Publishing still great the second time around

January 2, 2012

When Barbara Ball sold her newspaper, The Country Chronicle, six years after starting it, her Blythewood, SC, readers missed its dogged coverage of the inner workings of the town council.

Ball has news for them.

She’s back.

And she’s more determined than ever to keep the sunshine in government.

Ball never set out to become a crusading editor, and to this day she doesn’t consider herself as such.

Rather, she has fashioned herself into a watchdog, who guards her neighbors’ access to the business of local government.

And if Ball is a watchdog, then she is of the Rottweiler variety, but anyone who meets her would not believe that at first sight.

At 67, she is slender and youthful, with steel-gray wavy hair. She is soft-spoken, modest, and unwavering in her mission to keep the public’s business in the open.

She believes so fervently in freedom of information, she started a newspaper for no other reason than to report on Blythewood’s town council. The newspaper eventually expanded its coverage to features, sports and general news in Blythewood and surrounding communities.

After she sold it to a company that did not share her zeal to provide relentless local government coverage, she came out of her brief five-year retirement and started another newspaper, still going strong more than a year later.

Ball lives in a rural area of Blythewood.

Located 10 miles north of Columbia, SC, the lush, rural area is wealthy, with good schools and a strong equestrian community. The town’s convenient location and reputation for good living makes the area attractive to new residents.

“We know growth is coming our way,” Ball said.

In fact, the talk of growth has been bubbling and churning for at least a dozen years, and that’s how Ball got into the newspaper business in the first place.

Ball, who earned an English degree from the University of North Texas, has never considered herself a journalist, although she honed her writing skills while working for trade magazines.

“I had always loved reading newspapers, but I had never thought about a newspaper career,” she said.

Ball lived in Detroit and Philadelphia and traveled in Europe with her husband, but settled in Blythewood in 1992 to raise a family.  She admits that she enjoyed being a horse show mom, and loves the rural lifestyle.

Industrial development and zoning issues led Ball and her neighbors to attend town council meetings in Blythewood.

“We wanted to find a way to communicate what was happening with the town council,” Ball said as she sat in a local restaurant. She doesn’t have an actual newspaper office yet.

“I volunteered to start a newsletter, just to keep everyone informed.”

Before long, she found herself publishing and editing The Country Chronicle, which she produced monthly.

“I did not consider myself as filling a watchdog role for the people at first,” she said. “I even allowed the officials at City Hall to review my reports of their meetings.”

What Ball might have lacked in experience, she made up for with a solid reporter’s instinct. As time passed, she turned away from town officials and began to rely on Bill Rogers, executive director of the South Carolina Press Association, and the association’s general counsel, Jay Bender, for information and advice.

“Bill Rogers was invaluable,” she said. “Jay Bender helped me understand open meetings and legal issues.”

Before Ball started The Country Chronicle, citizens looked for news on their town in The State, in Columbia, which provided just spare coverage of Blythewood.  When Ball’s paper took root, readers began considering it as their own hometown newspaper.

As the Country Chronicle thrived, Ball kept it simple, tabloid-sized with modular advertising.

The newspaper grew, and eventually Ball started publishing weekly.

She employed a staff, including her daughter who designed pages and a second designer. She also had a sports reporter and a photographer on board.  Her best friend ran the business. Ball did everything else.

Change was bound to happen.

By 2004, media companies had started making offers to buy The Country Chronicle, but Ball wasn’t ready to hand over a business she considered her readers’ sacred trust.

Then her business manager moved away. Her daughter got married and left the area, too.

Ball was 60. Elections had taken care of town council members who had been bent on keeping citizens in the dark, and sunlight was abundant.

She reckoned her work was done, and in 2005, she sold the Country Chronicle to Morris Multi-Media.

Morris did not make any major cosmetic changes, and to this day, The Country Chronicle looks much the way it did when Ball sold it, but it was never the same.

Before long, trouble was brewing in Blythewood.

The town council voted on a $5.5 million bond to build a park next to City Hall, without putting it before the public for a referendum. Taxes would pay for the bond.

The Country Chronicle covered local government, “but not the way I covered it,” Ball said. “The newspaper’s watchdog role was diminished.”

Local citizens who were not satisfied with the coverage either, began to beg Ball to start another newspaper.

She answered the call, and in 2010, five years after selling her first newspaper, she started The Independent Voice (of the People’s Republic of Blythewood), its nameplate reflecting her absolute loyalty to the town’s citizens.

“Sometimes government officials run their towns like they are their own private businesses,” Ball said. “People have the right to know everything that goes on in their government because they pay for it through their taxes.”

As much as Ball has more knowledge of the newspaper business the second time around, “I had done it before. I felt more prepared this time”—she recognizes that Blythewood is no longer a one-newspaper town. She now competes with the paper she started and established herself.

As a new start-up, she has no paid employees. Volunteer writers, including a food editor, help her out of a sense of dedication.

Thanks to technology, her daughter is able to design pages from her home in Pennsylvania.

Ball publishes 16 pages twice a month, all color. Her printer delivers 10,000 copies of each issue to the Post Office where it is mailed using a bulk rate. Thanks to a good relationship with the postmaster, every single resident receives the newspaper in a timely way.

She considers local retail establishments as her business partners and uses her pages to help them build their business.

She has no nostalgia for The Country Chronicle and has moved on.

“That’s not my paper,” she said. “My paper was finished in June 2005.”

She also has learned her way around freedom of information laws. Her Country Chronicle was the smallest weekly in South Carolina to win the South Carolina Press Association’s Reid Montgomery FOI Award in 2003.

After publishing a series of editorials pressing the town council to open its checkbook to the public, officials have complied, and the town’s checks and deposits are on full display in the pages of The Independent Voice.

“I never realized what a newspaper was supposed to do before,” she said. “Now I feel good. I believe I am doing a good job.”

She values the positive feedback she receives from readers, and the only feedback she expects from town officials is sunshine.

“I don’t believe it is in the public’s best interest for their newspaper editor to have a good relationship with town officials,” she said.

Ball has no intention of stopping or even letting up.

“There’s so much work for me to do,” she said.

She plans to take the newspaper weekly, to start covering other local communities, to get her ad sales up, hire staff and find office space.

“I am not doing this to get rich. I hope to make a profit, but as long as the income pays the expenses I am happy,” she said.

And as long as she can use her resources to report on local government’s workings, she is doing the work of the people.

That makes her happy, too. © Teri Saylor 2012

Teri Saylor is an independent journalist in Raleigh, NC. Contact her at terisaylor@hotmail.com.

 

 

Details

Name of Publication(s): The Independent Voice (of the People’s Republic of Blythewood) Blythewood, SC

Publisher/Owner: Barbara Ball,

What is the Most Rewarding Aspect of Owning Your Newspaper? In press association workshops, I frequently hear (in response to an innovative idea), ‘But my publisher won’t let us do this.’ I love not having constraints about what I can and cannot do in the newspaper. If you own it, the sky is the limit.

List Some Top Goals for The Next Year: I plan to start publishing weekly and give more attention to ad sales.

What Are You Most Proud Of? Our town, like many small towns, has been perennially blessed with controversial, secretive local governments. Freeing up information from town hall has always been a challenge. I’m proud that the businesses and residents in the community take it for granted they’ll always find the real news about the town and the town government in the Voice.  But what I am most proud of is that The Country Chronicle won the SCPA Freedom of Information Award for 2003 during the time I was publishing it.

What is Your Newspaper’s Most Distinguishing Characteristic? That it is both entertaining and informative.

What Are Your Newspaper’s Biggest Challenges? Not having a background in newspaper work or training as a journalist, I’m always behind the learning curve. (None of the columns in my first issue were the same width and I still don’t grasp the concept of selling ads by the column inch.) Everything I know about publishing a newspaper, I’ve learned through South Carolina Press Association workshops and from my fellow member journalists. I can’t tell you what they mean to me.

How Do You View Your Newspaper’s Role in Your Community? The Voice is what the community depends on for local news and, especially in this community, government news.

What You Love to Hear From Readers: How much they love the paper.

What You Hate to Hear From Readers: That I need to brush up on the proper use of the apostrophe, particularly with the possessive ‘its.’

One Thing You’d Never Change: After publishing two newspapers more than 12 years, I’ve come to realize that there is great financial and influential pressure on newspapers to become de facto newsletters for the dark side. It’s important for newspapers to maintain a proper relationship with governments and other powers, with freedom of information as the prize. This is the goal of the Voice and it will never change.

The Independent Voice

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