A media baron aborning

By: Joe Strupp

New Mexican collegian shows Independent spirit

Jason Watkins doesn’t want to be the next Rupert Murdoch or Dean Singleton.
But after launching his own weekly newspaper last month at the ripe old age of
20, and laying the groundwork for two or three more start-up publications in the next few years, this New Mexico college student is already on his way to a news empire that one day could rival those of Murdoch, Singleton, or William Randolph Hearst.
“Hearst, maybe,” Watkins says with a laugh during a recent phone interview from his office at The Independent, a 3,000-circulation weekly that Watkins launched May 21 in his hometown of Lordsburg, N.M. “I don’t really want to be a media mogul, but I like the freedom to do the things I want to do and make a good paper go.”
Watkins, who will start his junior year this fall at the University of Arizona, says he started the newspaper using a $30,000 bank loan ? obtained with help from family members ? and a desire to give his hometown proper news coverage.
During high school, Watkins says he worked for three years as a part-time reporter and photographer at Lordsburg’s other weekly newspaper, the Lordsburg Liberal, where he says former Liberal publisher Jack Walz “taught me everything I know about journalism.” When Walz died earlier this year, Watkins tried to buy the newspaper, but was rebuffed by its new owners. So he collected financing, hired away the Liberal’s longtime editor Brenda Collins’ and started his own weekly for 30 cents a copy ? 10 cents less than the Liberal.
“It was worth a shot,” says Collins, who spent eight years at the Liberal as reporter and editor and liked the challenge of a new paper. “The Liberal was not very local, and we knew we could give a local flair.”
Liberal publishers declined to comment.
The Independent’s first issue included 16 pages of news and ads, among them a Page-One story on the death of Watkins’ grandfather, a former mayor.
Watkins admits that starting a newspaper at his age is unusual but says he got the itch after coming home from college on several occasions and wishing that his hometown had more to offer readers. He believes he can run the newspaper by taking a light classload and driving the two hours each way from Tucson to Lordsburg to work on the publication during weekends and vacations.
“After a year, I think I will be able to stay at school and let the editor run it from here,” Watkins says. “Hopefully, when I get out of school, I will be able to get another loan and start another paper. If that works, I’ll just keep doing it.”
The rookie publisher says he’s already instituted his first ethics policy ? not to publish the names of those arrested for minor crimes. “In a small town, that can be deadly,” says Watkins, who runs a police-blotter page but without names of those arrested for minor infractions. “We try to be positive.”
Those who know Watkins say they’re not surprised by his ambition, which helped him start the campus newspaper, The Maverick, as a sophomore at Lordsburg High School in 1994. Phyllis McDonald, the newspaper’s advisor, says Watkins was publishing the newspaper every two weeks at its height.
“I was reluctant when he first came to me because high-school kids always want to start a newspaper, but they usually fizzle out when they see how much work it is,” says McDonald. “But he never missed a deadline, and it’s still going.”
McDonald, who taught remedial reading when Watkins approached her to help oversee the publication, says Watkins helped make the paper part of the high-school curriculum that eventually grew from one journalism class to three. “He changed the course of my career,” she says. “I’m now a journalism teacher.”
Last year, when Watkins worked part-time at a Tucson, Ariz., radio station, his start-up urge struck again when he launched a monthly employee newsletter for Slone Broadcasting, which runs five radio stations. Slone vice president of programming Herb Crowe says Watkins got so involved with the newsletter that he often had to be reminded to do his job. “He spent every spare minute working on that newsletter,” says Crowe. “He has a real entrepreneurial attitude.”
Watkins says he is not out to rule the journalism world but is determined to make a living as his own boss in a profession he enjoys.
“I don’t want to ever have to work for someone else,” says Watkins. “I like being in charge.”
?(Editor & Publisher Web Site:http:www.mediainfo.com) [Caption]
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher June 19, 1999) [Caption]

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