This story is published in partnership with Ozarks Alive, a cultural preservation project led by Kaitlyn McConnell.
WILLOW SPRINGS – When Ron and Amanda Mendez moved to the Ozarks in 2016, it was to write a figurative page in their family’s story, not typically 12 on newsprint for folks around Willow Springs.
But in a small building on the town’s main drag, Amanda stands with a baby on her back, her hands inked by newsprint as she stuffs papers with advertisements. It’s one of many duties as assigned (to herself) for the Howell County News, a weekly publication the Mendezes purchased in 2019.
It was a decision made after the newspaper closed, but to keep it going.
That effort, however, is not the only contrast in today’s world of journalism, an industry that struggles through layoffs and declining revenue: In September 2022, the Mendezes purchased a building for the paper.
“In large part that has been the key to our success: The people in Willow Springs want a newspaper,” says Amanda. “They want to read their local news.
“The majority of events that I cover, I’m the only member of the media in the room. So I’m the only member of the media covering city council; I’m the only member of the media covering our school board. There are other news outlets who are so much more qualified to cover state and national issues than I am, but in terms of the local stuff, that’s really what people want.
“The town just reached out to us and wouldn’t let the newspaper die.”
Before the first issue
It was a map that drew the Mendezes to the rural Ozarks some six years ago. Living in the St. Louis area, they had a desire to move their family to a different place — literally and figuratively — and after a visit to neighboring Mountain View in 2015, they were sold.
“I’ll never forget it. It was like coming home. Everyone was so warm and welcoming,” says Amanda. “I don’t know if I’ll ever have the words to truly express how charming it was — like we stumbled into a fairy tale. All these things that we really admired about the Ozarks: The way people talk to you — they’ll look you in the eye when they’re passing you on the sidewalk, they will acknowledge that you are a human being — is not something that will happen in St. Louis. So we started looking for property.”
Ron, an artist with a degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and his wife, a professional writer (but without experience running a newspaper) and educated in political science and French, took their talents to Howell County. Amanda began doing some work for the paper on a freelance basis, including writing a column about what it was like to move to the rural Ozarks.
Then came the day in 2019 when the Howell County News didn’t print: Its former owner simply decided to stop. And for nearly three weeks, the town was without a paper.
It was a reality that greatly concerned people like Wendell Bailey. A native of Willow Springs, Bailey, 84, has invested years in service to his community: He has served as city councilman, mayor, in the Missouri House of Representatives from 1972-1980, as a representative in the U.S. Congress from ‘80 to ‘83, as Missouri treasurer, and ran to be the state’s governor.
In 2019, he added newspaper advocate to his resume.
“We wanted a paper in our town, but we didn’t know what to do about it,” says Bailey. “It’s the lifeblood of the community.”
Bailey began making calls, talking with others who might also share similar concerns. One he found was Annette Chaney, now a retired teacher from Willow Springs who also has lived in the community her entire life. She, too, was concerned and invested in finding someone to take on the paper. Chaney knew the Mendezes from church and thought they would be a good fit.
“I really feel like a hometown paper is a reflection of the identity of a small town,” she says. “I’m 57, and there’s always been a paper in my memory. I have clippings of my siblings and me in the paper, when we were much, much younger, for whatever reason. There’s always been a paper; there’s always been a focus on just our town.
“I feel like it reflects the community’s values and priorities. And I didn’t want to lose that representation of our town. We could get news somewhere else. But I didn’t want to be swallowed up by a larger news source.”
Ultimately, they made it to the Mendezes — and with financial support from Bailey, the couple decided to pursue the paper.
“She didn’t have much financial backing, so I provided that financial backing and it just all clicked together,” says Bailey. “It worked out wonderfully well for the community, and for her. It was a good wedding.”
Two issues after the paper ceased, and less than a week after the deal was sealed — six days, to be exact — the Mendezes put their first issue to press. It met a deadline beyond the norm.
“There’s a law in Missouri … that you cannot go 30 days between publication or you’ll lose your legal status,” says Amanda of a designation that allows public notices to be published in particular newspapers. “We had six days to get to press on our first paper from the day that we signed the contract.”
“Our first issue is hanging there on the wall,” she says.
Navigating the news
After the first paper came another and another and another. While the couple’s skill sets were complementary to newspapering, there was still a lot to learn.
“I had no idea what I was getting into — none at all. When I say I wrote for the newspaper, I was basically a stay-at-home mom,” says Amanda, who now has three children. “We have a cabin in the woods, and I’d sit there and type with a baby on my lap and turn it in. I had no idea what actually goes into getting this newspaper out of an office every week.”
From that first week, she found out. There are two “W-2” employees on staff who help with writing and office management. However, Amanda serves as the primary public face, creating much of the content with the help of freelancers, and her husband does its layout from home. It’s printed in Jefferson City before being transported back to Willow Springs.
The paper covers the spectrum of small-town updates: There are “good” things like recent coverage of the Bear City Fall Festival, school homecomings, and a local man who grew an 11-pound sweet potato.
But every community has moments that aren’t entirely positive, and it’s a fact that has stretched Amanda as a journalist.
“It’s probably the most difficult part that I wasn’t anticipating at all. I did not expect to have to be as brave as I have had to be sometimes,” she says. “When we first moved here, the shine was very much on the apple about what I expected to find when we were covering things. And I mean, to this community’s eternal credit, it is not an every-week, it’s not even an every-month, thing that I have to really push against a public official to give me the information that I’m seeking. But it does happen.”
An example Amanda gives is when an intern was confronted by a public official, Amanda says, over an editorial she wrote about aspects of his performance. Another was when the school’s football coach left his post for nearby West Plains and there was uncertainty over more than $20,000 — a sizeable amount for a town the size of Willow Springs — that the community had raised for the program through the football booster club.
“The way that folks reacted to that decision was volatile. They were so hurt, angry and offended. I had people in and out of my office all day long. And the question that I kept hearing over and over again was ‘What happened to all of the money from the fundraiser?’”
Amanda began asking the same question, with limited answers at first, but she kept pressing.
“I started digging into it, and I kept running up against a wall where folks didn’t want to give me the information,” she says of a time when she believed nothing was amiss, but wanted to prove it by seeing the records.
“I did eventually find it. I mean, it wasn’t a pleasant process. It wasn’t a friendly process. But I was eventually able to report on what it was. And it was exactly what we all thought it was going to be: They purchased things for football.”
Part of that skill has been developed by practice and growth, including by expanding her coverage area when the Mountain View paper closed in April 2020. Today, Amanda says, she covers the other town’s city council, sports, and crime regularly, just like in Willow Springs.
Amanda’s efforts also extend to professional journalists through entities like the Ozark Press Association, a regional news organization dating to 1889, which she currently serves as vice president.
The influence of faith
While Amanda strives to provide neutral news coverage for the community, something she is upfront about is her devout Catholic faith. It’s something so central to her life that it’s proclaimed on the paper’s front page — “Your locally owned, Christian Conservative weekly” — as part of its masthead.
“I … think that as a human being, you can’t have an entirely objective stance on anything. That’s not humanly possible. The way I’ve always defended it was to just be very upfront; it’s right there on the front page of every single edition, that if you’re detecting a slant in our news, this is what it is. You don’t have to guess. This is what it is. This is who we are.”
An example is when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization in June 2022. The high court overturned the 1973 Roe V. Wade decision, which guaranteed abortion as a right in the United States. Due to a trigger law in Missouri, put in place before the 2022 decree was made at the national level, abortion became illegal in the state in most instances shortly thereafter.
“That is something that matters more to me than most any other political issue we can talk about,” she says. “That is my particular hobby horse. And so it was not necessarily global news that Missouri abolished abortion. But I was not going to pass up my chance to put that on my front page because it is my newspaper. I think it was a historic moment in Willow Springs as it was all over the country.”
That edition of the paper also hangs on the wall, catty-cornered from the front page of the first paper under the Mendezes’ ownership. However, in most issues, Amanda says the filter doesn’t affect the paper’s routine coverage.
“It hasn’t come into play too much when I’m reporting on local issues. If I were reporting on state or national issues, I think there would be much more of an opportunity for those views and my faith to skew what we’re reporting on,” she says, but points to a recent story of a bus barn burning down in Mountain View.
“What do my politics or faith have to do with that? It doesn’t affect it at all. It’s still an even story with just the facts.”
Securing the paper’s (physical) place
While taking on a newspaper was noteworthy in this day and age, another step to buck the trend came in September 2022 when the Mendezes purchased their own building.
It was the place where they moved shortly after purchasing the paper, so it was already “home.” But it signaled an investment in the paper and future, and a sense of security for the Mendezes as they saw other properties be purchased in the area.
“Finding a place to move it in Willow Springs would be basically impossible with the way that the buildings have been purchased down the street. So we just pulled the trigger on it, and it’s been nice to take ownership of it.”
The purchase proved another full-circle moment: The building was bought from Bailey, making the Mendezes just the third owners of the building, which was built in the early 1900s and long used as a photography studio.
In a room with old-time, pressed-tin ceiling tiles is where she and a few others stand on Tuesday morning, stuffing 2,300 newspapers with advertisements before they’re sent out for distribution. Subscribers’ papers are taken to post offices in area towns, where they’re sent out for delivery. Others will be set on newsstands.
In addition to stuffing advertisements in the papers, they are also separating them into bundles to make delivery easier for postal employees.
“Every subscriber’s paper that goes out of this office I personally touched,” says Amanda. “So when we hand them to the post office we’re handing the papers to them in the order that the postman will deliver.”
The business of Tuesday leads to Wednesday, her one full day off each week. But then it’s back to the grindstone — that takes the Mendezes’ hands and heartstrings to move. Their efforts are seeing success: Circulation has increased, she says, as has the revenue in their time of ownership.
“I relish it. I absolutely love it,” says Amanda. “I take it very seriously that my readers place that trust in me.”
Visit the Howell County News’ website.