MAYFIELD, Ky. — Tucked into corner seating at the town’s coffee shop, Taylor Shea West introduced herself to the woman sitting across from her she was about to interview.
She didn’t have to. Heather Nesler already knew West.
In fact, Nesler knows her mom and first met West when she was little.
That kind of thing isn’t uncommon for West, a Mayfield native who now works as a newspaper reporter covering her hometown.
“It’s a small town,” Nesler said, smiling.
“It is,” West agreed.
It’s also one wrestling with a big problem — how to rebuild after a deadly Dec. 10 tornado wiped out huge swaths of the town.
West, 23, was finishing up her second week at The Mayfield Messenger — her first full-time journalism job — when the twister tore through the town of 10,000, taking with it the lives of 24 fellow Graves County residents and many of its buildings, including the newspaper office West had barely settled into.
The twice-a-week paper has a small news staff: There’s Areia Hathcock, the general manager who keeps things organized, and Taylor, the boots-on-the-ground news reporter.
They face a herculean task: Serving as the eyes and ears of a community desperate for information and good news — even as they cope personally with the aftermath of the destruction.
They were there when journalists from around the country descended on the Western Kentucky town to put newly houseless residents on camera and captured awe-inspiring photos of the rubble.
The difference is they still remain long after other media have gone, telling the stories of a community still trying to chart its course of recovery.
‘A Mayfield native is who needs to tell the story’
Walk through downtown Mayfield, and every turn reveals a tattered landmark.
When the world awoke Dec. 11 to images of the toppled clocktower on the county courthouse, it quickly became a symbol of the EF-4 twister’s destructive power.
But to West, it’s where she tagged along to work with her mother as a child. Catty-corner across the intersection was the Hall Hotel, where West learned to parallel park.
“I’m glad that I get to be here,” West said. “I feel like that’s why I got this job. It all works out in the end, I guess, the way it’s supposed to, and I feel like a Mayfield native is who needs to tell the story.”
“There’s still people here picking up the pieces, and I think someone local and someone that actually shares that grief with them on some level needs to do the reporting.”
‘Our paper was all that people had’
Like a lot of young people from small towns, West wanted to move away from home after graduating from Murray State University in the spring of 2021. She saw herself living and working in Chicago, and was “applying for jobs like crazy.”
But one of West’s journalism professors recommended her to Hathcock for the job at the Messenger, and so she decided to stay put.
Her first day at her first full-time newspaper was Dec. 2.
The tornado hit eight days later, at 9:46 on a Friday night.
Hathcock, who lives in an adjacent county, learned The Mayfield Messenger building had been damaged after someone sent her a photo.
“I think I was in denial until I really saw it in person,” Hathcock said. “I got the picture. I knew it happened and I was seeing stuff on social media, but until I actually saw it with my own two eyes I didn’t realize what the devastation was.”
Their Paxton Media Group sister publications — The Paducah Sun and the local NBC affiliate, WPSD Local 6 — had to handle posting everything online.
Not only did the Messenger no longer have a building, much of the area also lacked electricity, cellular or internet service.
West, who was in Chicago during the tornado, finished the first paper after the storm while sitting in the airport terminal. When she made it back into Mayfield Monday night and saw only darkness, she began to understand how much damage had been done.
But it wasn’t until the next morning, when she encountered news crews from across the country, that it sank in how massive a story this tornado had become.
“You never think you’ll see your hometown of little Mayfield on the front of The New York Times,” she said.
The weeks ahead were “really overwhelming,” for Hathcock and West.
“My main worry, and Areia’s main worry, was trying to get out what people needed,” West said. “Because no one had internet or power, so our paper was all that people had.”
For the first four issues after the storm, the Messenger, which typically prints about 3,000 copies per press run, added an extra 2,000 papers and made them available for free around town.
The staff wanted those issues, full of information about donation centers and where to get a hot meal, to be accessible to anyone who needed them.
West, with the support of Hathcock, also wanted to give her community time to grieve. The stories of loss would still be there later, she said.
“I think me being local and native, I’ve been able to put my foot down on my work brain and be like, these are people, and a lot of the times, we forget that,” she said. “If someone starts crying and breaking down during an interview, I’m fine with stopping. … No story is worth me having to push you to relive through that.
“I know some people probably disagree with that. However, right now in my career, that’s kind of where I’m at.”
‘They tell me it’s trauma’
Mary Ellen Matthews still wears the red and black of the Mayfield High Cardinals with pride. A lifelong member of First Presbyterian — the oldest church in town — she never misses a Sunday.
She remembers what businesses occupied which downtown buildings when she was a little girl: the Messenger’s last home used to be Irene’s Dress Shop, and a previous Messenger office became a floral shop called The Bloom Co.
Matthews is a hometown girl through and through. A ’66 model, she calls herself.
But the tornado flattened the historic downtown she had known her whole life, taking her church and office with it.
“Every time I have to go to the storage building to get the newspapers or drive downtown, I’m overwhelmed with emotion,” she said. “I can’t stop it. … They tell me it’s trauma and grief even though I didn’t have any personal loss. It’s just, it’s devastating.”
Matthews has worked at the Messenger since 2015 in a variety of roles in customer service, advertising and now, circulation, and is the paper’s unofficial historian. Her connection to the paper runs deep: her father, Dan Matthews, worked in advertising for the paper for 40 years.
She’s found microfiche of papers dating back to the Civil War era and contributed articles written for the Future Homemakers of America back when she was in high school.
The Messenger is still making history.
“Every time we print a paper, it becomes an archive and it becomes a historical document,” she said. “That’s the way I look at it.”
‘This is the Messenger’s opportunity’
Kentucky Press Association Executive Director David Thompson said Mayfield residents, like Kentuckians in many smaller counties, depend on their community newspapers for information they can’t get from larger media.
“Those other media, they don’t give a hoot about the Mayfield City Council, or the Webster County Fiscal Court or the Scott County School Board,” Thompson said. “They’re not going to be covering those, and that’s the only way for residents in those counties to get news about what’s going on.”
Al Cross, Director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, said outside news outlets may tell stories about the breadth of the devastation and the challenges that follow, but the local paper “has to be more focused on service journalism, giving people the information that they need.”
“You know, when something like that hits, a lot of the old standard business rules don’t apply,” Cross said. “Journalism is a public service business, and when something like this happens, the public service has to take priority. I think that it’s good business in the long run because people appreciate it.
“This is the Messenger’s opportunity to … reconfirm its essential role as the main provider of news and information in Graves County.”
More:Kentucky tornado death toll rises to 80 with pregnant woman’s passing
Bill Evans, the publisher of The Mayfield Messenger and other Paxton properties in the area, said local reporters like West, “know the nuances of our community.”
“You get that from being here and living here,” he said. “The writers at these large papers are good writers, and they ask great questions, but sometimes you just don’t get the nuances via telephone interview or by spending a few days or weeks in a community.”
Locals, he said, can sometimes find the “big media” to be intrusive.
“This is a time when your community is hurting, is in shock,” Evans said. “And sometimes, they resent, are afraid of, fearful of, people that they don’t know from organizations they’re not familiar with asking them questions.”
But that’s not so with West. A 2016 Graves County High School graduate and the daughter of two lifelong Mayfielders, the young reporter speaks with the same lilt as the people she covers.
“I really believe she can tell — and is telling — the stories that matter,” Evans said, “and that someone else can’t get to.”
How they survived:Stories from those who made it through the deadly tornadoes
‘Here for the long run’
For now, the Messenger team is working out of a sister paper’s office in Benton, about 20 minutes away in Marshall County.
“We’re strong. We’ve got a strong plan,” he said. “… We’re not abandoning Mayfield. We’re going to be here for the long run.”
The paper has had to take stock of which advertisers were damaged or destroyed, where they could or could not deliver to subscribers and how this all affects the bottom line, Evans said.
“Who’s going to remain a strong supporter of The Mayfield Messenger?” he said. “Because without strong community support through their advertising dollars, through their marketing dollars, you know, newspapers don’t survive in that vacuum.”
For West, covering the tornado has left her with conflicting feelings.
On one hand, she’s had the chance to do important journalism and cover President Joe Biden’s visit to her hometown. But she never wants to feel like she’s benefiting from her community’s tragedy.
“A lot of people always say like, ‘This is going to be very good for your career,'” she said. “But I’m kind of always like, ‘At what cost?’ I wish it didn’t happen. It’s a very weird time for me to be grateful for experiences when it’s my hometown and there’s people who have lost their lives in this situation, too.”
Right now, West is exactly where she needs to be.
Taylor Shea West highlights favorite stories since the tornado
- ‘There’s no red tornadoes or blue tornadoes’: Less than two full weeks into the job, West covered President Joe Biden’s tour of hard-hit downtown Mayfield. “The president signed off with one last message,” West reported. “‘Keep the faith, and stay strong.'”
- Relief volunteers come from near and far: Because Internet and cell service weren’t available in the immediate aftermath of the tornado, The Mayfield Messenger became a resource to help residents know where to turn for help. “This is what small towns do,” one volunteer told West. “We love one another, we love God. We’re there for each other. That’s why we do what we do.”
- Red Eagle CrossFit: We’re coming back strong: As businesses begin their efforts to build back in Mayfield, this story highlights one CrossFit gym’s outlook on its future. “Times like these really can show you how tough you are,” the owner said.