FOR THE RECORD, A Doc Days 2023 Filmmaker Conversation
Interview by Todd Savage, Journalist and Doc Days Co-founder.
Featured image by Yvonne Uwah.
FOR THE RECORD screened at AFS Cinema on Sunday, May 28, as part of the Texas Shorts program during Doc Days 2023. This AFS-supported short film chronicles the fate of publisher Laurie Ezzell Brown and her family-owned community newspaper, The Canadian Record, in the Texas Panhandle. Each week, the lifting of a green flag outside its offices on the main street signaled to townspeople the arrival of the latest edition of the paper, but for how much longer?
Heather Courtney and Paul Stekler spoke with Doc Days co-founder Todd Savage about their film and how a small-town newspaper reflects everything about community and connections. This interview transcript is edited for clarity.
Did you each read a community newspaper growing up? What was your relationship to your hometown newspaper?
Heather Courtney: I come from a small town in rural Michigan and far northern Michigan. My relationship with my town is very similar to Laurie’s: a love-hate relationship. I love where I’m from, and I love people there. But I also have a lot of different views [from the local people]. I really connected with Laurie and the paper and the town in that way. We do have a daily paper that’s pretty small and has managed to survive all the time. It’s called The Daily Mining Gazette since there used to be a lot of mining in that area, but not anymore.
Paul Stekler: We lived outside of New York, but we had a local paper as well. The paper was where you saw photographs and articles about the people that you knew, the July 4th celebrations, the Little League baseball box scores, where I found my name for the two points I had in a basketball game, and a picture of my dad at dog-training school with our untrainable Irish setter. It was different than all the New York papers, which were great, but they weren’t local. It was the paper of our community.
How did you find Laurie, and what appealed to you about her and her passion for community journalism?
Heather: Through a mutual friend of ours, a man named Bill Bishop who used to live in Austin and ran something called The Daily Yonder, which was a publication that did original reporting on rural issues and was an aggregator of rural stories from around the country. I used to touch base with him regularly to ask him any good ideas for real stories. One time when I did that, he said, “You should talk to Laurie Brown over at The Canadian Record in the Panhandle. They’re doing interesting stuff up there.” I contacted her and went up to spend 24 hours there. I realized I wanted to follow her and the paper. I just knew that it was a place that had a lot of potential, both Laurie and her town and her paper.
It seemed surprising to me that papers like hers have survived this long.
Paul: There’s been the decline of the economy in rural America for years and years, as the big box stores replace the mom-and-pop hardware stores and drugstores. The decline of papers is in some ways in line with what’s happened in rural America.
What impressed you about Laurie?
Heather: I just loved everything she said about the importance of the paper. It made me realize how much integrity she had and how very authentic she was. These were issues that she has thought deeply about for a long time and has lived with for years. She believes so much in local journalism and real newspapers — it was really key to her to get the message out that these are important news institutions and something needs to be done to make sure they can be sustainable and survive. That was really what drove her.
What was your plan then about how to follow the story?
Heather: After that initial trip, I got really excited about it. I stayed in touch with her, and after I initially met her and did that first interview, I went back there and, again, had the same feeling. It seemed even more important at the time because she had lost a key staff member or two. Things were becoming progressively harder for her to keep the paper going at that time. I thought, “I’ll come back every few months.”
Paul: Heather spent four years, often on location, making this short film, and it shows an incredible dedication, the kind of dedication that you need to be able to get those moments to be able to make something, like COVID happening in that town, organic to the story as opposed to a news flash that happens. Heather’s film has a compelling character and a good story. But I think the difference between a good film and a great film is that a great film has those elements, that compelling character, and Laurie is an incredibly compelling character. But it also is about a lot more, and it doesn’t knock you over the head with it. It’s about this whole change in rural America, the decline and disappearance of newspapers, and the consequences—not only for the town—but also for our democracy, for our ability to be able to know what’s going on and to be able to have democratic dialogue.
What do you hope audiences take from your film, from witnessing Laurie’s long days and nights covering the community of Canadian?
Heather: I hope audiences will take how important it is to have a local news source, particularly in rural areas, but actually anywhere. In fact, Laurie and I showed the film in Detroit at the Detroit Free-Press Film Festival last month. And you know, The Detroit Free Press is going through the same thing only, you know, obviously, on a larger scale. Seven years ago, they had over 300 employees; now they have less than 100. It just goes to show that it’s really a problem everywhere. There’s the statistics in the film that show 20% of Americans live in the news deserts, and one in four newspapers have shut down in the last 15 years. And there’s all this research that says when that happens, when there’s no local news source, that people tend to vote less. Public officials are more corrupt because there’s nobody there checking what they’re doing. People are just less active in their town, and the community becomes more divided. A lot of people don’t realize that — they’re like, “Oh, I can just get the news online, I’ll just look online.”
But no, it’s not about that. It’s about knowing what’s going on in your community. Laurie talks about this very well in the film, about how news about the community helps the community come together in a way and makes them feel that they matter. I think when you lose that local news source, you lose that.