One person said The Marion County Record covered two recent deaths insensitively. Another said a handful of articles focused needlessly on a simple paperwork error that led to tax credits getting rejected. A third thought an opinion column harped too harshly on the poor quality of children’s letters to Santa Claus.
The Marion County Record, a newspaper that reports on a small town of less than 2,000 people on the western edge of the Flint Hills in Kansas, turned into a First Amendment cause célèbre in the past week, after police officers and sheriff’s deputies raided its newsroom, an incredibly rare occurrence in American journalism. The authorities seized computers and phones, in what they said was an investigation into identity theft and computer crimes.
Reporters and television cameras have descended upon the town to cover the raids, which were roundly condemned by news organizations and free press advocates. On Wednesday, the local prosecutor returned the electronic devices, saying he had determined there wasn’t a “legally sufficient nexus” to justify the searches.
Marion residents, however, are having far different conversations about the over 150-year-old paper and its owner and editor, Eric Meyer, who has been running day-to-day operations for the past two years. At the center of the discussions: What is the appropriate relationship between a community and a local news organization, and what duty, if any, does it have to be a booster for the places it covers?
In interviews after the raid, many residents said they saw the police search not just as a stunning broadside against the press, but also as a natural, if unfortunate, outgrowth of rising tensions between the community and The Record’s coverage. Some described the weekly paper as too negative and polemical. “The role should of course be positive about everything that is going on in Marion, and not stir things up and look at the negative side of things,” said Mitch Carlson, who co-owns the local grocery store.
Mr. Meyer rejected that argument, saying the paper was just fulfilling its role as a watchdog with aggressive reporting, like covering City Council meetings that the public was excluded from or investigating the new police chief. He said the paper’s journalism made the town stronger. This week’s paper published numerous messages of support, though few seemed to be from locals. He noted that the top story in the paper published two days before the raid was about a 10-year-old playing music at a local senior center.
“Gee, that’s really negative news,” he said.
Left in the middle in recent days were many others trying to sort out where they stood.
“People here are not stupid,” said Mike Powers, a retired judge who is running unopposed in the town’s mayoral election this fall. “People here do care about constitutional rights and things like the freedom of the press.”
But, he added: “I think there is a pretty sizable majority that would agree that the paper’s coverage has been overly aggressive and, I hesitate to use the word mean, but perhaps inappropriately negative.”
News organizations, small and large, often rub residents the wrong way, particularly when they aim to hold power to account. Some of those outlets have faced legal attacks from wealthy residents, who have learned that lawsuits, even ones that are ultimately dismissed, can severely damage publications on a shoestring budget.
The Record, despite the complaints from locals, remains well-read, even as readership dwindles at papers across the country. On the day of the raid, the paper had a print and digital circulation of about 4,000 in a county of around 11,000 people. The paper has added over 2,000 subscribers in the past week, mostly people from outside the area showing their support.
Mr. Meyer’s parents, Bill and Joan, bought the paper 25 years ago. “It was a fine paper, and they were fine people,” Mr. Powers, the former judge, said.
Joan Meyer died on Saturday, the day after the raid on the home she lived in with her son. Mr. Meyer said in a news article that the stress of the searches was a contributing factor in her death.
It was when Eric Meyer took over in 2021, some of the residents said, that the paper changed. Mr. Meyer, 69, grew up in Marion before working as a reporter and editor at The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the city’s major daily paper, and then as a journalism professor at the University of Illinois. He returned to the town full time in 2021.
“Somebody wrote, ‘He came back to destroy the town,’” Mr. Meyer said. “No, I came back to help the town, not destroy it.”
Mr. Meyer’s editorials, like the one about the children’s letters to Santa — “The Ghosts of Christmases Past seem to have found better spelling and grammar (though not necessarily greater compassion, humor or ingenuity) in Santa letters from days gone by,” he wrote — can seem harsh, and the paper’s coverage of politicians exacting. But the trouble really started around Christmas last year.
The Marion city administrator was fired in December for a number of offenses, one of which involved showing other city employees a photograph of a scantily-clad local businesswoman from years before. The City Council mostly debated the firing in private sessions, and it voted 3 to 2 to fire the administrator. Around the same time, the chief of police and his deputy resigned — according to The Record — because the city hadn’t moved fast enough to discipline the administrator.
The Record objected to the private sessions, and became embroiled in disagreements about the state’s open meetings law.
But what many locals remember most is that The Record published the name of the woman and her day spa business a number of times. The business closed this month, and the woman and her husband have blamed the paper.
For the past year, the newspaper covered various disputes on the City Council, mostly between David Mayfield, the mayor, and Ruth Herbel, the councilwoman whose home was searched. Mr. Mayfield has accused Ms. Herbel of leaking information to The Record, which he regularly criticizes on Facebook. Mr. Meyer responds to Mr. Mayfield on the social media site, often in personal language. Mr. Mayfield did not respond to requests to speak for this article.
“In a small town, everyone knows one another, and it is easier to irritate one another when you have that familiarity,” said Matt Stiles, the city administrator in nearby Hillsboro, part of Marion County.
Then came the reporting shortly before the raid.
The Record received tips that Gideon Cody, the recently hired police chief, had left his last job with the Kansas City Police Department under cloudy circumstances, Mr. Meyer said. The Record asked Mr. Cody about the circumstances of his departure, but it ultimately could not substantiate the tips and did not publish an article about them.
The Kansas City Star has since reported that Mr. Cody was accused of sexist and insulting comments while at the Kansas City Police Department, and left while that was under investigation.
In early August, a local businesswoman, Keri Newell, had Mr. Cody remove Mr. Meyer and a Record reporter from her coffee shop, which was hosting a community event with the county’s congressman.
Shortly after, the paper received a document indicating that Ms. Newell, who was applying for a liquor license, had been convicted of driving under the influence. The paper researched more about Ms. Newell but did not publish an article about her. At a City Council meeting last week, however, Ms. Newell accused the paper of passing the information about her conviction to Ms. Herbel. Mr. Meyer said the paper did no such thing.
Ms. Herbel’s lawyer, Drew Goodwin, said the councilwoman had independently received the same information. “My client did not commit any crimes, and it is abundantly clear she did not commit any crimes,” he said.
Two days after the City Council meeting, Mr. Cody obtained a warrant to search two homes and a business, engaging all five of the city’s officers and two sheriffs in the searches.
Mr. Cody, who has defended the raid, hung up when contacted for this article.
Jeremiah Lange, the pastor at Marion Presbyterian Church, said it all added up to heightened tensions between several officials and the paper.
“I think there’s been this pot boiling on the stove for a number of years,” he said. “I can’t say if the City Council bumped the gas, or if Eric bumped the gas, or if the police bumped the gas. But the gas got bumped and turned on to high.”
Mr. Lange sent a letter to his congregation this past week urging everybody, including himself, to “drop their stones” and “refrain from condemnation.”
But that seems unlikely to happen. The Kansas Bureau of Investigation has taken over the investigation from the Marion Police Department. Lawyers for both the paper and the councilwoman said they planned to file lawsuits against the city, even though their devices had been returned.
Mr. Meyer said if his coverage changes at all, it would be only to dig into things more. “We may have found a few topics that we want to investigate further as a result of this,” he said.
Mr. Carlson, the grocery store owner, said Mr. Meyer was a pot-stirrer who was sometimes right and sometimes wrong.
But mostly, Mr. Carlson lamented what had happened to his small community. “It’s just a town divided,” he said.