School board should have listened
Small newspaper winner: Seguin Gazette
Seguin, Texas, is a two-newspaper town with an exceptionally large high school football scoreboard and a majority of new school board members.
It's all related.
The Seguin Gazette, a five-day newspaper with a daily circulation of 3,500, is the winner in the under-50,000 division of the 2017 Carmage Walls Commentary Prize. Editor and Publisher Jeff Fowler and Managing Editor Travis Webb won for a series of editorials and a column criticizing what they described as "extravagant" spending on the part of the members of the Seguin Independent School District board of trustees.
That would be the previous school board, because after the editorials ran the citizens of Seguin voted out the majority of the incumbent board members.
"All we did was pull back the curtain," said Fowler. "The residents of the community pretty much did the rest."
The entry focused on the board's attempt to buy the city's radio station and the other newspaper, The Seguin Daily News, a free-distribution tabloid with the same local ownership as the radio station. (The Gazette is part of Southern Newspapers Inc.)
While the board talked of giving students opportunities for media education, Webb and Fowler saw the move as a means of silencing the radio station in particular. And in a largely blue-collar and agricultural community of some 30,000 people, the expenditure was questionable at best.
When the board called a special meeting to discuss the purchase, hundreds of citizens turned out, even though it was noon on a workday. But none were allowed to speak.
"By choosing to prohibit public comment – even threatening to have Seguin Police Department officers remove the public – the board displayed a shameful unwillingness to listen to the voices of those who have entrusted them with positions of influence," the Gazette said.
The Gazette also questioned whether Seguin really needed to buy what the district said was the biggest public high school video scoreboard in the country, at a cost of $1.3 million. An editorial noted that in the same week the paper broke the story, another Texas school board was passing out Google Chromebooks for each freshman student.
The scoreboard stands, but the board did drop the plan to acquire the radio station and the other newspaper.
When election time came, the Gazette published an election guide in which each candidate was allowed to comment and answer questions.
"Some of the school board members took that as an opportunity to vilify us," said Webb. "Which we ran."
The only board members who weren't voted out were the ones who weren't up for re-election. "People liked to talk about the scoreboard. But the radio station, I think that made people actually do something," Webb said.
Judges in the small newspaper division said, "The judges chose this entry for its strong writing and record of clear success driving positive changes in the community. They especially noted Fowler and Webb's economical writing style that made very strong points with few words."
Said Fowler, "Even a small newspaper like us, we can energize the community. We can get people involved and we can make a difference."
Jane Nicholes is a freelance writer and editor based in Daphne, Ala. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.