‘We talk a lot about the importance of good writing …’

Sep 13, 2017

Three generations of Vernons define the past, present and future of news in Eldon, MO

By Teri Saylor
Special to Publishers’ Auxiliary
While battles against the news media rage across social media platforms and throughout the marble halls of the nation’s capital, in the small town of Eldon, MO, the local newspaper is building its own nation of newspaper champions, starting with fifth graders.
The Eldon Advertiser is bolstering the value of journalism in local classrooms, giving school children their own reporters’ tools and a little space in the newspaper to publish stories, said Publisher Trevor Vernon.
Vernon’s efforts to cultivate civic education and news literacy recently won the newspaper a first-place award in the National Newspaper Association’s 2017 Newspapers and Education contest. Vernon will also receive NNA’s Daniel M. Phillips Leadership Award at the association’s 131st Annual Convention and Trade Show in Tulsa, OK, next month.
The Eldon Advertiser is a 3,500-circulation weekly newspaper, published on Wednesdays. Averaging 32 to 48 pages a week, the newspaper gives up at least two pages for what Vernon calls its “crown jewel”—its Newspapers in Education program.
“The children mostly report on school news, and we help them,” Vernon said. “We talk a lot about the importance of good writing, and we let them know adult government officials should treat them the same as any reporter who asks questions. We don’t have property tax here—only sales tax—so we tell the kids that for every dollar they spend, they pay taxes, and that makes them equal tax payers, giving them the same rights as adult tax payers to get the same information an adult would get.”
About 15 years ago, Dawn Kitchell, former Missouri Press Association NIE coordinator, expressed concern that children were not getting enough civics education in school.
“I thought about that and determined she was right, that we must support civics education,” Vernon said. “So we created Democracy Day at the Eldon Advertiser as a day to get officials to talk to children.”
The newspaper started by inviting government officials into the local elementary school and allowing the students to ask them anything. After 13 years, other area schools have joined the program, and the newspaper has started limiting attendance to 500 children. In addition to the open forum, the Advertiser selects 15 students to report on the event and publishes their stories in the newspaper.
“It’s great to see the children doing the job of reporters,” Vernon said. “We give them old-fashioned printer’s hats, a reporter’s notebook and some instructions on what to do. Then we give them free rein.”
Vernon grew up the child of a newspaper family, but he did not realize he had printer’s ink pulsing through his veins until he reached adulthood. He was on his way to pursuing an engineering degree at the University of Missouri when he made a sharp turn into business and finance. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in finance at Southwest Missouri State University.
“I didn’t even want to work at the newspaper to begin with,” Vernon said. “When I was a kid and wanted to go to a sports event, even a volleyball game, and hang out, my dad would always give me a camera and tell me to take pictures while I was there.”
The newspaper business had become ingrained in Vernon’s life at an early age, as far back as he can remember. He realized that being part of a newspaper family was more than an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. job; it was a lifestyle. He wanted a different career and a regular job.
But with his college years winding down, Vernon’s father, Dane Vernon, who owned the Eldon Advertiser, advised him he needed to get a job, and conveniently, had one available—running the press. From there, as they say, the rest is history.
Trevor was already working part time in his dad’s pressroom when he graduated, and with graduation came a full-time job in the newspaper’s business office. Then came a promotion to general manager.
By then, Trevor was all in. After all, he has history and DNA on his side.
He is in the process of buying the newspaper from his parents, and represents the third generation of Vernons to own the Advertiser and its parent company, Vernon Publishing.
It all started in 1947 when Wallace Vernon bought a share of the Eldon Advertiser. By 1948, he had his eye on 100 percent ownership, which he achieved in 1953. Over the years, he created Vernon Publishing and acquired three other newspapers, which the company no longer owns.
“In 2000, my parents bought my grandfather out, and now I am in the process of buying out my parents,” Trevor said.
The buyout is on a 20-year time frame, but Trevor, 37, believes it may take a little longer. He’s married with two children and already has 15 years of newspaper experience under his belt, in addition to growing up in the business.
From 2012 until 2014, Trevor owned a doughnut shop and called it Donuts and News, so when the owner of the weekly Hermitage Index came to him and asked him to buy the Index, Trevor had his hands full managing the Advertiser and selling doughnuts, and said no. But a couple of years later, when the Hermitage Index owners came calling again, the doughnut shop was no longer in the picture, and Trevor took a closer look.
“I looked at the financials and saw that the newspaper could support itself. It also came with a profitable commercial printing operation, and my dad told me to go for it,” he said.
In addition to the Eldon Advertiser and the Hermitage Index, the Vernons also own the Tipton Times. All three are weekly newspapers and are located 30 minutes to 90 minutes from each other, a few hours east of St. Louis.
Vernon describes Eldon as a bedroom community of Lake of the Ozarks, a large reservoir on the Osage River in central Missouri. Eldon is a former railroad hub where the Rock Island Railroad line brought commerce to the area. Today, the now-defunct railroad line is under consideration as a trail spur off the Katy Trail State Park, the second largest rail-to-trail system in the country. Trevor said the new trail could spark much-needed growth in his community.
Lately, Trevor has been experimenting with video production. An ad sales staffer is proficient with a video camera, and the team has been experimenting with helping their clients create commercials.
He recently discovered a small profit center when local customers began asking for the newsprint end rolls left over when there’s not enough paper left on them to use on the press.
“We had been recycling them, but usually kept 60 or 70 in the back shop,” he said. “Then people started asking for them, so we started selling them for $2.50 each and we can’t keep them in stock anymore.”
The Eldon Advertiser has a staff of four in its editorial department, a circulation manager and an ad sales team of one.
“We do refrigerator journalism,” Trevor said. “We go to every event we possibly can, and we are cognizant of our watchdog role.”
He is also cognizant of the furor over the newly minted “fake news” moniker, which some critics use to describe news reports they don’t like. Even small-town journalism is not immune. Trevor blames much of the problem on social media.
“Social media is hard to fight against,” he said. “We have gotten to the point that when there is a furor over an issue playing out in social media, we just ride it out. I don’t know how to combat ‘fake news.’ If you argue with your critics, it just makes it worse.”
The Eldon Advertiser has a vibrant website, publishing the first paragraph of its stories for public consumption with the rest behind a paywall. Online ads line each side of each page. Its Facebook page has more than 3,800 friends.
At the newspaper, Trevor considers himself fortunate that the past can still meet the present. It keeps everything in focus.
His grandfather and company founder, Wallace, is now 90, and when he’s not traveling, he visits the office frequently to say hello.
“He doesn’t provide a lot of advice, other than to tell me when the paper looks good,” Trevor said. “Occasionally he’ll point out when I’ve done something wrong, and he’s usually right about that.”
Dane Vernon maintains an office next to his son’s, and the two enjoy healthy discussions about the newspaper’s direction.
“Dad was more progressive than I was with the website, and I am more progressive than Dad on Facebook,” Trevor said.
Their current hot topic is the use of video.
“We get excited over video,” Trevor said. “But we’re arguing over how to use it and how to monetize it without hurting our core product.”
Trevor can’t clearly visualize the future of journalism, although he believes print still rules. He believes sound bites and shorter stories will find homes on the web and in social media, while print will be the place for deeper dives.
“I know my attention span is short,” he said. “I consume information in bits and pieces online, but I like to turn to print for more in-depth stories.”
And at a newspaper where the publisher can still run the printing press when he needs to, a little faith in print goes a long way. © Teri Saylor 2017


Publisher: Trevor Vernon.
Name of Company: Eldon Advertiser/Vernon Publishing, Eldon, MO.
How long as the Eldon Advertiser been in business? Since 1894.    
What is the Eldon Advertiser’s circulation? About 3,500.
What is its publication schedule? Thursdays.
How is the newspaper distributed? Post Office and racks.
Describe Vernon Publishing? It’s a small family-owned operation.
Do you have a mission statement or a motto? Our job is to promote the communities we serve through stories and advertisements.
How many people are employed at the Eldon Advertiser? 15.
How do you view your newspaper’s role in your community? To inform and promote.
How would you define “refrigerator journalism?” Moments captured by the newspaper that family, friends, etc., cut out and put on the refrigerator for all to see.
What are the most rewarding aspects of publishing a community newspaper? Making a difference in the community.
What are your biggest challenges? Figuring out which direction to go with technology.
What are your top goals for the coming year? Continue to put out a great product and explore creative revenue options.

Phone: 573-392-5658
Email: tvernon@vernonpublishing.com    
Website: www.vernonpublishing.com