A sign reading ‘We’re local!’ sits in the window of a small building on Bernard Street in West Columbia. The building, which is home to decades of memories and community news, will be empty after this week.
The Brazoria County News printed its last edition Thursday, ending an era after 57 years of publication.
The owners announced the publication’s end Sept. 12 as the staff of five employees, led by editor Anthony Maenza, gathered around a phone in his office.
“Everyone’s a reporter these days,” said Becky Toney Hutchinson, owner of the publication and daughter of the founders. “The business model we had, we were delivering 10,000 papers for free every week, and that just doesn’t work anymore.”
Local newsrooms have struggled for years to stay afloat, Maenza said. The announcement of its closure and the end of his 20-year career there came as a disappointment.
“I knew there was some struggle, but I hoped maybe after the end of the year things would be better,” Maenza said.”I’m just still processing right now.”
Founded by David and Carlene Toney, the publication printed its first edition on Oct. 10, 1962, covering everything local west of the Brazos River. This included West Columbia, Sweeny, Old Ocean, Brazoria and Damon.
Brothers David and Tom Toney had their hands in the news business for the majority of their careers. Their small publication, The Times, was bought out by its larger competition.
David and Carlene Toney established themselves in West Columbia after the sale of The Times, where they started The Brazoria County News, a free, weekly community paper that would come to mean so much to rural residents over several decades.
“I just think that people are going to miss it more than they even realize,” West Columbia Mayor Laurie Kincannon said. “A lot of people found that newspaper as their lifeline to our town. Bob Hope said it best: ‘Thanks for the memories’. That’s what we have with that newspaper — our memories — and that’s irreplaceable.”
Kincannon’s father was one of the first advertisers with the Brazoria County News, and because of that business connection, a friendly relationship developed over three generations with the Toney family, she said.
“I’m saddened first of all for the family, but also for the community,” Kincannon said. “Even though we may be rivals with Sweeny, the community news connected Sweeny and West Columbia and when we read it, we were all on the same team.”
A small group of employees made the paper more than just a local source of information, Maenza said. Many of them have dedicated years to the publication.
Community relationships were formed there. Maenza and his wife, Teena, worked there together until she died of cancer in 2015.
“I think one of the saddest parts is my wife and I spent more time here at the office than we did at home sometimes,” Maenza said.
Maenza was a sports editor when he joined the staff in 1999. His wife had been working as the editor since 1994 and he took over her position following her death.
“I will always remember late Tuesday night work sessions putting the paper together and a few hundred pots of coffee we made over our time together here,” Maenza wrote in the final edition of Brazoria County News.
Having lived just outside West Columbia since 1970, Naomi Smith said the trustworthy newspaper will be missed tremendously.
“They are all very professional people,” Smith said. “They were committed to this community. The County News was always a place we could turn to and had such a wide area they covered.”
Smith said she won’t ever forget the fair reporting and the people who made the publication a central part of the community.
“If we needed something, they helped us publicize. They were always a very fair and unbiased source of news,” Smith said.
Between businesses and the community, Brazoria County News lent a local voice for school board meetings, city government updates and events happening in the area.
“I think we can stay connected to our world and our state through other means,” Kincannon said. “But it’s the simple little everyday things that go on that connect us. Those are the things that are not going to be reported on a larger scale, you know, our football teams, our obituaries, our small events ...”
When Hutchinson left the paper and moved with her husband to Colorado in 2017, she said it was to give the employees more of a life force and an opportunity for the paper to continue to exist.
“We were hoping we could support all those people,” Hutchinson said. “We were most concerned about the people, our employees, and we wanted to give them jobs. They depended on us to support them and the community.”
When repair costs to the news building’s roof and air conditioning system took up a big chunk of money the company had in reserve, Hutchinson said she knew they just couldn’t carry on.
“I think every small town deserves their own paper,” Hutchinson said. “They supported us. The thing I think I value the most is being a part of peoples’ lives. We reported on weddings, children’s birth, Christmas events ... When we put that stuff in the paper, we celebrated with everyone else. There were some sad times too, but people that live in rural areas, sometimes that’s their only source of news.”
“I’m just very proud of the paper we produced,” Hutchinson said. “It was an exceptional paper as far as layout and design, and we always tried to report the news in an unbiased fashion. We didn’t write a lot of editorials — we certainly stepped up and fought for people if there was an issue, but we just told the news.”
Telling the news in the community is what matters to that community, Maenza said. It might not be the biggest story or get national attention, but the small details embedded in the stories of the lives touched by the weekly paper matters, he said.
“How do we document our history if there’s no one there to witness it?” Maenza said. “This is one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. I’m not sure what I’m going to do now. Maybe I can think about it in a few days, but not right now.”