EUREKA SPRINGS — In a town that possesses as much oppositional energy as Eureka Springs, dueling newspapers fit the pattern nicely.
Besides competing for readers and advertisers in the usual ways, the Lovely County Citizen, a fresh little upstart of a paper, locally owned and distributed free, has gone to court to wrest advertising away from the older, more conventional, paid-circulation and chain-owned Eureka Springs Times-Echo. The ads in question, commonly known as “the legals,” are announcements of official actions and pending actions by local governments, which those governments are required by law to publish. Legals can be an important source of revenue to small papers. The Times-Echo earns about $40,000 a year in legal advertising from Carroll County and Eureka Springs, according to a filing in the lawsuit. State law makes free-circulation newspapers such as the Citizen ineligible to publish legal notices. The Citizen questions the constitutionality of the law. It filed suit after failing to get the law changed in the legislature. Although the city and county governments are listed as defendants, the real opposition comes from the Times-Echo and the Arkansas Press Association, to which the Times-Echo belongs. A trial date has not been set.
The Citizen was founded in December 1999. Co-publisher Mary Pat Boian says “I wanted a paper that people would pick up years from now to see what we in Eureka Springs were about — why we preserved these buildings, why we had these big fights.” Co-publisher Bill King says he thought the Times-Echo was too timid, shying away from the controversies on which Eureka seems to thrive.
Pre-Citizen, Boian says, she’d “done some magazine editing, a little newspaper work, some restaurant work.” (Just about everybody in Eureka seems to have done some restaurant work at one time or another.) King says he was semi-retired. The two of them own the Citizen, along with photographer John Rankine and a silent partner in Fayetteville.
They called their paper the Lovely County Citizen because they discovered that Northwest Arkansas had been known as Lovely County in territorial days, and they thought the name still applied. It’s a tabloid, and a lively one. Not salacious, or gossipy, but unflinching in its photographs of the festivities in a tourist town — transsexuals working a “Kiss a Queen” booth during “Diversity Days”; a man at a rally of some sort surpassing even Little Rock’s famous hat lady, Willie Oates, by wearing a headgear in the form of the business end of a quite large penis. You don’t see photos like this in other Arkansas weeklies. Dailies, either.
But the Citizen is not an “alternative” weekly, a term for publications that focus on what is sometimes called “the counter-culture.” Raffish it sometimes is, but the Citizen covers local government, local fund-raisers, local sports, especially the basketball games of the Eureka Springs High School Highlanders. The Citizen is not above injecting a little homerism into these accounts. The Citizen of the Week is a regular feature. So is the Police Beat column, one of the livelier of its kind.
“We started out thinking we’d be an alternative paper, and we became a community paper,” King says. “We try to make it as interesting as possible.” Editorially, it is a harsh critic of President Bush and his war in Iraq, and takes a progressive stance on other issues too — pro-gay rights, pro-medical marijuana. It usually stays out of local political contests.
The Citizen puts out 7,000 free copies a week, according to Rankine. The Times-Echo has a paid circulation of a little over 2,000.
A broadside (full-sized newspaper), the Times-Echo covers the news in a more conventional manner. Mayor Kathy Harrison calls it “the paper of record.” She also says that both papers have supported her and opposed her on occasion.
The Times-Echo is owned by Rust Communications of Cape Girardeau, Mo., which owns a dozen or so papers in Arkansas and some outside. The publisher, Bob Moore, and the managing editor, Jerry Dupy, both live in Berryville. The ranking officer at Eureka is news editor Mary Jean Sell. (The Times-Echo office is actually a few miles outside Eureka, at a development called Holiday Island.)
Sell is an unusual position, although she doesn’t see it as a problem. She is the news editor — and columnist — for a newspaper that covers city government, and she is also the Eureka Springs city clerk, a parttime position. Sell, who has been in the newspaper business for 30 years and city clerk since Jan. 1, 2003, said there is no conflict of interest. As clerk, she is not involved in the personnel and policy issues that her newspaper might write about, she said. “My office is not in city hall, I’m not the mayor’s confidante, I don’t have social contact with the aldermen.”
Of competing with another newspaper in a small town, Sell says, “I think it’s good for the community. It makes us both scramble harder for news. Different people write different stories about a meeting.” She conceded that the advertising department might see the matter differently.