In a Widening News Desert on the Border, a Tabloid Start-Up Defies the Odds

DEL RIO, Texas — At the Chihuahuan Desert’s eastern limits, in a parking lot above Lake Amistad, Brian Argabright photographed anglers and their catch at the Border Bass Battle for The Del Rio News-Herald, a chronicler of the wind-swept border town since 1884.

Three days later, he would learn the tournament story would be his last for The News-Herald.

On Nov. 18, the nationwide newspaper crisis touched Val Verde County when The News-Herald printed its final edition. The end was swift for the staff and a shock to residents, who had somehow expected their newspaper to last forever.

Leonard Woolsey, president of Southern Newspapers Inc., the corporation that owns The News-Herald, came to Del Rio to fire 10 employees. For him, it was the right thing to do it in person. Revenue could not cover payroll, even after the company secured a multimillion-dollar federal Covid-19 relief loan.

The closure left Val Verde County without a trusted newspaper, another victim in a trend researchers at the University of North Carolina deemed “The Expanding News Desert.” An estimated 300 newspapers have closed and 6,000 journalists have lost their jobs over the past two years, according to their research, as circulation fell by five million readers.

In Texas, 134 counties — a little more than half the state — have just one newspaper, and 21 have no newspaper at all. Del Rio, the Vale Verde County seat, teetered on becoming the 22nd.

Enter Joel Langton, a 56-year-old military public affairs veteran who decided to turn an online events website he had started into a 16-page, ad-supported weekly tabloid, Del Rio’s 830 Times.

“The News-Herald had a great staff and a bad business plan,” he said. “Publishers came in from the outside every 18 months. Del Rio is a complicated culture. I’ve been here for 15 years and still don’t know everything going on.”

After The News-Herald closed, Mr. Langton stepped forward to turn his 5-month-old, named after the local telephone area code, into a newspaper. He had a web designer and knew someone who could make layouts. But he needed reporters to cover Del Rio.

He brought on Mr. Argabright and another former News-Herald writer, Karen Gleason, to fill his pages as freelancers.

“The fact they said yes makes me tear up because I have so much respect for both of them,” Mr. Langton wrote in the newspaper’s first issue. “We all share the same passion — Del Rio. We love this town and want to keep people informed.”

The 830 Times is a solution to Del Rio’s biggest problem, as Mr. Langton sees it — how to keep residents from moving away.

“People say there is nothing to do here, but that’s not true,” he said. “The 830 Times was originally set up to let people know about the fun things going on.”

Mr. Langton is right. There are entertainments to be had in Del Rio, though most of them are of the outdoor variety.

On the same day the Border Bass Battle was being fought out at Lake Amistad, the Malto family hosted a cabalgata — a traditional Mexican horse ride — celebrating Diego Malto’s 15th birthday. All were welcome to join.

More than 200 men, women and children on horseback and ATVs and in pickup trucks snarled traffic along seven miles in Cienegas Terrace, a colonia between the Del Rio airport and the Rio Grande. A ranch cookout followed, with beer kegs, homemade tamales, a roping exhibition, and a norteño band playing behind a curtain of cigarette smoke.

Diego’s uncle, Beto Torez, who grew up in Del Rio, was at the party with his young family. He lives 260 miles east, in Austin, where he works as a church music director. Del Rio is lovely to visit for the day, he said, but to raise his children here? No way. Austin has a better music scene.

The cabalgata made the news on Noticias Del Rio TV, a local bilingual Facebook page with nearly 85,000 followers. The 830 Times so far has 3,000 followers on its Facebook page. The disparate numbers hint at the obstacles Mr. Langton faces in his push to make The 830 Times succeed in a world dominated by Google and Facebook advertising and competitors with Spanish-language appeal.

“For now, I’m footing the bill,” he said. “Am I gambling on the print product? Yes. I could lose it all.”

At age 24, Mr. Langton was married, broke and desperate for work in Minnesota. The Air Force was hiring, so he enlisted.

The military moved him every three years or so, an itinerant life that mirrored his upbringing as a preacher’s son. He worked as a public affairs specialist in Indiana, Maryland, Arkansas, Nebraska, Turkey and then Cocoa Beach, Fla., which he called “the perfect place to bounce back from a divorce.”

Mr. Langton remarried and moved with his wife to his final post in Del Rio at Laughlin Air Force Base, the largest pilot training facility in the United States.

Later, he transitioned from the military to a civilian public relations job at Laughlin.

Del Rio, population 35,700, is tiny compared with its sister city, Ciudad Acuña, on the Mexico side of Rio Grande, which has more than 200,000 residents. Acuña is a manufacturing town focusing on auto parts and appliances. Thanks to the Air Force base, the federal government is the largest employer in Del Rio.

Despite the razor wire-topped fences and border guards dividing the two cities, most residents see Del Rio and Acuña as one place.

Into that international mix has recently stepped a third player — a Chinese company proposing a major and hotly debated new enterprise outside Del Rio that has become one of The 830 Times’s biggest news stories.

GH America Energy quietly bought 140,000 acres in Val Verde County over the last five years to build a massive wind farm not far from the pilot training base. A Chinese billionaire and former army officer, Sun Guangxin, controls the company, a Guanghui Energy Company subsidiary, through an investment group.

In 2018, concern that giant wind turbines could disrupt flight training routes that are crucial to the county’s biggest employer began prompting apprehension all over Val Verde County and from Texas’ representatives in Washington. Del Rio’s mayor, Bruno Lozano, and the county’s senior administrator, Judge Lewis Owens, sent a letter to Trump administration officials early in 2020, warning that the energy project “will result in unacceptable risk to national security of the United States.”

It is in Del Rio’s interest to keep the military happy. According to the Texas comptroller, Laughlin contributes $2 billion to the Texas economy and more than 3,000 jobs each year.

“It’s the most underreported story here,” Mr. Langton said. “The Communist Chinese are one of the largest landowners. But because of my position at the base, I need to keep walls up between me and that story. I’ll hire a writer to cover it.”

Mr. Langton operates his news empire from a sideboard he uses as a desk in his dining room, dealing with his reporters and the company that prints the paper, 153 miles away, by cellphone.

On a Wednesday morning last month, it was 5:30 a.m., The 830 Times’s inaugural edition was late, and Mr. Langton was dialing the phone.

“I hate calling people this early, but I have to get my stuff out,” he said, bemoaning the troubles of his new venture. It was inspection week at the Air Force base, and he could not be late.

Moments later, a delivery driver arrived in the cold, pre-dawn darkness and unloaded 2,000 copies.

“The banner color is off,” Mr. Langton said. “It should be blue. This looks purple.”

A full-color photo on the front page captured the annual “Nutcracker” performance at a downtown theater. Inside, a note “From the Publisher Dude” teased an article penned by Norris Burkes, a retired Air Force chaplain, recalling his “wacky marriage proposal.”

With the newspapers stacked in his S.U.V., Mr. Langton tuned his radio to the Outlaw Country station and drove down Veterans Boulevard, an area where Del Rio began to expand northward on open savanna after the Plaza Del Sol Mall opened in 1979.

Big-box stores and strip malls followed as the historic downtown declined, killing the Guarantee department store, the first permanent commercial structure on Main Street when it was a cow trail in 1905.

Mr. Langton dropped his newspaper off at Roberts Jewelers, River City Donuts, a Rudy’s Bar-B-Q, a Ramada hotel, an IHOP, the Bank & Trust, gas stations and laundromats, all places where readers could pick it up for free.

Plenty of people are counting on Mr. Langton to make a go of it. Steven T. Webb, a former Del Rio police officer who won a runoff in December for the City Council, said the fact that only 12 percent of voters turned out in the general election was partly attributable to the News-Herald shutdown. “Social media, friends, that’s the only way we get the news now,” he said. “It hurt us, the newspaper closing.”

For now, Mr. Langton is focusing on advertising and editing, leaving the story ideas and writing to Mr. Argabright and Ms. Gleason. Del Rio’s 830 Times is crawling, he said, but he hopes soon the newspaper learns how to walk and run. Mostly, Mr. Langton wants the residents to love his publication as their own.

“The 830 Times is a leap of faith,” Ms. Gleason said. She had known Mr. Langton all of two days before the first issue was finished. “I just want this paper to be a voice for the community, interesting and truthful stories about people in Del Rio.”

Mr. Langston concedes that his efforts to provide Del Rio with a newspaper it can hold in its hands are probably temporary. He believes the printed word is going extinct.

“I hate to tell you this, buddy,” he said. “But in five or 10 years, newspapers won’t exist anymore.”

He figures he has five years to prove himself wrong.

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