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Mardi Taylor Back at Southwest Times Record, As the Woman in Charge

4 min read

In November, Mardi Taylor went from substitute teaching to running the Fort Smith newspaper she had left just six months before.

That’s one twist. The other was that she was suddenly her husband’s boss.

“I’m married to a sports writer here [at the Southwest Times Record], and we wanted to stay in the Fort Smith area,” Taylor told Arkansas Business about a week after her hiring as executive editor. “Substitute teaching was something I did to keep busy during those months.”

The hiatus came after Gatehouse Media, which bought the paper from Stephens Media in 2015, announced it was shifting some editing and page-design duties to a corporate hub in Texas.

“My role had been copy desk manager, laying out pages, writing headlines and things like that,” Taylor explained. “But those things are now being done in Austin, so I got out of the business. Then the opportunity opened up for me to come back here.”

Her husband, longtime Times Record sports writer Kevin Taylor, was perfectly fine with taking orders from his wife. “Kevin was thrilled,” she said. “He loves being a sports writer and is a real professional, so I knew we’d have no issues there.” Both Taylors, who live with their two school-age sons in Alma, started at the paper in 1999 after working together at the Palestine Herald-Press in Texas. “We’ve spent many years working together,” she said, “so in a lot of ways our new situation doesn’t feel that much different.”

Taylor said that the remote page-design system “took some getting used to,” but consolidating services is a growing trend for daily papers confronting persistent declines in print advertising. She said the Center for News & Design, which opened in 2014, serves more than 100 Gatehouse papers; its website puts the number at more than 200 publications.

“We have three copy editors here who communicate with Austin,” Taylor said. “Stories written here are sent through our system to people in Texas, but there’s constant communication. So far I think it’s worked out well.”

Taylor replaced her former boss Judi Hansen as executive editor after Hansen accepted a buyout offer and joined the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith as editor for its College of Advancement. Hansen, who came from an academic background, had been at the paper for 22 years, the last six in charge of the newsroom.

Taylor was chosen by Publisher Crystal Costa, herself a relative newcomer. A former ad executive at the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Costa became publisher in July after the exit of Tom Stallbaumer, who left to join Veritas, the Rogers-based public relations agency.

Costa and Taylor make up the first two-woman team to lead the paper. “It’s nice to see women in charge, and I couldn’t be happier,” Taylor said. “She’s innovative and has a lot of creative ideas, and I think we really hit it off well. We’re on the same page about what we want to see in the paper.”

And that would be more local news, sports and opinion. Taylor declared the local emphasis when she was introduced as editor on Nov. 21, and Costa praised her “rich knowledge of the local community” and her familiarity with “the issues that impact Fort Smith.”

The paper is forming a Community Editorial Board to promote local voices, including guest columns by leading figures in the area. “We’re still brainstorming, but we definitely want business leaders, educational leaders and others to give us a more local flavor,” replacing some of the national columns that now predominate. “We think there are plenty of local voices to put out, and to give readers another reason to pick up the print newspaper.”

The local focus includes sports, of course, where Taylor is looking beyond Razorback and local game coverage. “We want more features on our athletes, kids and coaches. A lot of people take the paper because of our local teams, and our sports writers have done a good job in emphasizing social media while keeping things strong in print.”

One challenge to Taylor’s vision will be a reduced staff. The paper’s “Meet the Newsroom” web page now lists nine staffers. In August 2013, it listed 22. “We used to have more reporters than we do now, and it’s hard to do what we ask them to do in a day. They’re working hard, but that will be our challenge — using our resources the best we can, without overworking our people.”

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