, Eric — has said he will pursue legal action.
VOA’s multiple attempts to reach local police for direct comment were unsuccessful.
Harris’ efforts underscore the broader support the Marion County Record team received locally and farther afield, in the form of letters and flowers, free food and thousands of new subscriptions.
Considering the crisis facing the local news industry across the United States, that support has been particularly welcome, said Eric Meyer.
While the raid highlights the challenges facing the local news industry in the United States, the legacy of Joan Meyer highlights why local news matters in the first place.
“She was a very generous and kind person, a very smiling and friendly person who loved to joke,” her son told VOA in the Record’s newsroom. “She had a very strong sense of morality and really loved the community, loved Marion, loved what she did.”
The Meyers loved Marion so much that when the longtime owners of the Record, the Hoch family, decided to sell it in 1998, the Meyers bought the paper to prevent a corporation from purchasing it.
“We said, well, we can’t see this group running this thing that my family has been involved with for 50 years,” Eric Meyer said.
Journalism has long been in the Meyer family’s blood. Joan’s husband, Bill, began working at the Record in 1948, and she joined him in the early 1960s.
Eric Meyer wrote for the paper in high school. He later worked for several years at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel before becoming a journalism professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and later returning to Marion to lead the paper.
The Meyer family’s purchase of the paper was a rarity at a time when local media are often bought up by large corporations in a process that can often result in cuts to staff or coverage.
The United States has lost more than one fourth of its newspapers since 2005 and is set to lose one third by 2025, according to a report by Northwestern University’s Medill Local News Initiative. Financial struggles are often to blame, and, in most cases, the papers were weekly community publications.
Meanwhile, statistics from the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker show that out of over 90 search-and-seizure instances involving journalists documented since 2017, nine have involved search warrants.
The raid “shows the importance of the local news organizations that are remaining in holding public officials accountable,” Tim Franklin, who leads the Northwestern University’s Medill Local News Initiative, told VOA.
In other cases, particularly in the Midwest, the death of a paper’s elderly publisher can sound the death knell of the paper itself if no one buys it, according to Teri Finneman, a journalism professor at the University of Kansas.
“How many more newspapers are we about to lose from people who can’t sell?” Finneman said. “There’s not nearly enough conversation about how many more are about to be lost.”
The role that local newspapers play in communities is on the mind of Tim Stauffer, president of the Kansas Press Association and managing editor of The Iola Register.
“We believe in what newspapers do for democracy — very strongly. We believe that sunlight is the best medicine,” Stauffer told VOA.
“But I also think it’s a secondary, deeper role that’s now coming more to the forefront about helping connect and build communities that frankly, in rural America, are confronting a lot of challenges,” he said.
Studies show that the fall of local news contributes to a rise in misinformation and polarization, an increase in government and local business corruption, and a decline in civic engagement.
For the Record’s staff the role as public watchdog is a responsibility they take great pride in as they cover everything from the city budget to a local celebrity in the form of a cat who hangs out around a hotel in town.
“We hold the feet of local people who are making decisions — that affect local people —to the fire,” reporter Phyllis Zorn told VOA. “And someone’s got to do it.”
That sentiment is also what drove Joan Meyer and her son Eric to keep the paper running.
Marion born and bred, Joan rarely left her hometown. She worked at a grocery store, hospital and an alfalfa mill, but the bulk of her life — nearly 60 years — was spent as a reporter, columnist, editor and associate publisher at the Record.
For decades, she wrote a column about local history called Memories. She continued to write it every week until last year, due to vision issues. But she would still sometimes write articles, with her son’s help.
To her, the newspaper was an essential element of her hometown, which is a sentiment her son shares.
“She believed the sense of community was deteriorating” in Marion, Eric Meyer said. “The best way to encourage community is to let people know what’s happening.”