By: Rose Conlon/Kansas News Service
MARION, Kansas — Just days after police raided their newsroom, staff at the Marion County Record raced to meet a midnight deadline to send the Kansas newspaper to print — improvising workarounds in the absence of computers, servers and other equipment that police seized.
The Marion Police Department’s raid of the newspaper’s office and the home of its publisher on Friday has drawn international attention and is being widely criticized as a potential First Amendment violation.
But Tuesday in Marion, a town of around 2,000 people an hour’s drive north of Wichita, the staff were determined to keep the paper going as a midnight deadline loomed.
As the seven-person staff filtered into the newsroom Tuesday morning, the larger implications of the raid played background to the urgent work of the day: reconstructing the pages of the newspaper — much of which was held on confiscated servers and hard drives — and finishing their own reporting on the story that has thrust Marion into the national spotlight.
“We’re having to recreate legals, classifieds — all of our normal things that we have readily available on our server is gone,” office manager Cheri Bentz said.
“But,” she added, “there will be a paper.”
Bentz fielded a near-constant stream of phone calls: community members asking how they can help, reporters seeking interviews and people from across the country voicing their support. And today is light, she said, compared to yesterday.
Rowena Plett, a 28-year veteran of the paper, came in on her day off to answer calls and help with the mobilization.
“It’s been pretty overwhelming,” she said, “especially when you’re having to put out a paper at the same time.”
The paper has gotten more than 1,500 new digital subscribers since the raid. That’s not counting several hundred more who’ve asked to subscribe by email and phone that they have yet to process.
Throughout the day, several people stop into the newsroom to sign up for subscriptions in person — including, at the same time, a man from Phoenix, Arizona, and a couple from the Kansas City area. They exchange laughs in the doorway about how far they’ve both traveled.
“When attacks are being made on freedoms of the press or freedoms otherwise, we want to do what we can,” said Rusty Leffel of Mission Hills, Kansas. “That’s one of the reasons we wanted to come down.”
The paper’s staff resurrected a few older computers to help with the day’s production, but there aren’t enough for everyone. Reporters, at times, play musical chairs between them.
Around mid-morning, a temporary server was up and running, which allowed them to access their email for the first time in days. It’s an imperfect system. If just one person accidentally enters the wrong password three times, everybody’s access drops.
“Everything was on those computers,” reporter Nicholas Kimball said.
The raid appears to have stemmed from a dispute with a local restaurant owner over a drunk driving conviction. The paper’s publisher, Eric Meyer, has also said he suspects its unpublished work investigating Marion’s Police Chief Gideon Cody could have played a role.
Emily Bradbury, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, stopped by the newsroom to help answer calls. In the days since the raid, she said journalists from across the state have contacted her worried they could now be the target of similar raids due to their own investigations of officials.
“This cannot become a precedent,” she said. “There are legal ways to get the information if that’s what [police] desired … and they decided to, in our opinions, violate freedom of the press.”
The Marion County Police Department — which had a search warrant but not a subpoena typically sought to seize journalist’s materials — has said the raid was justified but did not respond to the Kansas News Service’s request for more detailed information. Officials have yet to release an affidavit supporting the warrant.
“What happened was clearly unconstitutional,” said Kansas City attorney Bernie Rhodes, who’s representing the paper. “And somebody needs to pay for it. Because we don’t want this to happen again.”
Over the weekend, Rhodes sent a letter to the police chief demanding the department not review information on the confiscated devices. On Monday, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation took the lead in the criminal investigation that led to the seizure, which Rhodes described as a promising sign for the paper.
But on Tuesday, he was in town to help get the paper out.
“We’re not going to let the town bully prevent us from getting the news out,” he said. “We’re trying to get the newspaper out today. After that, there’s funeral arrangements to make.”
Outside the paper’s office, people left flowers in memory of Joan Meyer. The paper’s 98-year-old co-owner collapsed and died on Saturday, a day after police raided her home. The coroner’s report listed the cause as sudden cardiac arrest. Publisher Eric Meyer has said he believes stress from the raid contributed to his mother’s death. Her funeral will be held Saturday.
In a surprising move as papers were delivered to newsstands Wednesday afternoon, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation said that the Marion County Record’s equipment would be returned. Marion County Attorney Joel Ensey said in a statement that he doesn’t believe there was sufficient evidence to seize the equipment.
Rose Conlon reports on health for KMUW and the Kansas News Service.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.
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