Local papers are dying, fast. But the Rockdale Reporter is hanging on. Its editor, Mike Brown, is one of my favorite journalists in America. I have known him for years. As I see it, he exemplifies what a newspaperman ought to be.
Rockdale is in Central Texas, about 160 miles south of Dallas. The town used to be 60 miles from Austin, says Mike, but Austin has spread out so much, the distance is now 48.
(By the way, I have to refer to the editor as “Mike,” rather than “Brown.” It would be awkward to last-name him. If you knew him, you would agree.)
The population of Rockdale is 5,500, and the Reporter’s circulation is 3,500. Not all of those readers are Rockdale people. The paper goes out to nearby communities and even beyond.
It is a weekly, the Reporter, coming out on Wednesdays. Many readers don’t want to wait for a copy to arrive by mail. They come in to the Reporter’s office to buy one (for a dollar).
Rockdale was incorporated in 1874, once a railroad had reached the area. In November 1920, Warren G. Harding, the president-elect, made a stop on his train. He was headed for the Panama Canal Zone. Here is an excerpt from the Reporter’s account:
Mrs. Harding, the Nation’s coming “first lady,” also appeared on the platform with her husband and graciously greeted the people. She seemed particularly pleased with the college yells given for her husband by the Rockdale High School boys present, and when she thanked them for their courtesy they responded with another battery of “rahs” for Mrs. Harding herself, this drawing forth from her the remark, “Boys, that’s mighty sweet of you.”
Mike Brown was born in 1950 — not in Rockdale but in Alvin, a town south of Houston. Its other claim to fame is Nolan Ryan, the pitcher (born three years before Mike). The Browns moved to Rockdale when Mike was two. His father was a minister and his mother a music teacher.
As a kid, Mike loved to read the newspaper: the Reporter and also the Houston Press, “a scandal sheet,” he says. He also loved astronomy (and still does). When he was a sophomore in high school, he and his dad built a telescope.
But back to journalism: During his senior year, Mike drew up a parody, the Rockhead Reporter. In it, he poked some fun at some of the teachers. One teacher, a civics teacher, was none too pleased, and he and Mike went down to the principal’s office to have a talk.
There was no great harm, however — at least to Mike. That very year, he won the civics award.
He entered the University of Texas in 1968, that radical year. While working at the undergraduate library, shelving periodicals, he came across a magazine with a blue border. “I looked inside and thought two things,” he says. “First, these people think like I do. And second, that’s really good writing.”
He subscribed to the magazine — National Review — and eventually got his first two issues. They arrived in non-consecutive order. And the cover of one of them had been torn off. Left-wing sabotage at the post office or just a mishap? Mike, generously, suspects the latter.
He greatly admired William F. Buckley Jr., as many young people did (and older people, too). “I devoured everything he wrote.” One night, WFB came to speak at the university. “The talk was in the old Gregory Gym,” Mike remembers, “and it was packed. Standing room only.” How did WFB do? “He was every bit as impressive in person as he was on the page. He showed that you could be both conservative and cool. And that was a big thing.”
In due course, Mike wrote to WFB (as one did). WFB wrote him back (as he did).
Mike loved astronomy, but he majored in that other love, English. His favorite poet is Yeats. Mike is smitten with words, as writers tend to be. He is also naturally humorous — and does not disdain puns.
Some years ago, Truman Lamb was succeeded by Joel Pigg in a key agricultural position. A number of headlines suggest themselves. Mike Brown chose “Pigg Replaces Lamb as County Agent, No Kidding.”
Mike started at the Rockdale Reporter on this wise: In 1973, he called up the paper and said, “Would you like a story about Comet Kohoutek?” The lady who had answered said, “What the hell is that?” It was the hottest thing in the sky, named after Lubos Kohoutek, a Czech astronomer. Mike wrote the story. Then he did further freelancing for the paper.
In 1974, Rockdale marked its centenary with a two-week-long party. The Reporter hired Mike on a part-time basis to cover this party. When it was over, they hired him full time. He has been at the paper ever since. He became editor in 1998.
When you start out at a community newspaper, you do everything — including those fundamentals, birth notices and obituaries. The former used to be called “stork reports,” Mike notes. “That was so long ago, the people who had the babies were married.”
The truth is, Mike still does everything, or virtually everything: editing, of course, and writing and picture-taking — the works.
For over a century, the paper has been in the same hands — those of the Cooke family, which owns it. Mike apprenticed under J. W. “Bill” Cooke, the third in this line of owners. “He taught me everything I know,” says Mike, “so you can blame him.”
The Reporter once had a motto that went, “The only newspaper in the world that cares about Rockdale.” There is potency in that motto. Who cares about your city-council meetings and funerals and school sports and ice-cream socials except your local paper, if you have one? I’m looking at a headline on the front page of the Reporter that says, “Legion plans turkey shoot for Sunday.” (“Food and drinks will be available at 11 a.m. with shooting starting at noon.”) On the front page of the sports section, I’m told that Rockdale High’s boys soccer team has had a “historic season.”
Don’t let me give you the idea that the Rockdale Reporter is cute. There is serious news, not excluding murders: There have been three of those in the past two years. One was of a child, and the accused is a person “transitioning” from male to female. When Mike writes about the case, and refers to the accused, he avoids pronouns altogether.
The Reporter persists, and so does Rockdale, but times are not easy — for either the paper or the town. Their fates are, to a degree, connected. Rockdale lost its two biggest employers in the space of ten years. (They were a smelting facility and a power plant.) The paper is thinner than it was, with fewer ads.
When Mike talks to students, he gives them a quiz: “What is news?” They come up with various answers, some of them quite good. Mike then quips, “The news in a newspaper is the stuff around the ads.” Without them, no newspaper.
I ask Mike, “How many people work at the Reporter?” Again, a quip: “About half of us.” The answer, however, is eight or so, depending on how you count (and not all of them are full time). I ask Mike, “Do you feel you’re the last of the Mohicans, the end of the line?” He calls up a memory of his grandmother.
“She lived in Kansas City, and she lived to be 97. When she found out that I was working for a newspaper, she said, ‘I’m so glad. Newspapers kept going right through the Depression.’ So, I’m hanging in there with my late grandmother.”
Whatever the future is, he has had a very rewarding, deeply satisfying career, he says. The best part about it has been getting to know a variety of people — “people I never would have met but for this job.”
Mike is very patriotic, but not in a jingo way. Far from it. Indeed, he says it’s not for him to call himself a patriot. He gives me a story. “When my dad and I built that telescope, during my sophomore year, I told a friend of mine, ‘I’m an astronomer.’ He said, ‘It takes more than that.’”
For some 20 years, Mike gave a Fourth of July speech at a large picnic. One time, he got a compliment from a lady he had known for years — the mother of friends of his. Beaming, she grasped his hand and said, “Mike Brown, until tonight, I never knew you had any sense.”
Undoubtedly, he has reported many stories that have meant a lot to him. He shares one in particular. In December 2004, he went to Fort Hood, 70 miles away. Soldiers were returning from Iraq. One of them was a teacher at Rockdale High, Art Free.
“There was no formal ceremony,” Mike wrote. The soldiers filed into a gym and their commander told them, “I have but one order for you: Dismissed!”
“Then all heaven broke loose,” wrote Mike. “A screaming, crying wave of families roared out of the bleachers and met an oncoming wave of soldiers. The first wave included Lt. Col. Free’s wife, Susan; their children, Jere, Patti, and Erin; and his parents, Woody and Joan.”
Farther down in his story, Mike wrote, “Couple by couple, family by family, the gym emptied. I wandered out into the night toward my van watching the happy families depart. But here and there would be one soldier alone.” And Mike felt for them deeply.
It’s hard to get through this article dry-eyed (I can tell you). Let us hope that Mike Brown is not the last of the Mohicans. Let us hope that there will be many more like him, whatever our newspapers are in the future. But if he is the last — he’s a hell of a Mohican.