What One North Texas Community Lost When It Had To Say Goodbye To Its Newspaper
The Mineral Wells Index covered the small city for more than a century. In May, it shut down, joining dozens of other newspapers that have been driven out of business by the COVID-19 pandemic.
A giant green sign downtown says “Welcome to Mineral Wells: Home of Crazy.”
It’s not an insult to the city’s 15,000 residents. It’s a reference to the so-called "Crazy Water" that helped fuel Mineral Wells' heyday more than a century ago.
The city was a spa destination. Its mineral waters were advertised to cure a whole host of ailments, and a newspaper popped up to help spread the word.
The first edition of the Mineral Wells Index rolled off the presses on May 5, 1900. The publishers joked in their opening message to readers that they had no excuse for starting the paper.
“Seeing an opening, we came, and are going to publish the news and herald the virtues of the Mineral Wells waters to the world,” they wrote. “To just what extent, depends entirely upon others. We are going to give the people the best paper possible consistent with the patronage.”
The patronage kept the paper going for the next 120 years, but not even Crazy Water can get rid of COVID-19.
In May, the now-former publisher Lisa Chappell announced the Index would close, and the nearby Weatherford Democrat would take over coverage of Mineral Wells.
“The coronavirus pandemic has burdened businesses with steep losses in revenue. The Mineral Wells Index is no exception,” she wrote.
The newspaper industry was already struggling, and more than 50 newspapers have shuttered due to the pandemic, according to the Poynter Institute, a news industry watchdog. News organizations across the country have furloughed or laid off reporters to deal with new financial pressures.
David May worked at the Index for more than 15 years. He was a general manager, editor and reporter, all at once, when it shut down.
"The Mineral Wells community couldn’t get that kind of sports or local news coverage anywhere else. And I don’t think they ever will again, frankly,” he said.
The staff had dwindled to four: May, a sports editor, a receptionist and an ad rep.
Still, May was surprised by the closure, which came as he was already preparing to leave for another job.
“Just before my two weeks' notice was up, my publisher came in and told me the news that they decided to go ahead and merge with the Weatherford Democrat,” he said.
These closures and mergers have become more common since the internet monopolized the ad revenue newspapers rely on.
A recent study from the University of North Carolina found a quarter of American newspapers have disappeared since 2004.
And according to UNC, the Index was the last newspaper in all of Palo Pinto County.
An online publication called Goodday Mineral Wells has popped up in the Index's absence, and it’s seeking financial backing through crowdfunding. Its founder, John L. Partesius, who also goes by Jonny Goodday, said in a Facebook message that his team hopes to have a print edition by January.
“We believe that local news is of extreme importance, and we are doing everything we can to try to keep it alive in the Palo Pinto County area,” he wrote.
Still, David May worries whether complicated government issues will get the coverage they warrant.
He also doesn't have much faith in social media filling the gaps.
"The rest of it's being left to, you know, Facebook reporting warriors, and some of those people can't even tell you what time it is looking at their watch,” May said.
One study from 2018 found voters have less influence when there's no news source keeping local politicians accountable to their constituents.
Mineral Wells City Council member Beth Watson worries people won't be as involved in city government without the Index to summarize what's going on.
"Some of these meetings are really boring. Let's just call them what they are,” she said.
The city didn’t just lose the paper. It also lost a journalist with decades of experience.
Watson said David May's newspaper coverage helped facilitate conversation — and even griping.
"He was almost his own character in the little local dramas,” she said. “We're missing that thing for people to complain about."
The Index also won't be around to chronicle a plan to revitalize Mineral Wells.
The grand old Baker Hotel, built for mineral water tourists in the 1920s, towers over downtown. It's been shuttered and decaying for decades, but it's finally undergoing renovation, and it could help the city become a tourist destination again.
Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Raymond Greenwood said it should be up and running in a couple years.
"A lot of the local stores or businesses have either expanded and/or improved. Some of the vacant buildings are now housing new businesses in anticipation of visitors and growth two years from now," he said.
There are signs of life in downtown Mineral Wells. Right by the big Crazy sign is the Market at 76067, a trendy retail space that features clothing and home decor.
On a recent afternoon, Mineral Wells resident Connie Upshaw was browsing through the store’s knickknacks. She said the city lost part of its identity when it lost the Index.
"The things that are happening in the town, and showing off the kids, what they won at school, and the teams, and -- just a community that you lose when you lose your paper,” she said.
Upshaw knows the Weatherford Democrat has a Mineral Wells section, but she doesn't subscribe.
“It’s more about Weatherford,” she said.
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