Local’ works well for Bernice Banner weekly

By Tom Kelly
Editor and Publisher

Despite grumbling about “Big Corporate Media,” the “Mainstream Press,” etc., personal journalism is alive and well in the Union Parish town of Bernice, Louisiana.

Housed in a two room portable building a few steps across the driveway from the owners’ home at the end of Boyett Road—which turns off Pisgah Church Road about a mile off U.S. Highway 167 on the north edge of Bernice—the compact office contains all the necessary equipment, plus the familiar newspaper office clutter, to produce the digital pages of the weekly Bernice Banner, owned and published by Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth (Kent) Boyett. He is a retired military man who tends to the family fleet of motorcycles, and backs up his wife, Publisher Jessie Kelley Boyett, the real driver of the paper.

During its 18-plus years of existence, The Banner, with its slogan “Your Letter From Home,” has carved a place for itself in Bernice, as well as in the wider community of Union Parish in general, managing along the way to take its turn as Official Journal for the public bodies based in the Parish seat at Farmerville.

The Bernice Banner-News was founded in 1993 by Walter Johnson of Junction City, 15 miles up U.S. Highway 167 from Bernice. Junction City lies in both Union Parish, Louisiana and Union County, Arkansas, astride the Louisiana-Arkansas state line. According to the story told by current Banner publisher Jessie Boyett, Mr. Johnson offered to launch the paper if the community of Bernice and northern Union Parish could come up with as many as 200 paid subscribers. Mrs. Violet Lann, an early employee who still occupies a desk at today’s Banner, said she made the announcement at her church’s annual homecoming meeting, and walked away with 60 paid subscribers on the spot. Years rior to this, Bernice had been served by the weekly Bernice News-Journal, acquired in the early 1960s by the late Carlton White. White’s family owned the Farmerville Gazette, the Parish seat paper, and operated them both. Jessie, who joied the Banner-News staff in 1996, recalls it was in the late 60’s to early 70’s the White family merged the two papers. In the 1990s, the Gazette and News Journal was acquired by the Fackelman newspaper group based in Panama City, Florida, owners of the nearby Ruston Daily Leader.

After two years operation, Johnson became ill, and sold the Bernice Banner-News to Tommy Welch, a Bernice grocery store owner. Welch moved the business into a portable building on his store lot, where he managed it until his store was taken over by the IGA group. By June of 2001, Jessie Boyett bought the paper, and almost immediately faced an order from the IGA owners to move the portable building off the store’s lot.

Faced with the necessity to move her building containing the physical appurtenances of a publishing enterprise, and the looming deadline to produce the paper, she collapsed in tears. “What have I done?” she wailed—an emotion many have felt when venturing unaware into the seemingly simple business of publishing a newspaper. Violet Lann, who had been the advertising sales person, happened to be in the hospital with knee replacement surgery. Word came to Mrs. Lann through Jessie’s husband that “Jessie is crying and won’t stop. You’ve got to help her.” And so, Mrs. Lann picked up the phone in her hospital room and began calling her advertising accounts. Together they came through the ordeal—as newspaper folk always do—and managed to meet their deadlines, get the paper out, the building moved, and as fairy tales go, lived happily ever after, more or less.

Mrs. Violet and Mrs. Jessie could retell that story and laugh, during an interview recently in the small but comfortable office, now located in a safe place on property they own, among equipment and artifacts accumulated during the course of operations in which the Banner has earned the patronage and respect of friends and clients.

It is Jessie’s editorial lead that gives the paper its clarity and readability. A range of contributors add depth and dimension, giving the paper a reach into virtually every aspect of life in the wider community of Union Parish. Jessie’s writing has the simplicity of plain talk, coming off the page with the aura of objective no-spin reality, whether she’s writing with community pride on the budding success of a home-town young man making a mark as a successful film maker, or letting the chips fall where they may in describing a questioned act by an area village governing body authorizing removal of a fence and disposal of donated bricks at a community museum site, or giving the plain story of how the Parish governing body decided to award Official Journal status to the Banner, notwithstanding the refusal of competing media to agree to a negotiated sharing arrangement. The payoff is a moderately lucrative income stream, for publishing of bid notices for public projects, minutes of public bodies, election notices, sheriff’s sales, and other information required by law to be published under the theory of “citizens right to know”.

After becoming the Official Journal in 2003, Jessie decided to change the title of the paper to simply “The Banner”, since it covers all of Union Parish now. It is still legally incorporated as The Bernice Banner-News, LLC.

(To citizens not aware of how the status of Official Journal is coveted by community newspapers, publishers have been known to come to physical blows over the award, which in markets with competing eligible papers, bidding is provided.

Digital technology today allows newspapers to “publish” by writing and creating pages on computer screens, and sending the pages ready-to-print over the Internet to a publishing plant with a printing press—the virtually universal system used by smaller publications. The Banner composes pages in the office on Boyett road, and emails to the Minden Press-Herald for actual printing. The printed copies are mailed to subscribers, and sold on news stands in Bernice and other area town and communities.

Jessie Kelley Boyett was born in Borger, Texas, to a Union Parish couple, John Marvin (Jim) and Dorothy Spencer Kelley. He was an oil field worker, on jobs in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. The family moved back to Bernice before Jessie started school. During her first year at Bernice Elementary School, she met Sharon Ann Boyett who became her lifelong friend. Even though Jessie’s family moved often, nothing could come between the two girls as they grew up. Jessie spent part of every summer and holidays with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins back in Bernice.
Jessie’s sister, Mary Alice, is four years older. When she started high school at Sulphur, Louisiana, making so many moves across the state due to their father’s job, began to affect her ablility to keep up in school. The family then moved back to Jennings, where they had lived when Jessie went through grades two through four. They remained in Jennings until Jessie completed high school in 1969.

When Jessie was 14, her parents happened to drop by a motorcycle shop in nearby Lake Charles. Her dad always joked about buying a motorcycle with a sidecar. He surprised her by asking if she would like a motorcycle. She jumped at the prospect. And thus began a hobby which has grown into a sideline avocation. When the family visited back in Bernice, the bike was loaded into the back of the family El Camino pickup, so that she could ride.

Upon arrival in Bernice on a visit home, she contacted her best friend, Sharon Ann Boyett. It was a really hot day so they planned a trip to the local swimming hole to cool off. As Jessie sat on her bike waiting for Sharon Ann, one of Ann’s brothers came out to get a look at the girl on the bike. This was Kent. They met, and in the course of time, fell in love and were married, in 1969.

Ten days after they were married, Kent left for Vietnam, making it back safely a year later. A year later, their first child was born—Danielle, who now works with her mother at the Banner as a compositor. Later sons Aaron and John were added to the family.

Jessie credits her Christian faith as her source of strength—which shows in the content of the Banner, with pages filled with news from churches throughout the coverage area. Since she was a pre-teen she served in her Pisgah Baptist Church, not far from where the family lives now and maintains the Banner publishing operation. She is very involved in the community, leads a small Bible class and loves to watch the children learn and grow. Both Kent and Jessie are members of a Christian Motorcycle Chapter, of which she serves as treasurer.

As a relief from the demands of the newspaper, Kent and Jessie ride a Honda Goldwing, as well as their newest “toy,” a three-wheel machine which goes beyond the description of “motorcycle,” to something more like a motorized sitting room. Powered by a 290 h.p. Chevrolet 350 engine, with a water-cooled radiator, an automatic transmission, double-wide custom cushioned seat, covered roof, regulation windshield with motorized wipers, a canvas-covered two-place rumble seat and stowage area, this machine rolled out on the high side of $37k. If Jesus rode a motorcycle, this is one He would enjoy.

A peek at the Bernice Banner is available at their website. www.bernicebanner.com

This article includes reporting by Pat Kenney, Journal Correspondent.