When newspapers shut, bonds amongst locals weaken and misdeeds can thrive | Uncovered

UNION — Deadline looms on the weekly Union County Information, the place Graham Williams places last touches onto one of many thickest editions he’ll print all yr — 28 pages, with a particular soccer part. Readers love highschool soccer.

He pokes on a pair of tortoiseshell studying glasses and friends at his laptop monitor. Someplace within the pages he has laid out, a toddler’s title is misspelled, a miraculously uncommon occasion given the amount he prints. Readers love seeing their youngsters’ names within the paper.

“The place is it?” he asks, then finds it and fixes it. Readers additionally count on accuracy.

Graham Williams, editor of the weekly Union County Information, solutions a name at his desk whereas engaged on deadline. Andrew J. Whitaker/Workers

His picket desk, bibbed with stacks of folders and paper, faces the newspaper’s glass entrance door. Past it bustles Essential Avenue, the place he spots Anna Brown sprint-walking towards him. She rushes inside to seize a digital camera earlier than leaving once more to take headshots of scholar athletes.

Brown is the newspaper’s writer, and Williams its editor, however “these are actually simply titles,” he says. In a two-person store, every does no matter wants doing, though how lengthy they will stick with it stays unsure.

His desk cellphone jangles. A lady on the road desires a replica of a member of the family’s obituary. Minutes later, she stops by.

She lives in Texas however is visiting this hilly outdated mill city, tucked in higher South Carolina, to take care of her relative’s probate. As she relays issues she is having with the method, Williams takes psychological notes. It could possibly be a future story.

He fingers her a small stack of papers containing the tangible reminiscence of her cherished one’s loss of life.

“Anything, simply name us.”

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The entrance door of the Union County Information opens when a lady arrives to put an obituary. Andrew J. Whitaker/Workers

In a day when partisan warfare and Twitter taunts can outline the day’s public discourse, native newspapers like this one present one thing else. They bind folks with the glue of shared group.

Obituaries inform readers who died on the town. Authorized notices alert them to public conferences and courtroom proceedings. Sports activities tales announce whose child caught the massive move Friday evening. Or who fumbled it.

But, more and more, that group glue is drying up.

Take Union County the place, if not for Brown and Williams, there could be no native newspaper.

Their competitor, the once-daily Union Instances, folded final yr. After reporting on the Civil Struggle, the Nice Despair, two world wars and 170 years of different information, the monetary pressure of COVID-19 lastly broke it, the editor wrote in a farewell column.

The Union Instances was certainly one of 10 papers throughout South Carolina that stopped printing in 2020. The yr marked a file loss, at the least in latest reminiscence, stated Jen Madden, co-executive director of the S.C. Press Affiliation.

Acquainted antagonists — monetary stressors, skilled strikes and retiring overseers — threw most of them over the precipice of viability.

Their closures reduce information protection for folks residing in each nook of the state: Ware Shoals, Bamberg, Santee, Holly Hill, Fort Mill, Walterboro, Georgetown and Union. Two of the ten, in Gaffney and Vacationers Relaxation, at the least nonetheless present on-line protection.

The glue that’s misplaced doesn’t solely bind readers. With out journalists shining gentle on public officers’ actions, corruption and misdeeds can thrive. The Publish and Courier has unearthed myriad examples of questionable conduct throughout its yearlong investigation, Uncovered.

Rural fuel authority officers in York County jetted to far-flung locales to dine with their spouses at expensive eating places on the taxpayers’ dime. A Clarendon County faculty district used cash meant to recruit academics to purchase a townhouse, then let its superintendent stay in it rent-free for months.

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In Allendale County, the place each native newspapers closed in recent times, the state has taken over the varsity district for the second time. Three space public officers have gone to jail on embezzlement costs. And the State Regulation Enforcement Division is investigating the findings of a forensic audit of the county that exposed extreme accounting deficiencies.

As Williams finishes laying out the Union paper’s pages, a framed copy of its first version, printed in 2009, hangs on a beige wall over his shoulder: “Clerk of Court docket Brad Morris has resigned amid a SLED investigation of accounts managed via his workplace …”

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Brown and Williams have cherished their work. They know its significance.

However they can not do it eternally.

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Union County Information Editor Graham Williams (left) and Writer Anna Brown speak earlier than Brown heads out to {photograph} native highschool athletes. The 2 carry out nearly each job required to publish the newspaper every week. Andrew J. Whitaker/Workers

Williams simply turned 67 and hopes to retire in just a few years. Brown is 57. What’s going to occur to this newspaper — and the almost 30,000 individuals who stay in Union County — once they go?

They haven’t mentioned it.

The chances are too painful, and they’re too busy.

Williams emails his pages to a print store in North Carolina, then dashes dwelling for a tomato sandwich, then rushes to a 6 p.m. faculty board assembly. God is aware of how late the assembly will go. The board loves government classes, he says — and he has pledged by no means to depart earlier than they take their last votes.

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The Observer newspaper in Ware Shoals as soon as operated from this constructing. Andrew J. Whitaker/Workers

When glue is gone

An hour’s drive southwest of Union, one other rural city is studying what’s misplaced when a neighborhood newspaper dies.

In Ware Shoals, copies of The Observer sit on a steel stand contained in the newspaper’s dusty places of work like a historic marker. A headline within the paper, dated Dec. 2, 2020, reads: “The Observer publicizes plans to droop publication instantly.”

1000’s of different yellowing pages documenting many years of native information languish in unkempt mounds behind it.

4 months earlier than writing that headline, Writer Dan Branyon was recognized with esophageal most cancers. He and his spouse, Faye, the paper’s reporter and editor, saved publishing as he endured chemotherapy and radiation therapies.

They persevered till Dan felt like he had razor blades down his throat. He misplaced 35 kilos in 30 days.

One evening, sitting at his laptop, he instructed Faye: “I simply can’t do it anymore.”

It broke their hearts. Each Ware Shoals natives, that they had began the paper in 1981 as a result of they felt city points had gone uncovered for too lengthy. 4 many years later, they hated to let their group down.

Certainly, the aftermath of newspaper closures can attain far and price loads.

Ed Farr, a funeral director and former longtime faculty board member, recalled how Faye saved public officers on their toes, even calling him out when essential. “She was devoted to report precisely what was happening.”

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Dan Branyon seems over outdated newspapers inside the previous workplace of The Observer in Ware Shoals. He and his spouse, Faye, began the newspaper in 1981. Andrew J. Whitaker/Workers

Faye had coated nearly each city council and college board assembly. With out her, there isn’t all the time a journalist monitoring Ware Shoals conferences anymore. Reporters from the each day Index-Journal in Greenwood go to lots of them, however Ware Shoals has solely about 2,000 folks, and the newspaper has many different locations to cowl.

Then there are the monetary prices to dropping a neighborhood paper. In 2018, researchers discovered that newspaper closures led to larger borrowing prices for native governments, plus elevated taxes and deficits as a result of lack of a group watchdog.

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Jobs vanish, too. Since 2004, about half of print journalists have misplaced their posts, in keeping with “Vanishing Newspapers,” a analysis challenge on the College of North Carolina.

However a lot of what’s misplaced can’t be calculated in jobs, tax {dollars} or corruption.

It’s measured in glue.

Lamar Smith made his dwelling exterior of Ware Shoals for greater than 65 years. The 90-year-old lives in Greenville now, however he saved observe of mates and occasions in his hometown by studying The Observer.

“When the paper shut down,” Smith stated, “it appeared like the entire city shut down with it.”

Keith Davenport additionally subscribed for years. With out the paper, the 76-year-old feels adrift. An excellent good friend lately died however was already buried by the point he heard about it. He felt terrible.

Farr, the funeral director, requested somebody at church if the highschool soccer group had a sport but. Turned out, they’d performed just a few nights earlier. He missed it.

The Observer additionally used to run a bunch image of the native highschool’s graduating seniors on the entrance web page. Readers would reduce it out and put it aside in scrapbooks, recorded household historical past.

This yr, no one ran the picture.

Since The Observer in Ware Shoals stopped publishing in December 2020, common readers have felt misplaced with out the native information supply.

Binder of individuals


Williams sits at a desk inside Union County’s faculty board assembly room, his instruments unfold earlier than him: reporter’s pocket book, cellphone, tape recorder. A radio reporter sits beside him, however no different newspaper journalists are masking the assembly.

The superintendent explains that it’s only the primary day of faculty, however 48 college students and 11 workers within the small district already are quarantined or have examined optimistic for COVID-19.

District leaders assist carrying masks, he says, however can solely encourage them. A funds proviso bars districts from utilizing state funds to implement masks mandates.

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Graham Williams, editor of the Union County Information, sits subsequent to Daniel Value, a neighborhood radio reporter, whereas they cowl a faculty board assembly on Aug. 23, 2021. Andrew J. Whitaker/Workers

Trustee Manning Jeter proposes requiring masks in faculties, regardless. “I’m speaking concerning the well being of our college students,” he says.

As board members launch right into a debate over Jeter’s proposed masks mandate, Williams takes notes, black pen scrawling throughout a reporter’s pocket book.

The vote fails 5-3.

Grabbing his cellphone, Williams varieties just a few strains and posts the vote on the newspaper’s Fb web page. It fills with feedback as native readers hear the information.

After the board members work via their agenda, they go into government session. Williams lingers within the hallway, ready to attend them out. If reporters like him didn’t accomplish that, the general public would solely hear what political leaders need them to listen to.

“Then we’d be in unhealthy form,” he says.

His love for the enterprise started in center faculty when he delivered newspapers. In highschool, he wrote for the paper in his hometown, Winston-Salem, N.C. He studied journalism on the College of North Carolina, then got here to Union 4 many years in the past. He made $15,000 a yr.

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He and Brown labored for the now-defunct Union newspaper till 2009, once they each left dissatisfied with its native protection. Brown and her husband put up the capital to start out the Union County Information, and Williams joined her.

They’ve remained dedicated to journalism’s watchdog function.

Final yr, Brown used the state’s public data legislation to pursue paperwork that uncovered complaints that then-Union County Sheriff David Taylor had despatched lewd messages and requested subordinates to purchase him alcohol whereas on obligation.

At first, a SLED worker instructed Brown the general public data could be expensive to collect and redact.

“Will y’all be capable of deal with it?” the girl requested.

Brown retorted: “We positive will.” She pledged to scrounge the cash from her personal pocket, if essential.

Ultimately, the state didn’t cost for the data. The sheriff was indicted for allegedly sending lewd messages and an obscene picture to a citizen. Prosecutors dropped the costs this summer season, “however officers received’t give a cause why,” Brown reported on the time.

Exterior the varsity board assembly, Williams waits till 9 p.m. When the board members return to open session, they vote to boost substitute trainer pay.

It’s lengthy after darkish when he slips into mattress. At dawn, he’ll head again to the newspaper to ship copies himself, questioning how for much longer he can work at this tempo.

Lengthy odds of survival

Again in Ware Shoals, Dan Branyon couldn’t provide you with a succession plan for The Observer earlier than it stopped publishing. The 67-year-old’s two kids didn’t pursue journalism careers. And not one of the younger reporters who had labored on the newspaper through the years caught round.

“There’s not a complete lot to carry folks in a small city,” Branyon stated.

It’s an enormous problem throughout the nation, particularly in rural states like South Carolina.

“The papers are doing the very best they will, however you marvel if they are going to be capable of make it,” stated Madden of the S.C. Press Affiliation.

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The Observer halted publication in December 2020 after writer Dan Branyon was not in a position to proceed after he was recognized with esophageal most cancers. Andrew J. Whitaker/Workers

Since 2004, the nation has misplaced 1 / 4 of its newspapers. That’s 70 dailies — and greater than 2,000 non-dailies, in keeping with “Vanishing Newspapers.” Most served smaller areas like Ware Shoals and Union.

The South has been hit particularly exhausting. Each state within the area, together with South Carolina, has at the least one county with none newspaper in any respect.

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Tight margins are an enormous problem. However one other key drawback is that many small newspaper homeowners lack plans for the long run, stated Jim Iovino, program director of NewStart, a native information possession initiative at West Virginia College. The yearlong fellowship trains people who find themselves concerned with working their very own publications in rural areas, then connects them with homeowners concerned with promoting.

Final yr, six college students took half in this system’s inaugural class. This yr’s group has seven, though none from South Carolina.

“If a paper closes,” Iovino stated, “that sense of group, in and of itself, type of disappears and dies.”

To fill voids round decrease South Carolina, Andrew O’Byrne has launched group weeklies in locations which have misplaced newspapers. He printed his first one in Aiken County a couple of decade in the past and now runs 5 extra.

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Final yr, O’Byrne and his son began the Bamberg County Chief and the Orangeburg Chief to cowl the Bamberg space, Holly Hill and Santee areas after longtime weeklies in these locations closed their doorways. O’Byrne stated he operates on tight margins however believes strongly within the worth of printed newspapers that file historical past in ink for the ages.

“There’s a dedication there,” he stated. “You could find an outdated newspaper, and it nonetheless says what it stated on the day it was printed. You possibly can’t erase it.”

Group contributors and freelance writers produce most of his content material whereas O’Byrne, his son and spouse “pack within the hours to make up the distinction.”

Why? “As a result of folks nonetheless want a newspaper.”

In close by Barnwell County, a 33-year-old journalist took his hometown paper’s future into his personal fingers: He purchased it.

Jonathan Vickery bought The Individuals-Sentinel from a subsidiary of Gannett, the biggest newspaper chain within the nation, then took the helm on July 1.

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Jonathan Vickery, writer of The Individuals-Sentinel in his hometown of Barnwell, dons a tie with newspapers on it. The 33-year-old bought the newspaper earlier this yr from a subsidiary of Gannett so he might bolster native information protection. Andrew J. Whitaker/Workers

Vickery, who has labored on the paper since 2010, declined to specify the acquisition worth. However he did clarify how he enlisted mates, now his enterprise companions, to put money into it.

Since he took over, greater than 120 folks have purchased new subscriptions. Others wrote notes of thanks. He picked up new advertisers.

Up to now, he employs 4 folks and has employed new freelancers. One covers neighboring Allendale, the state’s lone information desert.

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Wanda Drain hugs Ronnie Shetley as they roll freshly printed copies of the Union County Information within the paper’s workplace early on Aug. 24, 2021. Andrew J. Whitaker/Workers

“It’s necessary to let our readers know the way their tax {dollars} are spent, what insurance policies are being put in place, what motions or actions their public officers are taking that may doubtlessly have an effect on their households,” he stated.

Vickery’s observe file speaks to that. He has already received the state press affiliation’s Assertive Journalism Award — twice.

Recorders of historical past

At 7:28 a.m., Williams returns to the Union newspaper’s workplace after masking the late faculty board assembly. The week’s freshly printed version sits in stacks, and he should assist ship them.

Brown, the writer, is already a number of hours into her almost nine-hour supply route.

A number of carriers come and go from the workplace, a skinny house tucked between a knickknack store and a jeweler. Roger Harris, an 87-year-old service, sits rolling newspapers at a desk close to a fridge stocked with Nutter Butter cookies and cans of Solar Drop soda.

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Roger Harris, 87, hoists a canvas newspaper bag into his pickup truck earlier than starting his weekly supply route for the Union County Information. Andrew J. Whitaker/Workers

His canvas bag full, he stands and heads out. A wiry man in denims, his leather-based belt bears a big American flag buckle. He has delivered, actually, hundreds of thousands of newspapers throughout his profession.

“Y’all keep sober!” he calls.

In again, Williams whistles whereas slapping handle stickers onto the 366 papers — about 10 % of the Information’ circulation — that get mailed to folks far past Union who wish to hold tabs on native information.

The week’s front-page tales focus on a ceremony for the Sept. 11 anniversary, a brand new hydraulics firm on the town and a neighborhood cheer coach being honored. It’s information readers care about — and could be hard-pressed to seek out anyplace else.

Williams fills 4 industrial-sized plastic luggage that he’ll haul to the submit workplace. However first he should deal with the Essential Avenue supply route.

Roger Harris, 87, is a identified character in Union, partly for his dedication to delivering the weekly Union County Information.

When he steps exterior, a person driving by honks and hangs an arm out to wave.

Williams is aware of everybody. And everybody is aware of him.

Spry in cargo shorts and tennis footwear, he zips alongside on foot with a bag of papers, greeting folks. As he goes, he rattles off tales he has written about seemingly each patch of dust, each brick, each windowpane he passes.

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Union County Information Editor Graham Williams walks throughout Essential Avenue from the courthouse whereas delivering newspapers throughout his weekly route. Andrew J. Whitaker/Workers

Nowhere do the outdated reminiscences blare extra loudly than from the historic courthouse, the place the largest information in Union’s trendy historical past passed off: the 1995 trial of Susan Smith.

The 23-year-old was convicted of murdering her two little boys by driving their automotive into a neighborhood lake, then letting it slowly sink with them strapped inside. The case drew intense nationwide protection partially as a result of, earlier than she confessed, Smith claimed {that a} Black man had kidnapped her sons throughout a carjacking.

Williams remembers how lots of of reporters flocked to Union to cowl her trial. Nationwide shops interviewed him to seek out out what was happening.

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Graham Williams stops alongside Essential Avenue to put freshly printed copies of the weekly Union County Information at native companies that subscribe. Andrew J. Whitaker/Workers

His beard has gone gray since, however he nonetheless sprints up the steps to the courthouse the place all of it passed off. Simply exterior the courtroom the place Smith was tried, he chats with a deputy who mentions that they haven’t performed a fireplace drill on this outdated constructing for so long as he is aware of.

Williams wonders: May that be a narrative?

Sweat dampens his Fenway Park T-shirt by the point he heads again to the newspaper workplace.


Joe Moore takes a break from reducing Taylor Gibbs’ hair to skim headlines within the newest version of the Union County Information. Andrew J. Whitaker/Workers

When he arrives, worker Rick Drain is working a few giant coloration copy machines the place they print every thing from church letterhead to posters. It helps pay the payments.

But, regardless of a lot sweat and caring, the newspaper hasn’t turned a revenue in years.

Paying the payments

Even earlier than Dan Branyon received sick, the newspaper’s funds created fixed stress.

For at the least a decade, The Observer didn’t even herald sufficient cash to pay him or Faye a wage. Dan held one other job for a few years whereas placing the paper out. He was director of public relations for a neighborhood hospital.

Subscription and promoting gross sales didn’t cowl The Observer’s printing and supply prices. Printing and mailing alone might price $500 per week on prime of utilities. Piggly Wiggly advertisements that when crammed two full pages received smaller and smaller through the years. 

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The couple used their very own cash to pay the distinction. 

However they nonetheless saved the worth low: 35 cents a replica or an annual subscription for $16.50. They did not cost for loss of life notices. They ran delivery, anniversary, marriage ceremony and engagement bulletins free of charge.

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Dan Branyon locks the door on the former workplace of The Observer in Ware Shoals. Inside, copies of the newspaper’s final difficulty sit on a steel stand like a historic marker. Andrew J. Whitaker/Workers

But, this glue that when sure Ware Shoals residents — protection of the graduations, the elections, the triumphs and the hullabaloos — may vanish eternally.

The Ware Shoals Group Library has bins crammed with outdated Observers, however not all of them. And the state library does not have copies archived in any respect. 

Watchdogs are watching

With the newspapers delivered, the Union County Information workers cranks ahead into a brand new week, one other deadline. At church, Brown hears {that a} newly reelected metropolis councilwoman has moved out of her district.

She passes the tip to Williams.

He begins to dig on the tax assessor web site. He calls the town administrator. He zips to the courthouse and stops by the tax workplace, then heads to metropolis corridor to speak with the clerk.

Certainly, Councilwoman Vicki Morgan purchased a home in one other district and seems to be residing there.

He calls her. She admits she moved however thought she might stay anyplace within the metropolis after getting elected. Williams reads her the Municipal Affiliation of South Carolina’s handbook.

“You’ve moved into any person else’s district,” he says.

He writes the story and kinds his headline: “Morgan might should resign from council.”

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Simply hours earlier than his deadline, the councilwoman walks into the newspaper workplace. She tells Williams that she is going to resign.

That’s my story,” he thinks.

This is the reason he received into the newspaper enterprise: to disclose fact, to offer information, to attach his group collectively. He could be headed towards retirement, and this newspaper may go together with him, however the Union County Information hasn’t gone anyplace but.

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Editor Graham Williams zips round downtown Union delivering the weekly Union County Information on Aug. 24, 2021. Andrew J. Whitaker/Workers

Glenn Smith contributed from Charleston.

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