ISOJ adds to 2023 program the screening of a new documentary that showcases rural Texas newspaper’s fight to survive

The Canadian Record, which has chronicled life in the Texas Panhandle since 1893, announced the suspension of its print edition on March 2, 2023.

Messages of support and shock filled social media, appeared in letters to the editor, and crossed the newsroom’s doorstep.

Poster For the Record“They’ve pretty much swamped us, coming in the door, coming in the office and expressing their sadness over it closing,” Laurie Ezzell Brown, the newspaper’s editor and publisher, said by phone almost a week later. “It’s been really hard, but it’s been gratifying knowing that so many people were touched by it.”

Brown and The Canadian Record are the subject of the documentary “For the Record” by filmmaker Heather Courtney, which will be screened on April 13, 2023, at the AT&T Hotel and Conference Center Amphitheater prior to the start of the 24th International Symposium on Online Journalism (ISOJ).

The screening has just been added to the official program of ISOJ, a global conference that for almost a quarter of a century has been following the impact of the internet on the news industry.

Members of the public, the university community and ISOJ registrants are invited to attend this event, which is organized by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin. Registration is required, but it is free.

Following the screening of the film, there will be a panel discussion moderated by Kathleen McElroy, a professor at UT Austin’s School of Journalism and Media. Speakers include Laurie Brown, author Bill Bishop, and Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and a professor at the University of Kentucky.

Courtney’s documentary shows how Brown’s small and diminishing team works nearly around the clock to cover community events and pen sharp editorials that carry on the legacy of this family enterprise.

From a rural town herself, the filmmaker first met Laurie and the newspaper’s team in 2017. That’s when she became dedicated to telling their stories.

“I saw firsthand how much the paper meant to this small community, and how Laurie had so much integrity in the way she reported stories, and managed the paper,” Courtney said. “Despite her different viewpoints from the rest of the politically conservative community, the community relied on the paper, and respected Laurie. I knew this story needed to be told, and that Laurie as an editor/reporter and a person, needed to be heard.”

Yet, as anyone in the newspaper business can tell you, recent decades have not been kind to print publications, especially ones like The Canadian Record.

“I think there’s a larger message to this film than may be immediately obvious,” Brown said. “We’re just one of many, many community newspapers that have struggled either with financial survival, especially during the pandemic, or with the ability to keep producing a newspaper, to have enough staff to produce a newspaper, to have trained people to take over the jobs that we do.”

“I know there are many newspapers whose publishers, like me, are aging or are just really trying to keep it going long enough to find someone who might be able to take over that job,” she continued.

Laurie and team putting together the paper
Laurie Brown and her team putting together The Canadian Record. (Heather Courtney)

A 2020 report titled “The Expanding News Desert” found that, since 2004, rural communities saw the closure or merger of more than 500 newspapers. These publications had an average circulation of about 4,000.

“It’s a very difficult time, especially in the more rural areas, like this one,” Brown said. “The importance of that newspaper to the communities it serves is just hard to measure.”

Fifty-seven percent of rural residents in the U.S. said their local news media mostly cover some area other than where they live, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey. Despite this gap, 42 percent said it’s very important for journalists to be personally engaged in the local community they serve – which is on par with levels for urban and suburban residents.

In the face of these challenges, plus a newly-filed defamation lawsuit against Brown and the paper that the editor is confident they can fight, the decision to suspend publication was made. But, they’re still looking for someone to take over the work of The Canadian Record.

“When we agreed with Heather Courtney to do the film, we just hoped that that message would get to a larger audience and maybe inspire some people to consider getting into this business,” Brown said. “Because it’s not only difficult, it’s also valuable and you just feel like you’ve made a difference when you do this job.”

Learn more about The Canadian Record’s fight to remain in print by registering for the April 13 screening.