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Published October 8, 2019

THE VIEW FROM MY SEAT

Community paper closing leaves void

By Ernie Williamson / The Bulletin

I wasn’t a regular reader of the Brazoria County News, but I am heartbroken at its demise.

The weekly newspaper recently announced it was ceasing publication after 57 years of serving towns west of the Brazos, including West Columbia, Sweeny, Brazoria, Damon and Old Ocean.

I am sad for staffers who lost jobs, advertisers who lost a local connection with consumers and readers who lost a reliable source of information.

I am also sad because, like most journalists, my career started at small papers. I know the difference they make.

Although I spent 45 years at Houston’s big city dailies, it was at smaller papers in California and Missouri that I developed a sense of ethics and, yes, learned by mistakes.

There is a major difference between working at a metropolitan paper and working at a community paper. A big city reporter may write about people and never see them again. The reporter may never get feedback, even if the story was unfair or contained minor errors.

A reporter at a community paper will write about somebody and run into them the next day at a restaurant, the Walmart or on the street. Make an error, be unfair or, God forbid, misspell a name, and a reporter is likely to hear about it quickly … and first-hand.

I learned that lesson while going to graduate school at the University of Missouri and working full-time at the Boonville Daily News.

I was assigned a high school basketball game between Boonville’s Kemper Military School and the powerful Columbia Hickman Kewpies. (That’s right, the football players actually had Kewpie dolls on their uniforms).

You’ve probably seen those big rings with school mascots painted on them that teams bust through when making their entrance onto the court. Well, the first Kemper player tripped on the ring and fell. Others tripped over him. Things only got worse as Kemper was massacred - something like 104 to 12.

Being a smart-aleck college student, I wrote a story poking fun at the hometown team and included the ring mishap. The next morning the paper was swamped with phone calls from parents and readers rightly outraged that my story ridiculed the sons of Boonville. My editor made me handle the calls. It was a painful lesson for a college graduate student who thought he already knew everything about journalism.

I eventually redeemed myself, thanks to a young man named Bobby Simmons.

Simmons was a volunteer firefighter ticketed for speeding through downtown Boonville on his way to a grass fire outside of town.

The story had potential, so I went to the fire scene and snapped a picture showing grass had burned to within feet of a farmer’s house. This begged the questions: What if all the volunteer firefighters had been stopped for speeding or forced to slow down? Would the house have burned to the ground?

Townsfolk of Boonville proper were delighted Simmons was ticketed.

They were tired of volunteer firefighters speeding through town.

On the other hand, farmers in outlying areas were angry. They thought their lives and property were imperiled by forcing volunteers to slow down going to fires.

Simmons pleaded not guilty. It was the talk of the town.

The courtroom on trial day reminded me of scenes from “Inherit the Wind.” Farmers, in CAT and John Deere caps and overalls, were on one side of the courtroom. Townsfolk, many in suits and ties, packed the other side.

I will never forget the judge’s words when passing sentence. “I have known Bobby Simmons since he was a baby,” the judge drawled. “He is a good boy. I find him guilty but suspend the fine.”

Neither side was happy about the verdict so I stayed on the story. The issue picked up steam when local state representatives introduced a bill to the legislature allowing volunteer firefighters to speed through town as long as they had a permit and flashing blue lights on their vehicles.

The paper editorialized in favor of the bill and it became law. It was a testament to the power of a community newspaper.
It would have been a perfect ending for this young reporter if only Bobby Simmons had not been caught speeding through town again late one night. This time there was no fire.

I don’t know what happened to Bobby Simmons, but I know the blue-light law still stands.

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com)