Stories behind Liberty Hill’s newspaper wars
By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM
In 1986, Liberty Hill had no newspapers. By the summer of 1987, there were three competing to be the hometown paper — The Bertram Liberty Hill News, The Outlaw Express, and The Liberty Hill Independent.
Jim “Linzy” Hudgins, the publisher for the newly-established The Liberty Hill Independent, was asked by a visiting reporter years later how it was possible that a town with a single stop sign could be busy enough to need so many newspapers. Hudgins told him that, actually, there was not enough news for even one newspaper.
By the end of 1987, The Independent was the only paper left. It would remain so for 10 years. Then something changed.
In a flurry of succession, a series of alternatives appeared one after another: The Shin Oak Ridge Reporter, The Liberty Hill Bullet, The Liberty Hill Leader — and a website, Radio Free Liberty Hill.
For this 20-year spate, the visiting reporter’s question was relevant again. But the answer had nothing do with whether there was enough news.
Instead, it was a competition driven by politics, personalities, and heartbreak.
“Your Doodles are the babble of a double-talking idiot!” reads a published Letter to The Editor from 2004. “[It] shows you don’t really know anything about grants. If Donald Trump were in town, you’d be fired!”
The author, a local chiropractor and a power broker in the early City Council, had found himself a frequent target of criticism in a column called “Diane’s Doodles”, written by then-editor Diane Pogue of The Independent. He blasted her for what he called biased and uninformed reporting.
“[This] shows why there is another paper in town and why a lot of people do not back your paper or those whom you uncompromisingly defend,” the letter went on to say in its winding, 15-point denunciation of Pogue and her paper.
These were not the kind of charges Pogue was used to receiving. But heading a newspaper, which until recently was known primarily for its high school sports photos, politics was not a topic she was used to covering.
The incorporation of Liberty Hill five years earlier in January 1999, which passed by a vote of 128 to 113, had ushered in something wholly new. The time was “just strange,” said Pogue’s son, Justin Pogue.
“It was the whole emergence of a government when nobody was a politician,” he said. “These were people more used to building fences, but now they gotta talk about sewers and taxes and laws for new buildings. ‘What are we gonna do about signage?’ ‘Should we allow mobile homes?’ We gotta develop all these rules, and— who put you in charge?”
Early city councils were marked by nearly constant upheaval. Elections every year routinely cycled through council members and mayors, often flipping the balance between two voting blocs that had emerged. Investigations were demanded. Accusations were flung. A city attorney was fired. A council session turned violent.
“It was ugly. It was horrible. It was heartbreaking,” said Kathy Canady, whose husband, Charles Canady, played a major role on early councils.
“I just hated to see how it happened,” said James Wear, a reporter who at times wrote for several different Liberty Hill papers, including his own. “Seeing these friends torn apart by politics was just sad.”
No longer could any newspaper for Liberty Hill simply be a community newsletter. Now, beyond covering the high school football games, it had to also serve as a straight record of fact for council politics. It had to act as a forum for public opinion, and do it fairly.
This was a balancing act that did not come naturally to Pogue, says Linda Lattanzio, a former employee.
When Lattanzio joined The Independent staff in 1999, Liberty Hill was still a “quiet, sleepy little community,” she says. Pogue “still had that small town mentality for the newspaper as a feel-good, lift-you-up, what’s-going-on-this-week type newsletter.”
They ran a column for local birthdays and vacations, churches and barbecues. High school sports were covered by Pogue’s husband, Dan Pogue, who also served on the school board. Together, the two attended almost every football game and every track meet.
“They were Mr. and Mrs. Liberty Hill,” Justin Pogue said. “It was Liberty Hill, the kids, and The Independent — that’s all they needed.”
Coverage remained limited to what was positive, recalled several former staffers.
Pogue didn’t focus on the police busts that would later remove so many meth houses from Liberty Hill, even while her competitor The Leader consistently made them front page items.
It was an approach to the news that faced increasing criticism after incorporation.
City council became “so volatile right off the bat,” Lattanzio said. “She was trying to put a positive spin on things, but well, you can’t when you’ve got all this.”
The conflicts and the controversies were too much, Lattanzio recalled.
Kate Ludlow, a local writer who at times worked for both The Independent and The Bullet, says it was difficult in a community as small and contentious as Liberty Hill was then, to keep her reporting separated from what she thought was right.
Pogue, too, struggled with this, she said.
Wear says he remembers one instance in particular, when a council member was charged with knocking a man down at a meeting.
In the account for his paper, The Shin Oak Ridge Reporter, Wear reported that the council member “emerged” from the chambers after the incident. Pogue meanwhile wrote that he “burst” out.
“To me, that was pouring gasoline on the fire,” Wear says. He thought it strange because Pogue was known as a supporter of this council member.
Justin Pogue says he remembers his mother often telling him, “‘You can’t make everybody happy all the time.’ And I’m sure Charles was in that position, too.”
Charles Canady—the auto mechanic, the council leader, and the two-time star of the front page of the Austin American-Statesman — did not vote for incorporation.
When the issue passed by roughly a dozen votes, “he sucked his thumb for a while,” his wife, Kathy Canady, remembers, “then he picked himself back up, and when they asked him to run for council, he did.”
Canady mostly listened at first, “then he got vocal,” Wear says.
He advocated for an ad valorem tax, nuisance ordinances, parkland, and for the city’s building codes to trump the county’s. He dressed in the same overalls he wore to work and to council, and Canady the freshman politician would walk door-to-door collecting signatures.
“He was good to the people from here,” Kathy Canady says, cradling a picture of him. “But somebody was always mad at us.”
Sometimes it was the people who voted for him, and sometimes it was the people he had been elected to oppose, she says.
Divisions boiled over into the newspapers, where fierce back-and-forths in the Letters section took the place of the usual thank-you notices.
In “Diane’s Doodles,” Pogue called the nuisance ordinance Charles Canady supported a measure that would turn “neighbors into snitches.”
Ludlow said that to the average reader looking at the newspapers, it might be hard to figure out what exactly happened.
“But as a small town, if you knew the people involved, and who believed what, you could read through the lines,” she said.
Despite Pogue’s insistence to keep coverage positive, Ludlow said the newspapers began to engage in “a little bit of mudslinging.”
Kathy Canady said she did not want to start a newspaper. She had no experience, no education in the business. She had no time, already working two jobs at the Meridell Achievement Center and at her own feed store. She did not even have the money. But none of that mattered in light of what she did have — an indomitable zeal.
The “final straw,” she says, was shortly before Valentine’s Day in 2001, when Pogue printed a story that listed Charles Canady among those who had been indicted by a grand jury.
It was not true.
Kathy Canady used her inheritance and started her own newspaper.
Equal parts hometown newsletter and fire-breathing defender, The Liberty Hill Bullet promised in its tagline to “Shoot Straight From The Hip Right To The Heart.”
The first issue was not easy.
She wrote a rebuttal about a council story. She wrote about four long-time couples in town. She had Wear, who had recently stopped The Shin Oak Reporter, show her where to find the “canned junk,” and how to paste stories onto a layout board.
She stayed up all night on the day it was due at the printing press.
“I was sitting there with this hot wax roller,” she says, motioning to a corner in her Quick Service Garage downtown. “And then I was sitting over here printing stuff off, cutting it, pasting it. It didn’t look right. I cried.”
It was a “pitiful, pitiful” paper, she says, but people bought it. “And we went on and tried to get better.”
Over the next three years she published The Bullet, production did become easier in some ways. She brought in a Christian columnist, news from Bertram, and the occasional release from the volunteer fire department or the Williamson County Democratic Party. Anything to fill the space, she says.
She began other regular features, such as listing off the members of a different local household every week by the masthead. She says it was one of the best parts, “when you could do something that meant so much to someone. That might be the only time they got their names in the paper.”
The Bullet was the first newspaper in Liberty Hill to be printed in color. It ran a front page story about the blue water markers that had been appearing throughout town. Nobody knew what they were, she said, but her article explained it.
Above the story, a photo showed Council Member Wendell McLeod, who also worked for the Liberty Hill Water Supply Corp., placing the markers. On the page, they were blue.
Her daughter, Kristin Davis, and Ludlow helped with content and production.
Ludlow recalls that every Tuesday night, before print time, they would drive to the gas station at Seward Junction for coffee, powering the all-nighter they would inevitably have to take.
“Diane was a little better at it,” she said. “But you could drive by that red brick building (on SH 29) at night and see them working, just like us.”
There were, however, some differences with The Independent.
Early editions of The Bullet included some commentary among the Letters and council coverage, sometimes pasted in the middle of the story, and often bolded or italicized. With more experience, Canady move away from that.
“I would’ve sacrificed anything to help him (Charles Canady),” Kathy Canady says. “And that’s what this paper was about.”
In 2004, she gave the paper to Jamie Williamson, the daughter of The Independent’s founder Jim “Linzy” Hudgins. Williamson had become another critic of the Pogues. Shortly after obtaining the Canady newspaper, Williamson changed its name to The Liberty Hill Leader.
Handing the paper off to Williamson was a decision Kathy Canady said she would quickly come to regret. But publishing The Bullet? It was worth it, she says, just for what it did for her husband and the community.
Charles Canady passed away in 2014, four years after Dan and Diane Pogue.
The Leader was purchased by the current owners of The Independent in January 2017, and put out of publication.
Today, Liberty Hill has only one newspaper — but several stop signs.