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Small Kansas paper raided by police has a history of hard-hitting reporting

Eric Meyer, publisher and owner of <em>Marion County Record</em> in Kansas, reads the latest edition of his newspaper.
John Hanna
Eric Meyer, publisher and owner of Marion County Record in Kansas, reads the latest edition of his newspaper.

After police raided their newsroom, journalists at the Marion County Record spent all week dealing with its aftermath: interviews with national and international news organizations, conversations with their lawyer about legal action, attempts to get their equipment back.

Last week's raid drew wide condemnation as a press freedom violation — and it diverted the Record's five full-time staffers and seven part-timers away from their typical reporting.

"The story we should be writing this week is not about us; the story we should be writing is about the budget of the city of Marion," said Eric Meyer, the paper's publisher and owner.

That's how it rolls for Meyer and the Record. Founded in 1869, the paper is known for its hard-hitting coverage of local government decisions and holding people in positions of power accountable.

As the world watches his paper for press freedom violations, publisher is eager to turn his attention to the city's budget

Now, Meyer is eager to look into the city's recent budget proposal, which he said elected officials have not yet discussed. He worries about how taxpayer dollars will be spent.

And if the Record doesn't pay attention, nobody will. The weekly newspaper is the sole publication covering Marion, a city of about 2,000 in south-central Kansas.

It's this type of reporting that's drawn the ire of local officials — including the city's police chief, whom the paper was investigating before he raided their newsroom.

Back in 2004, the Record exposed Marion's city administrator, who is now its mayor, for allowing the city to use a reservoir contaminated with blue-green algae for drinking water, despite a ban on the water due to toxicity concerns.

"You shouldn't ask those questions"

And last year, the Record reported on irregularities in the location of a housing development project supported by the city. Meyer said officials summoned him to a meeting, during which he demanded answers to outstanding concerns about where the houses were being built on agricultural land.

Their response? "You shouldn't ask those questions," according to Meyer.

"We're controversial in the community," Meyer said.

The Record was thrown into the national spotlight last week after Marion police raided its newsroom and his mother's home, seizing computers, cell phones and other reporting materials. The raid prompted national outcry over violations of federal law and First Amendment protections. All the seized material will now be returned, according to the county attorney.

A family-owned publication

The Record has been family-run for almost its entire 150-year history. The Hoch family, known for their prominence in Kansas politics, owned the paper until 1998.

Meyer's father had worked at the Record since the 1940s; his mother, since the 1960s. It was part of their family history and the fabric of their community.

So when the paper's ownership was up in the air, the Meyer family decided to buy it.

"We just couldn't see it falling into the hands of a chain, because we have a very strong belief that local news organizations work when they are run for and by local people," Meyer said.

Meyer's mother, Joan, worked for the paper until she died at age 98, just one day after Marion police raided her home, where he was staying at the time. Meyer believes the stress of the raid contributed to her death.

Meyer, a long-time journalist at The Milwaukee Journal and journalism professor at the University of Illinois, moved back to Marion when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Shortly after, he retired from his teaching job to run the paper full-time.

The Record prints one edition each Wednesday. It has three separate circulation lists with a total press run of about 4,000 that reaches readers across Marion County.

"There's still a need for local news," Meyer said. "I'm kind of doing this to try to prove that."

"It's an increasingly small club"

The Record's role in the community has put a spotlight on the function of newspapers as local watchdogs. An informed public is at the heart of a strong democracy, but with the disappearance of local news organizations, many small towns have lost the ability to get information about local governance.

The Record is "a little more aggressive" than some daily newspapers in nearby counties, Meyer said. It records every police dispatch, for example, and publishes a column about police activity every week.

Meyer likes to point out that other newspapers committed to accountability journalism in eastern Kansas do still exist, like The Iola Register, about 100 miles south-east of Marion.

"There are others who do it, but it's an increasingly small club," Meyer said.

Emily Bradbury, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, said Kansas has maintained a robust network of local newspapers: 190 papers covering the state's 105 counties. She pointed to The Harvey County Now, just south of Marion, as another example of a locally-owned newspaper.

But the Record, Bradbury added, is "kind of an outlier" in terms of the size of its staff and its investigative focus.

A paper covering a similarly-sized community in Kansas typically has a staff of about three people, Bradbury said. That's compared to the Record's five full-time staffers and seven part-timers.

According to Bradbury, 82% of Kansans read a local newspaper, in part because of relatively limited internet access in some parts of the state. A 2023 ranking of states' broadband coverage placed Kansas toward the bottom of the list, in 48th place.

Though Kansas has a "strong culture" of family ownership of newspapers, these publications started to decline about a decade ago, Bradbury said. The Kansas Press Association is trying to train Kansans to work at local papers, in recognition of the role local newsrooms play in communities across the state. Pay at small papers is relatively low; according to Salary.com, the average salary for a newspaper reporter in Wichita, Kansas is less than $40,000.

"It is a lack of knowledge and a lack of engagement that happens when a community loses their newspaper," Bradbury said.

Local papers play a vital role in their communities, identifying problems and highlighting solutions

Every week, an average of two newspapers disappear in the United States, according to a 2022 report from Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism. The country has lost more than a fourth of its newspapers since 2005 and is on track to lose a third by 2025.

Penny Muse Abernathy, a visiting professor at Medill who wrote the study, said weekly papers like The Marion County Record play a vital role in their communities, identifying problems and highlighting solutions.

"When you see the loss of weeklies, that is a loss in quite frankly what has been the lifeblood of our democracy," Abernathy said.

Family-owned newspapers, Abernathy said, often provide stronger accountability than chain-owned publications.

"You've got somebody in the community, eating at the local diner, going to the same church," Abernathy said. "They pick up on things that chain-owned newspapers, who tend to cycle publishers and editors in and out of a market, don't."

Papers like the Record bear witness

Small papers, in Kansas and across the county, offer transparency on day-to-day local government affairs, Abernathy added — including city budgets, which the Record is hoping to cover once the turmoil inflicted by the raid dies down.

Victor Pickard, a professor of media policy at the University of Pennsylvania, said papers like the Record serve the function of bearing witness.

But local newspapers — let alone those with the resources to report in-depth investigations — are increasingly rare, due in large part to the collapse of the advertising revenue model that newspapers have long relied on.

The effects of this decline, Pickard said, are damaging.

"Levels of corruption rise, civic engagement declines, people are less likely to vote. Even taxes go up — there's more financial waste in local communities," Pickard said. "There's so many of these costs that occur whenever we lose a newspaper."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Danielle Kaye
Danielle Kaye (she/her) is a 2022-2023 Kroc Fellow. Before joining NPR, Kaye worked as a business reporter at Reuters, where she covered compensation policies and union organizing at technology and retail companies. She graduated from UC Berkeley in 2021 with degrees in Global Studies and French. While studying in Berkeley, Kaye reported and produced for listener-funded radio station KPFA, covering protests and housing issues in California for KPFA's morning public affairs show. She was also a researcher at UC Berkeley's Human Rights Investigations Lab and a news reporter and editor at the student-run newspaper The Daily Californian. Kaye lived with a host family in Dakar, Senegal, in 2019, which inspired her to write her senior thesis about threats to Senegal's artisanal fishing communities.