‘Hired Gun’ Reporter Left D.C. Spotlight for Crucial Small-Town Journalism

By Jim Iovino, WVU Ogden Newspapers Visiting Assistant Professor of Media Innovation

M.E. Sprengelmeyer called himself a “hired gun” at big-city newspapers for more than 20 years, including the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News, where he was the Washington correspondent.

But he didn’t like the direction newspapers of that size were going. Staffs were getting squeezed, and he said he wasn’t sold on working for a publicly traded company that was making moves based on profits.

So he left.

He took his severance and some savings and started a search that would help him control his own journalistic destiny. He ended up in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, in 2009, where he purchased a weekly newspaper called the Guadalupe County Communicator.

“It was awesome,” Sprengelmeyer said. “I say this to anyone who asks me. I covered wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was on the presidential campaign trail for a year. Coverage of sex trafficking in the Philippines.  But the stuff I did in the middle of nowhere in New Mexico was the most important work I had ever done. It was the most satisfying. It was also the most frightening.”

Sprengelmeyer gained national recognition for his career path, including being featured in the New York Times. He also turned his weekly paper into a journalistic powerhouse in New Mexico, winning numerous awards and shining light on local issues like never before.

Oh, it was also profitable.  While stories of major metro newspapers are filled with financial doom and gloom, that’s not so for many weekly newspapers across the country — Sprengelmeyer’s included.

That’s not to say hard work wasn’t involved. There were many things Sprengelmeyer had to learn in real time, including how to get over the fear of being the person in charge of not just a newsroom, but also payroll and taxes.

“In 21 years of being in corporate papers, I had never been an editor,” he said. “I hadn’t supervised anyone. … The other stuff (payroll, ad sales, circulation, etc.) seems like a drag. The truth of the matter is that kind of takes care of itself. Just do it. You learn it on the job.”

Due to family health issues, Sprengelmeyer eventually sold the paper and moved to North Carolina after running the Communicator for more than eight years. He hopes more journalists follow his path to ownership. It may not be something many realize they can do — or even want to do, for that matter. But he said there is great satisfaction personally and an even greater impact on a community.

“You will never have more fun and never do more important journalism,” he said, “than when you’re in a small town running the show.”