Kentucky’s oldest newspaper has provided over 200 years of coverage

Teri Saylor

Special to Publishers' Auxiliary

Mar 1, 2024

Rebecca Lawyer operates her vintage Chandler and Price Pilot tabletop press, which still works like a charm.
The Western Citizen was the predecessor to The Bourbon County Citizen. It launched in 1807, and since then, it is believed not a week has gone by without a newspaper named  Citizen  on the newsstands.
Beverly “BeBe” Brannon and the staff at The Bourbon County Citizen are perennial award winners in the Kentucky Press Association s annual contests.
In a tribute to days gone by, Rebecca Lawyer keeps drawers full of hot lead typeface around.

‘The paper we put out today is tomorrow’s history’

At The Bourbon County Citizen in Paris, Kentucky, the dusty past collides with the slick technology of the present, and the result is the beautiful story of a town and its newspaper.

On a chilly day last January, Publisher Rebecca Lawyer proved that the Zoom videoconferencing platform really is the next best thing to being there. She gave a virtual visitor the nickel tour, carrying her laptop around the newspaper offices and introducing members of her small staff.

“Say high to Warren Shiflet over there,” Lawyer said. “He’s stuck typing boring court news.”

Up in the front shop is circulation and office manager Lois Cooke, who works behind the scenes, Lawyer said. And she wants to say hello.

On this day, Lawyer is a cheerful spirit, running the newspaper with her sister, Beverly “BeBe” Brannon.

Dating back to at least the early 1800s, The Bourbon County Citizen is known as the oldest continuously published newspaper, not only in Kentucky, but west of the Alleghenies, too. It is a proud distinction.

“But nobody knows where the Alleghenies are,” Lawyer joked with a hearty laugh and added, “We have a big sign on the front of the building, and people walk by and ask, ‘Where the heck are the Allegheny Mountains?’”

For the record, the Allegheny Mountains are part of the Appalachian Mountain range. Britannica defines the region as extending southwestward from central New York to southern West Virginia.

“The earliest issue of the paper we can find is from April 1807,” Lawyer said. “I donated it to the Hopewell Museum here in town, and they have it under glass.”
That first edition was called the Western Citizen, and since it began, no one can recall a single week gone by without seeing a newspaper bearing the flag “Citizen.”

The paper’s life story, as told in the pages of The Bourbon County Citizen goes like this.

Since the founding of the Western Citizen, the names of the paper have changed only slightly, and The Bourbon County Citizen is a lineal descendant of the original. It was launched when that part of the country was considered “out west.”

The true birth of the paper goes all the way back to 1795 when the Kentucky Herald was founded in Paris, Kentucky. Joel Reid Lyle bought it in 1807 and changed its name to the Western Citizen. Eventually, it took on its current title.

In 1946, Lawyer’s grandfather, Paul Brannon, took the reins at the newspaper. The Brannon family has owned and published it ever since.

After Paul Brannon’s death in 1963, his son and daughter-in-law, Larry and Genevieve Brannon, took it over. Genevieve became sole publisher in 1991 after Larry’s death. She died in 2018 at the age of 91.

Now the Brannons’ three kids and a nephew, including Lawyer and BeBe Brannon, own the newspaper.

Lawyer carried her laptop to the newspaper’s archives and pointed its camera toward boxes and bound volumes. She showed off other newspaper artifacts — pieces of lead type, vintage cameras and a rotary phone from days gone by.

“We have rotary phones that still work. One is associated with our fax line, and the other one is a regular phone,” she said. “The phone company is trying to make us get rid of them, but we’re fighting back, and they are threatening to increase our phone bill because of them.”

In the background are photos of those who came before her.

“Behind me over here is my mother and father that ran the paper,” she said. “It’s interesting because I never did like history growing up, but when you go through these old files and read about history in the newspaper, it makes our past seem real.”

She walked the laptop around for a few more minutes before pointing it back toward herself.

“It feels just like Heaven back here, and if I could get out of the front shop, I would be back here playing all day,” she said.
Lawyer reckons she has spent most of her life at the newspaper, childhood and all.

“I left the scene for about 10 years when I went to college and then worked at some other newspapers before coming back,” she said. “But my sister, when she had kids, she would just bring them down here and put them in a drawer. I mean you go to the hospital, have a baby, and then bring it down here and work.”’
Generally, the two sisters were always around the newspaper, even as children, and when they were asked to ride around on their bicycles to deliver the paper, they’d do it, Lawyer said.

In general, Lawyer feels good about her work. She doesn’t get many compliments, but she doesn’t hear a lot of complaints, either.

“So, I’m not afraid to walk downtown or anything,” she said. “Folks used to come in here and say, ‘I’ve got a bone to pick with you,’ but they don’t do that anymore, so I feel good about things.”

The Town of Paris is a county seat, located northeast of Lexington with a population of about 10,000. Its claim to fame is the Triple Crown racehorse, Secretariat, who lived out his golden years at Claiborne Farm before dying in 1989.

The Bourbon County Citizen reaches about 3,000 households, and Lawyer believes they could do better with a little more marketing. But with staff limitations, they’re doing what they can. Main Street uses a Chamber of Commerce, local government offices and local businesses.

“I think there’s more advertising dollars in surrounding counties, and I know we can do more with our website, but we don’t have the time or the manpower,” she said. “And I’m shocked that our web audience keeps growing, because I never thought I would read a newspaper online.”

The Bourbon County Citizen is fiercely local and refuses to publish any stories that are not about the county. And its advertisers are loyal, too.

“I am absolutely blown away with support from our business community, and they also realize advertising works,” Lawyer said, “when you consider they are being bombarded by information and marketing messages, including ads on Facebook.”

Years ago, The Citizen ran a spotlight promotion publishing photos and profiles of local businesses.

“BeBe thought of it again, and we kind of revived it,” Lawyer said. “Melanie Turner, our ad director, made little mock-ups so our business owners could see what we were talking about because nobody remembered it. It has been tremendously successful.”

She uses her website and social media to post breaking news and value-added content that would not be possible in print. She loves the visual components online journalism provides for online photo galleries and videos, which she loves.

“One of the projects I want to do before I depart this earth is scan all the pictures, digitize them and put them either on Facebook or a website where people can download them,” she said. “I started doing it during COVID, and so far, I’ve done maybe 2,000,” she said.

She calls the project “The Faces of Bourbon County.”

Some of the old photos were never identified, so she started posting them on social media and asking readers to help identify them.

“People in the community say wonderful things about the people in the pictures, and I think that was a good move for the community and it was good for us, too,” she said.

After over 200 years covering Bourbon County, The Citizen has become woven into the fabric of the community. The residents who have lived in Paris for many years can’t even remember a time when there wasn’t a Bourbon County Citizen, and Lawyer feels the newspaper is sometimes taken for granted.

But that’s all right with her. It goes with the territory.

“The paper we put out today is tomorrow’s history,” she said. “And it’s our story — the story of Bourbon County.”

Teri Saylor is a writer in Raleigh, North Carolina. Reach her at