Small towns are dying, the conventional wisdom goes, and newspapers are right next to them in the hospice ward.
Small newspapers in rural towns are doubly under siege, prey to both national demographic trends and local economic realities. Newspaper owners across the country are going out of business, a trend that is even more pronounced in rural communities, many of which have been left without any local outlets.
So what would drive two women, recently returned to their small hometown, to take up the challenge of running the local newspaper with approximately 250 subscribers?
“We could see that there were things that weren’t being covered,” said Laura Arvin, one half of the business partnership that bought the Providence Journal, the weekly newspaper in Lake Providence, in far northeast Louisiana.
“But if there is a way to give the community a newspaper like this, then it should be done,” he said.
Arvin, 60, and his business partner, Cassie Condrey, 38, grew up in Lake Providence but left after graduating from high school. Arvin went to study journalism in Arkansas and worked at newspapers there and in Mississippi. Condrey went to Duke for her undergraduate degree and then to Emerson College in Boston, where she earned a writing degree before traveling the world, including stops in Singapore, Argentina and New Orleans.
But life’s circumstances—his mother’s failing health for Arvin and a marriage and desire to start a family for Condrey—brought them back to the northeast Louisiana village. While there, a chance meeting at an Ash Wednesday service at the local Episcopal Church brought them together and the plan to buy the paper was hatched.
“We both read the newspaper,” Arvin said, explaining why they were interested. “And I mean, we had the resources to do it.”
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a mixed heritage
The Providence Journal is the latest iteration of a decades-old newspaper at the East Carroll parish headquarters. The earlier version, known as Banner-Democrat, was the area’s top news source for decades, including for Arvin and Condrey during their respective youths.
Since then, the outlet has changed ownership and name, but the newspaper has remained. That fact alone makes him unique among his media contemporaries.
Arvin and Condrey paid $15,000 for the newspaper and its archive. In a separate deal, they bought the building. Both purchases were completed by the end of 2021.
Along with a dwindling subscriber base and a basement full of outdated equipment, Arvin and Condrey inherited the major assets of the paper’s two longtime employees. General manager Jimmy Neighbors has been with the paper for half a century. Reporter Billy Coleman, who has an idiosyncratic writing style in which he sometimes quotes himself, is deeply entrenched in the Lake Providence community.
Importantly, unlike his new bosses, Billy is black, like most Lake Providence residents. It’s a dynamic not lost on Condrey and Arvin, who have witnessed firsthand the severe racial divisions that have long characterized East Carroll Parish.
“Billy walks the streets. He knows everyone,” Condrey said. “Billy is amazing.”
Your new purchase also came with more mundane problems. like bats A colony had settled in the attic and on a Tuesday morning in November, the building smelled of guano. One of the flying mammals hung from the ceiling above the newsroom, casting a sinister gaze over the deadline-day bustle below.
Under the bat’s gaze, Condrey and Arvin flitted back and forth between their matching iMac monitors in their shared office, debating writing a story and designing a cover for a mid-November issue. They print 1,000 copies every week. About a quarter of them are mailed to subscribers; the rest is placed in local stores.
About 10 months after taking control of the small paper, the deadline has eased a bit for Condrey and Arvin. But they are still searching for the way forward, figuring out how to speak truth to power in a city like Lake Providence, which has a long history of rampant poverty, racial problems and poor education.
“It’s tough in a small town,” Condrey said. “Every story we write is a little tricky.”
For starters, they have focused on the fundamentals: “Going to meetings and reporting what our leaders are doing, what our elected officials are doing,” Arvin said.
They have worked hard to make sure people know that the newspaper is not only interested in holding public officials accountable, but also in publishing stories about wins.
“He’s getting very familiar with the issues and the people,” Arvin said. “And build some trust.”
The stories they tell
Within days of their purchase, Arvin and Condrey had to cover breaking news. A fire swept through three businesses on the city’s main thoroughfare, Lake Street. The fire was big news: it took the entire front page of the following week’s issue.
“Great loss to our small town,” proclaimed the January 13 front page. The page, with its stark photographs of the damage, clean layout and clear story, set the tone for the direction Condrey and Arvin want to take their hometown newspaper.
Telling the stories of East Carroll Parish can be tricky business, especially for two middle-class white women.
Nearly 4 in 10 residents live in poverty, according to to US Census data. For the years 2017-2021, the median household income in East Carroll Parish was $25,049, less than half the median for the state as a whole.
The parish’s public schools are among the worst in the state: the elementary and middle schools, both in Lake Providence, scored low Fs on the state’s recently released assessments, though the high school scored a B. 95% of the system’s roughly 800 students are classified as economically disadvantaged, according to state data.
In separate interviews, Condrey and Arvin identified education as an issue where they hoped the document could bring about positive change.
This is where the trick comes in. None graduated from the local public schools. Instead, they attended Briarfield Academy, the private school across the lake from Lake Providence’s poorest neighborhoods that for decades was a place where most of the parish’s white parents sent their children.
“When we came back,” Condrey said, referring to her and Arvin, “it wasn’t like the Briarfield Academy graduates.”
Residents came determined to see their community improve.
“We’re not scared, you know,” Condrey said. “What else are we here for but to do this?”
The articles that appear on the front page of the Providence Journal are just one part of the tapestry that is the community. Arvin and Condrey want to weave new threads that they hope will make the cloth stronger.
“For a long time, a lot of other people have been telling the story of this place,” Condrey said. “What unites a community besides the stories that are told about it, and do we tell ourselves about ourselves?”