BY DONNIS BAGGETT
To Roy E. Bode and the citizens of Lago Vista, The Northshore Star is evidence that community newspapers have a solid future in the ever-evolving media landscape of Central Texas.
Bode's company, Highland Lakes Newspapers, launched the Star last fall at the request of Lago Vista civic leaders — and with the all-hands-on-deck assistance of the institutions that the newspaper now covers.
"We did the only start of a new newspaper in the state of Texas last year...I think we have shown pretty clearly here in Lago Vista that newspapers are not history and they're not part of the buggy whip era, but they have a bright future ahead if in fact they are tailored to the communities they serve and they are productive and useful in their communities," Bode said. "There's still a niche for community news. There's still a demand for it."
Lago Vista, a northwest Travis County town of 6,000 west of Georgetown, had been without a newspaper for a couple of years when Bode was approached by Jim Fletcher, a member of Trinity Anglican Church in Lago Vista.
"He said, 'You know, you ought to consider starting a paper in Lago Vista.' I said, 'I don't know whether that's viable or whether it's not.'"
Fletcher organized a meeting between Bode and the town's civic leaders. The veteran newspaperman was impressed with their passion and energy.
"As the meeting progressed, the more enthusiastic I became about this idea because of the enthusiasm I heard from these people," he said. "What was particularly striking to me was what they said about their community and the absence of a newspaper here."
One of the head cheerleaders for a new paper was real estate agent Clive Rutherford. Bode asked him to explain why, as an advertiser, he felt a newspaper would help grow his business.
"I asked Clive, 'What does a Realtor need with a newspaper?' I talk to most of these guys and they say, 'Oh, we've got the Internet...we don't need to buy any advertising....newspapers are history.' Clive didn't see it that way...he thought they needed the newspaper to drive traffic to their websites. He felt people needed to be motivated."
In an interview, Rutherford said Lago Vista also needed a paper for the most basic of reasons: communication.
After the North Lake Travis Log ceased publication in 2011, the community was forced to rely on banners, signs and organizational newsletters to disseminate information.
"When the Log disappeared, the heart went out of our community," Rutherford said. "The ability to communicate just disappeared."
Matt Underwood, superintendent of Lago Vista schools, said the lack of a local newspaper left a big void in the life of the school district — and thus, in the community as a whole.
"It's always been my experience to have a hometown newspaper," said Underwood, who previously worked in Boerne and Mason. "It was always focused on the activities of the school. It was the heartblood of the community."
No other medium does a better job of connecting schools with the community, Underwood said.
"Having a paper...where you can see and celebrate the kids' experiences...helps with the communication, and it also helps with the perception of the school district. If it's in their face every day, it just makes for a better overall community feel."
Bode credited the school district with helping to sell enough subscriptions to get the Star up and running.
"With Matt's help, they brought National Honor Society students into this," he said. "They set up on a blustery gray November morning in front of a grocery store here, selling subscriptions."
Other community entities got involved, too. Subscription forms were distributed through community organizations and local churches. A local bank hoisted a banner promoting the new paper in front of its building. The City of Lago Vista inserted promotional material inside their utility bills. The Chamber of Commerce helped take orders for subscriptions. Local civic clubs heard presentations on plans for the paper and pledged their support.
"All in all, it was just exceptional, just a fabulous effort on the part of the community," Bode said. Or as civic leader Jacque Chrisman put it: "This sucker got started grass-roots."
Lago Vista residents "were begging for it," Mrs. Chrisman said. Her husband, the Rev. Dale L. Chrisman of Trinity Anglican Church, added: "Some people subscribed twice. That's how enthusiastic some people were."
The drive was launched with a goal of 1,000 paid subscriptions. Almost 1,100 were sold before the first issue hit the streets. The paper is also being distributed single-copy throughout the market area.
The Star has a postal permit and is being published every other week. Most importantly, it is paying its own way.
"Every issue we have published has been in the black, and that's because of the enthusiasm of the people and their commitment to this idea that to be a first-class community, they have to have a newspaper," Bode said.
The Rev. Chrisman said the newspaper is "an answer to not just a need in our community, but a prayer, too."
"For two and a half, almost three years, this community had no central way to communicate anything," he said. "For us to sit down with Roy and Phil (executive editor Phil Shock) and for them to acknowledge the need and then say that we are willing to take a leap of faith — or in religious terms, step out of the boat — was a real blessing to us."
By their nature, newspapers can generate controversy. Tough stories undoubtedly lie ahead, but that's all right, the local leaders say.
"I don't think anybody in this town is afraid of truthful reporting," said Rutherford. "There are those who would say that our city council needs a kick in the pants occasionally. They might say the same thing about the school board or other organizations here. It's open discourse."
The chamber of commerce named school superintendent Underwood and real estate agent Rutherford co-citizens of the year in January because of their work in the community. Bode said the newspaper benefited from having such civic leaders as cheerleaders.
"These are real people in a real community who found out what it was like not to have a newspaper, and did something about it," he said.