During the early evening hours of April 2, 2020, a light rain was falling and a gray fog had settled on the fields along Farm to Market Road 471 as Natalie Spencer drove toward her home in Northeast Medina County.
At a three-way intersection, Spencer’s car spun out of control beneath the flashing yellow lights and left the road, striking a steel utility post. A witness to the crash stopped to help and emergency medical services arrived.
At 6:37 p.m., Spencer was pronounced dead at the scene, nine days short of her 54th birthday. A week later, the front page of the local newspaper carried the headline: “Publisher’s Life Ends in Crash.”
Tributes to her memory followed in the weekly Castroville News Bulletin, one of three small-town newspapers Spencer had owned since 2002 and published under the banner of Cornerstone News.
On April 15, the News Bulletin’s reporters and editors, still mourning the loss of a friend and mentor, put to bed the final issue of a newspaper that since 1958 had covered the important events in the town of 3,000 about 30 miles west of San Antonio: decisions at city hall, the police blotter, births, deaths, reunions, nuptials, and who scored the touchdowns on Friday night.
The final issue listed coronavirus-related closures, cancellations, two deaths, and in a story by reporter Nathanial Barrera, facts about asymptomatic carriers as the COVID-19 pandemic began to sweep across the country.
But by the time the paper hit newsstands and driveways, Barrera and several others had already packed up their desks. They knew the end was near the day Spencer died.
No one else knew how to run the paper, Barrera said, and no one cared like she did. The paper was in debt. A buyer couldn’t be found. Her husband, Jerry, held on as long as he could, said his son, Jerad Spencer, who resides in the East Texas town of Vidor.
“I think he really struggled with the fact that [this was] his wife’s passion [and] he wasn’t able to maintain it, but better to close something down at the peak of integrity than having more fluff,” Jerad Spencer said of his father.
On a Saturday morning in late April, Jerry Spencer parked his pickup in front of the newspaper offices and with the help of his daughter hauled away desks, chairs, and computers. They packed up the industry awards and certificates his wife had collected over the years, including a Texas Press Association award for general excellence in 2018.
On July 27, alone and lonely, he took his own life.
A town’s ‘voice‘
Since 2018, at least 300 newspapers in the U.S. have closed, 6,000 journalists have lost their jobs, and print circulation declined by 5 million, according to a report titled The Expanding News Desert published by the University of North Carolina. Other newspapers have been swallowed up by large corporate publishers or replaced by partisan websites masquerading as local news.
Authors of the report, “Losing the News: The Decimation of Local Journalism and the Search for Solutions,” called it a national crisis.
The Castroville News Bulletin began as a weekly in 1958, a successor of the Castroville Quill, another weekly that began in 1914 when the rural town had a population of 700.
Joe L. and Bobbi Schott founded the News Bulletin, then sold it in 1979. That same year, the town passed an ordinance naming the News Bulletin the official newspaper. A 2013 obituary for Joe L. Schott praised his efforts: “The Schotts were able to serve as a promotional voice for their historic and arts-oriented community and to lead successful campaigns for improved infrastructure, education and historic preservation. The News Bulletin gave Castroville a voice.”
In the early 1990s, a New Mexico publisher purchased the Medina Valley Times and later the Castroville paper, installing editor Thom Barnes to manage them. At the time, the newspaper offices were located in a small building on Paris Street, next door to Dan’s Meat Market, Barnes recalled.
“Wednesday was slaughter day and so we’d be on deadline with the hogs squealing,” he said. “It was an interesting thing for the ‘city reporters’ that came in.” The offices were eventually moved to another historic building and then the former hospital building on Houston Square, and Barnes purchased the business from his boss in 1998.
“The papers did well,” he said. “It’s always a struggle with small-town papers – they are a challenge financially. It’s a balancing act. But in those days, if you were careful, you could make it.”
In those days, the paper offered at least 12 pages of news, features, letters to the editor, public notices, event listings, sports, and numerous display ads and classifieds, even slick advertising circulars with pizza coupons and tractor sales.
Barnes hired Natalie Spencer, a military spouse newly planted in San Antonio, when she was 26. Unlike many others who came, learned, and went on to bigger markets, as is common with small-town papers, Spencer stayed on and rose to news editor.
“She was just sort of a natural for community-level reporting and she had a sense for the significance of a small-town paper to a small town,” he said. “I think she valued what she did.”
By 2002, Barnes was ready to move on to other business interests and sold the paper to Spencer, who financed the purchase with bank loans. “I felt it was a good move for us and probably a good move for her,” Barnes said.
As owner and publisher, she managed a small staff that published the Castroville News Bulletin, Medina Valley Times, and the Lytle Leader-News, and oversaw several special publications. The circulation was about 3,000 for all three papers, which were printed on presses at The Kerrville Daily Times.
In 2013, Luz Moreno-Lozano had just graduated from Texas A&M University and was looking for a job. Spencer hired her as a reporter for the town of Lytle, about 12 miles south of Castroville.
“I learned to cover city council meetings and school board meetings … Friday night football games for a while,” she said. “It was a lot of fun because you really learn how a city and how the school district functions, and on a larger scale it works exactly the same, you know, as the city of Austin,” where she currently works.
Spencer devoted herself to mentoring young journalists, Moreno-Lozano said. “I was there almost five years as a reporter and then an editor … and we trained quite a few reporters in my time there. We just had conversations all the time … about how important it is to have that initial introduction at that smaller level.”
Moreno-Lozano, who now works at the Austin American-Statesman, said it’s hard to imagine Castroville without Spencer and without its newspaper, even at a time when social media and online news sources are so prevalent.
“Out there, community news functions differently,” she said. “A lot of folks who live out there are retired and they’re older so they depended on that paper and they came in every Wednesday to pick up their paper. It was like clockwork.”
While publishers of The Hondo Anvil had also introduced a newspaper in Castroville, its coverage wasn’t comprehensive and the staff worked from offices in Hondo, Moreno-Lozano said.
“That fired her up more,” she said of Spencer. “We just worked really hard to make sure we had all the news and we would sit in city council meetings until 10 o’clock at night, just to make sure we got the story.”
Steven Santana was another of the young reporters Spencer hired and trained. Born and raised in nearby LaCoste before attending Our Lady of the Lake University, Santana said his parents still had the Castroville News clipping of his birth announcement. Only a year after starting at the paper, the general assignments reporter wrote nine stories for one January 2016 issue.
His memory of Spencer and what he learned at the paper focused on her sharp editorial decision-making, which he said was always based on the importance of the news to the people in the community. “She was a journalist in the truest sense of the word,” he said.
He recalled covering conflicts when Walmart came to town and also how Spencer was never shy about standing up to public officials unhappy with the paper’s coverage.
“There was one time where [the mayor] called us out on the dais … that what we had reported was inaccurate,” Santana said. “[Spencer] marched down there and confronted her after the meeting, telling her basically that what you say at the council is open and free to the public, it’s what you had said, and we’re just printing that.”
Spencer was not yet publisher in 1997 when Julie Dunnavant started working at the paper. They were editor and reporter, developing a close friendship that continued even after Spencer became publisher and Dunnavant moved to Germany.
“I think that Natalie just had a really burning passion to understand everybody’s story, and to amplify that story out into the world,” Dunnavant said. “People could walk into the newsroom and chat with her, share news, big and small. I can’t believe that that’s not there anymore. That gaping hole is hard to fathom.”
Recalling her work covering a dangerous refinery fire, contentious meetings of the Bexar-Medina-Atascosa Water Board, and a car crash that took the life of fellow reporter’s teenage daughter, Dunnavant said, “Natty and that paper, they let me live a thousand different lives.”
When she heard that Spencer had died, she was as devastated at the loss of a good friend as for the town.
“I feel like Castroville lost its soul,” she said. “Natalie covered everything enthusiastically. Natalie covered the BMA board or some kind of business backroom dealings with the city council with the same exact enthusiasm that she covered your child as Jesus in the Christmas play.”
There was always something going on in town people needed to know about, Dunnavant said, proving its worth to the community. “The paper, whether people admit to it or not, it’s the heart of the community,” she added.
“Nobody’s going to get rich with the service that you provide, like being a teacher … It’s something that the community may not always appreciate, but it is absolutely invaluable.”
The fact was the tiny publishing company wasn’t making Spencer rich, and in recent years, she had been forced to bankroll it with personal funds.
Ups and downs
Mike Casarez began working at the paper as graphic designer in 2008 and never left, making him the longest-term employee after Warren McDaniel, who helped deliver the papers. Casarez said Spencer did everything from proofreading to editing to selling ads.
“She was basically the heart of the company, and she, of course, did all the paperwork, all the office stuff that nobody else knew how [to do],” he said. “That’s one of the reasons why I think we didn’t really know about financial things.”
It’s also why, when Casarez heard of Spencer’s death from a late-night phone call from her husband, he knew it was bad news for the paper as well. “We can put a paper out but can’t handle any of the other things,” he said.
“She was the glue that holds it together, she really was,” said Santana, who began working at the San Antonio Business Journal in late 2019.
The pandemic already was taking an economic toll – on local businesses and thus on the paper. “Ad revenue was kind of an up and down sort of situation,” he said. “But Natalie would always tell me that they were making enough to get by.”
Casarez was unaware that advertisers had fallen off, but both he and former reporter Gabriel Romero recalled at least one or two times in the recent past when paychecks didn’t clear the bank and Spencer responded by paying them with another check or sometimes cash.
In the days following her death, Jerry Spencer gathered staff members together, Casarez said, and told them the paper was in debt and that he was going to try and make payroll. Jerry Spencer also worked with Barnes to find a buyer for the paper, to no avail.
Despite the apparent budget challenges, “they weren’t dead by any means,” Barnes said. “The reason they recently died is there was nobody like [Natalie Spencer] to step into that chair and take all the nonsense that you have to take, to pay the price.”
Barnes’ daughter Katrina Gorden worked as a receptionist at the paper from 2000 to 2006 but remained friends with Spencer after taking another job. Gorden recalls financial challenges even before Spencer became publisher.
“But she tried to just keep it going as normal as possible for everyone without letting that kind of stuff show,” Gordon said.
Mike Hodges, executive director of the Texas Press Association, said he did not hear that Spencer was struggling to keep the paper going. But the demise of community newspapers is not for a lack of trying on the part of owners and publishers.
“I continue to hear of ‘news deserts’ in Texas and throughout America, but what we really have in these areas is lack of retail business and a lack of residents,” Hodges said. “If there is no hospital, no bank, no grocery store, et cetera, you are quite likely to find no newspaper.”
Local news source
Romero was in the office late on the evening of April 2, cleaning to make extra money, and talking to Spencer as she got ready to leave for the day.
“I remember because of the coronavirus, she didn’t want to go to the Walmart in Castroville because she couldn’t find toilet paper and the essential stuff – it was all gone. She wanted to try the H-E-B in Hondo … before she went home,” he said. “I remember seeing her drive away.”
Hours later, Romero was sitting on the couch with his pregnant wife when Casarez called with news of the fatal crash.
On Spencer’s sewing machine at home, a powder-blue baby quilt she had started for the Romeros’ son sat unfinished.
Daughter Paige Spencer said the newspaper was like an extended family for her, and helping her dad close up the office was emotional for both of them.
Steps away, at the local coffee shop, her mother’s presence also is missed, she said. “Apparently she would sit with a group of gentlemen every morning and have a cup of coffee [even though] she had just drank a cup of coffee from home,” Paige Spencer said. “Just so she could hear what they had to say about what was going on in town.”
One of those men was Arnie Dollase, president of the Castroville Area Economic Development Council, who said most people he knows get their news from sources in San Antonio these days.
The problem is, Dollase said, “as the growth continues to come this way … there isn’t anybody from the San Antonio newspapers that’s actually out here trying to find out what’s going on” in Castroville.
It was also at the coffee shop that former reporter Nathanial Barrera learned of Jerry Spencer’s death.
Barrera was hired at the News Bulletin in January 2020, taking the job after spending a year in North Dakota at a community paper later bought by a large corporate publisher. The pay was lower in Castroville, but he liked the faster pace of a weekly produced by a small staff and a hands-on publisher. Early on, Barrera covered school board meetings and at one point revealed discrepancies in the way meeting minutes were being kept.
But his career in journalism was cut short when the paper closed. He longs to see another publication take its place, even if it’s in a digital format. For now, The Castroville Anvil – distributed weekly by the publishers of The Hondo Anvil Herald for Castroville, LaCoste, Mico, and Rio Medina – fills a void for some news coverage in the community.
In September, while Barrera stood in line for his coffee, the shop owner asked Barrera if he had heard about Jerry Spencer’s suicide. “There’s no paper for an obituary,” Barrera said.
One person’s impact
Jerad Spencer said Natalie Spencer, who was his stepmother, grew up in a military family, lived abroad, and recalled seeing the Berlin Wall torn down in 1989. She was inspired by stories of social justice and change. She would be “devastated” to know the paper folded, he said.
The community, too, will lament the loss of the paper, he said. “They can see that this person kept the town paper alive. And because of the impact of one person, they no longer have it.”
But his father wasn’t emotionally attached to it in the same way. A veteran who had worked in disaster relief, Jerry Spencer was a civilian program analyst for the Air Force and held patents for life-saving medical devices.
“Talent coming out of his ears in every direction,” Barnes said. “Highly, highly ethical and devoted to his family.”
Barnes said he did not see Jerry Spencer’s death coming. But his children did. The pandemic had forced him into a solitary isolation. Though meetings and phone calls kept him going during the day, “the problem is at 11 o’clock, when it’s dark and it’s quiet and there’s nobody else,” Jerad Spencer said, and the house the couple shared is full of memories.
“We’re obviously saddened by the loss of them, but he’s with someone that he loves now and that shows a true testament of the passion that they have for each other,” he said.
The couple is interred at the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery. A white cross was painted by a utility crew member on the pole where Natalie Spencer died.
‘Loses its heart‘
Small-town newspapers owe their survival to one thing, Barnes said.
“One person or two, maybe a partnership, who is willing to shoulder and pay the dues [and] finds it rewarding enough to go through that week after week. When that person is gone, then the paper really kind of loses its heart, too.”
He thinks about that now, and though he knows it was an accident that killed Natalie Spencer, he worries that the newspaper took them both. “I don’t think that’s true. But I’ve had thoughts about that,” he said. “Certainly, her death killed him.”
In the end, Barnes knows that what she did for the town – keeping the newspaper alive – was important. It’s what she did for budding journalists that is her true legacy.