‘I saw firsthand the good a newspaper can do’

July 6, 2015

Weekly newspaper brings hope to
ravaged town

 

By Teri Saylor

Special to Publishers’ Auxiliary

L

ike many kids who grow up with a newspaper in their family, Jace Ponder spent Friday nights photographing football games with his dad, Randy Ponder, editor and publisher of the Sea Coast Echo in Bay St. Louis, MS.

By the time he became a teenager, he thought he’d had enough of the newspaper business.

“I was interested in science and math,” Jace said in a recent telephone interview.

Ponder went on to Southern Mississippi University, spending many long hours in a chemistry lab, where he often felt isolated, lonely and craving contact with people.

He realized life in a lab might not be the life he wanted after all.

So he returned home and got back to work at the Echo. It was May 2005, and at the time, he could not foresee the storm that would set events in motion and change the direction of his career.

Evelina Shmukler Burnett is a career journalist. She had covered banking and insurance for the Dow Jones Wire Service in London and technology for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. She had completed a fellowship in Cairo, Egypt, and in 2005, she was living in Atlanta and working as a freelance journalist for a number of publications, including the Wall Street Journal.

Storm clouds were gathering the last week of August in 2005, and by Aug. 29, Hurricane Katrina had destroyed nearly everything in her path along the Gulf Coast.

Bay St. Louis, home of the Echo, was battered. The newspaper office was flooded, and the Ponders temporarily located operations to an office above a restaurant while repairs were made.

Ponder recalls riding his bicycle to report the news because many of the roads were impassable.

In Pass Christian, residents were completely cut off. Ponder hand-delivered copies of the Echo to them so they could get information about relief efforts and where they could go to get help.

“It was a powerful moment when I saw firsthand the good a newspaper can do,” he said.

The Wall Street Journal sent Burnett to Pass Christian to report on the devastation, and she arrived in the small, destroyed town Sept. 5, 2005. The wreckage she found there had a profound effect on her, and even after she had completed her assignment and returned to Atlanta, she could not stay away.

She raised money and looked for other ways to help. Knowing there was a need for sleeping bags, she bought a dozen and drove them to Pass Christian and worked as a volunteer before heading home again to Atlanta.

Burnett knew a crew of AmeriCorps volunteers had started a newsletter to report on the recovery meetings going on in town, and she saw an opportunity to help them from Atlanta. The volunteers e-mailed their articles for each newsletter. She edited them, and with money left over from the donations she had collected, paid to make copies and ship them back to Pass Christian for distribution.

After a few weeks, a commercial print shop opened in Pass Christian, and the team was able to shift the printing there.

“I remember thinking, ‘this could become a real newspaper,’“ Burnett said in a phone call.

She left Atlanta and moved to the little town she had come to love.

By May 2006, she had converted the newsletter to a tabloid newspaper and named it the Gazebo Gazette after the town’s beloved gazebo, which was destroyed in the hurricane, and has since been rebuilt.

Burnett published it twice a month.

The community welcomed Burnett with open arms, and the residents grew to love the Gazebo Gazette, which was the first local newspaper residents of Pass Christian had seen in 15 years, after the 100-year-old Tarpon-Beacon went out of business.

Burnett, who was 29 at the time, thought her career publishing the Gazebo Gazette would be brief.

“I decided to publish for a year, until my 30th birthday, which I thought would give me enough time to make a difference in the community,” she said. “I also gave myself permission to fail.”

But the newspaper didn’t fail.

It started growing.

Burnett increased her advertising base, and as business returned to Pass Christian, her ad count grew along with it. A one-woman show, she covered all of the topics important in a small town—schools, zoning, rebuilding efforts.

Her yearlong commitment lasted seven years.

She met a man, fell in love and married him in 2009. She gave birth to her first child in 2011.

Pass Christian was beginning to stabilize and life had started returning to normal. Putting out the newspaper by herself was beginning to wear on her.

“I grew to love the town so much, writing about politics and business was like writing about my family,” she said. “I felt it wasn’t fair to my readers if I couldn’t cover the town objectively. I felt the town needed a more objective newspaper.”

Meanwhile, a job had opened up at the local public broadcasting station, and it seemed like a good fit for Burnett’s skills and offered her a chance to step away.

Jace Ponder worked at the Echo for a few months after Hurricane Katrina, then joined AmeriCorps and traveled around the country for a year. He headed home and enrolled in Ol’ Miss to study journalism, going to school year-round, and completing his degree in two years. He nearly finished his master’s degree and was just short of writing his thesis when he returned to the Echo in 2010.

Ponder had gotten to know Burnett when she first arrived in the area after Hurricane Katrina. He read the Gazebo Gazette.

Burnett approached Randy Ponder hoping he would buy the newspaper. The senior Ponder wasn’t interested, but his son was.

By May 2013, the two had started negotiating, and by June, Jace Ponder owned a newspaper.

Burnett stayed on call during Ponder’s early days of ownership. She eased the transition, while he tightened up operations and improved the paper’s cash flow.

Ponder ran the newspaper in his apartment for the first eight months, putting a Gazebo Gazette sign in his front yard. Eventually he moved the newspaper into an office in a nearby office park.

He converted it to a weekly newspaper and had it printed at the Echo.

Ponder is nearly a one-man show, except for a few sports stringers and freelance reporters. He sells the ads and designs them. He designs the pages, writes most of the news and features, shoots photos, and sends pages to the press. He retrieves the finished papers, delivers them to the Post Offices and stocks his news racks.

It helps that the Echo manages the Gazette’s subscription list and bundles the papers for mailing.

For Ponder, publishing has gotten easier over time.

“At first, I worked lots of hours and worried the business would not be sustainable,” he said.

He was racking up 70-to-80-hour workweeks, starting at 7:30 a.m. and working until 9 p.m.

He learned QuickBooks and Burnett’s practice of doing the financials by hand. He set the newspaper’s layout on a template and employed modular advertising.

“But I’m not inflexible,” he said. “If someone wants an odd-sized ad, I’ll sell it, but I will charge more for it.”

Today’s Gazebo Gazette is still tabloid-sized. Its page count averages 16, swelling to 20 pages during the holidays and special occasions. The cover price is 50 cents. Subscriptions cost $25 within the local ZIP code and $30 outside the ZIP code area.

Ten years have passed since Hurricane Katrina destroyed everything in her path. Some people died. Others moved away, and Pass Christian still has not completely recovered. The population hovers around 4,700, said Ponder.

“Tax revenues are on the rise, and that’s a good sign the economy is rebounding,” he said. “But there are still many empty lots in town.”

The residents who still live there are mostly retirees, Ponder said.

Although the Gazette has an online presence and a Facebook page, many older residents aren’t interested in social media.

“Most of our readers still prefer the print edition,” Ponder said. “They like to keep it on their coffee tables.”

When Katrina came ashore, Ponder was 20 years old. He was 28 when he bought the Gazebo Gazette from Burnett. Now, at 30, he’s getting restless, and he’s ready to move on to his next adventure.

He has put the Gazebo Gazette up for sale.

“I made it profitable,” he said. “I publish 52 issues a year with no breaks, and now I’m ready for one.”

Burnett knows the Gazette is for sale, and she is OK with that. She’s not planning to buy it back.

She is pregnant with her second child.

She does subscribe to the newspaper and enjoys being a regular reader.

“Jace has done a lot of work,” she said. “The Gazette now comes out weekly and publishes legal notices. It was my first baby, and it will always be my baby. I hope it ends up in good hands, and I hope it continues to have a strong role and a strong voice in the community.”

Ponder admires Burnett too.

“It took a lot of courage for Evelina to move to a town where she had no connections and to start a newspaper and build a community around it,” he said. “She fell in love with this community, started the newspaper and ran it for seven years. That’s very brave.”

Burnett knows she did the right thing.

“I once sat down next to a subscriber who told me that when I moved to town, and when she saw the newspaper, she knew Pass Christian would come back,” Burnett said. “At their lowest point, the Gazebo Gazette was able to provide the people with a sense of hope.”

terisaylor@hotmail.com

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