On a Wednesday morning in late March, Joey Dauben and his team are gathered at his little blue-trimmed cottage in Palmer, the town where Dauben is running for mayor. The election is about six weeks away, and they're supposed to be gearing up for the first day of door-to-door campaigning. But someone's running late, and inside his house there's always more work to do, for the blog or one of his dozens of newspapers.
Fueled by coffee, cigarettes, energy drinks and Michelob Ultra, Dauben and his crew compare who slept the least the night before. Dauben got four hours, but Brannon Bridge — Dauben's video guy, who earns his living answering tech support calls — says he was up all night editing YouTube clips. Now Bridge, stone-faced under a black knit ski cap and big aviators, is parked on a couch, aiming his Flip cam at the visiting reporter.
Brandy Owen, the editor of a handful of Dauben's newspapers, sits at a card table in the corner, tracking down details about a crime from the night before. Owen owns an "above-organic" health food distributor in Ennis. Like the rest of Dauben's writers, she works for him for free.
Dim window light leaks into Dauben's living room. Maps of Ellis County hang on the wall beside a cardboard stand-up of Sam Adams with a beer. On the far wall hangs a sign that reads "NEWSROOM," which Dauben tucked in with his belongings the day he cleared out his desk at the Ellis County Press almost two years ago. These are the headquarters for his growing empire of small-town newspapers, which he calls the Freedom of the Press Group.
Dauben paces the room, channeling his thoughts in a gravelly voice. He is constantly trying out new material, one-liners he might slip into a campaign speech.
"We are dismantling the power structure," Dauben says. "This is war. If it were not for the keyboard, I would have a gun. I would have a militia."
He laments how one local police chief used to beef up his budget with a speed trap in the middle of town, and only managed to keep a good public image because he moonlighted as an Elvis impersonator. Owen tosses in a complaint about city officials who simply hand out contracts as they like instead of putting them out for bid. And then there's "the gay ag teacher," Owen says.
"The gay ag teacher," Dauben repeats, plotting his quest to take down some allegedly predatory teacher in some small-town school.
"Even the City Council members will say, 'Joey, I know this guy was a pervert, but I'm not going to do anything about it,'" he says. "People say scandal sells, but I think the truth sells even more."
Of course, scandal is exactly what he's talking about, and it's what fuels his rapid expansion into new towns in and around Ellis County.
"The distribution network works like a drug cartel, or the CIA," Dauben says. Political activists or disgruntled citizens in a town call him up, say they've read his stories about Palmer, or Venus, or Italy, and wonder if he can help them too. Their police department is corrupt, they'll say, or the school board's full of perverts.
"I'm the new Matt Drudge," Dauben says. "And I hate to say it that way, but I am the new Matt Drudge."
Dauben and his team write some stories, line up advertisers from among the handful of businesses in town and start showing up at public meetings with cameras. Three mayors have already tried to ban his cameras from meetings, he says. And still his empire grows.
"We're gonna be global," he says, pointing to a shelf across the room. "That's why there's a globe right here."
Dallas fades gently into suburbia in every direction but one: southeast down Interstate 45, where the Trinity River is like a moat to keep development at bay. It's the quickest way to the country from downtown, the stretch of highway the McMansions and the Olive Garden forgot. Sheds and tractor yards line the frontage roads as shipping lots sprawl out between rolling, grassy hills.
A half an hour down the interstate, high atop one of those hills, past a yard full of gazebos and billboards threatening you with hellfire, sits Palmer: a convenience shop, a few churches and some empty downtown storefronts, the kind of town you'd have to be born in to love.
On this evening in early April, the city council is gathered in the town hall, which used to be a funeral parlor. Inside are the Palmer City Council's cozy chambers, with raised seats for the mayor and the five-member council, some of whom don't bother removing their ballcaps to take care of city business.
Dauben, in a T-shirt and gray sports jacket, rises to the podium smoothly and confidently.
"Joey, go ahead," Mayor Lance Anglin says. You get the feeling they've danced this dance before.
"For the record, my name's Joey Dauben," he says. "I'm a resident here. I have a couple of things to address."
He looks younger than his 30 years, but he's at home with a mic and a captive audience. He asks for clarification on some agenda items. Then — as if everyone in the room doesn't know it's coming, hasn't seen the paperwork, heard it around town or read it in Dauben's own newspaper any of the last few weeks — he announces that he's running for mayor.
"I have a vision to move the town forward, grow the town both economically and physically. With people," he says. "We have to prepare for five, 10, 25 years from now, and I think it's high time that members of my generation stand up."
Bridge, still armed with his Flip cam, records the announcement for Dauben's YouTube channel. Another team member snaps still photos. It's a subdued performance compared to the theatrics the town's come to expect from Dauben and his crew. Last year, Dauben sent someone in a Dopey costume to a festival at the Fundamental Baptist Church, to campaign for a ballot measure legalizing beer and wine sales. And once, during an ill-fated Congressional bid, Dauben offered to take supporters on a date to the Galaxy Drive-In for a $25 donation. ("It was 98 percent gay men who responded to the ad," he says.)
"Anyone else on citizens forum?" someone asks when Dauben finishes. The room goes quiet. The meeting moves on. Bridge turns his Flip back onto the council.
This isn't an unusual scene these days. In small towns around Dallas, city councils and school boards have increasingly found Dauben's hand-held cameras trained on them, recording their every move for later derision on his blog, the Ellis County Observer, and for a countrified media empire that's grown to include 40 small-town newspapers and a small posse of contributors, including his grandmother.
Dauben is a tireless worker and, seemingly, a true believer in the basic American virtues of open government, free speech and the power of the press. But justice is a curious thing in Dauben's hands, often doled out based solely on anonymous sources, and with the glee of a boy playing battleships in the tub.
Some headlines in his papers are charming, small-town material, about new trucks for the Venus fire department or a farmer ticketed for bringing livestock into downtown Branson. The front-page news is ambitious but worthy government watchdog stuff: a police chief accused of maintaining ticket quotas, a councilwoman of using city workers to clean her sewage pipes.
But the papers are also padded with the remnants of Dauben's journalistic junk drawer: a photo of two fat women in their underwear feeding each other McDonald's, a guide to starting your own "crisis garden," a geography quiz, a one-page biography of Dauben himself and a classified ad for Dauben's $20-an-hour services as a writing tutor. ("I'll even write your papers for you!")
"People say I have a Napoleon complex. Yeah, I do. I'm going into these towns; I'm conquering these towns. I'm putting a newspaper in every single town that the Ellis County Press is in," Dauben says, referring to the traditional newspaper that gave him his first reporting job. He knows the names people call him, the dismissive way people talk because he prints on sheets of 11 by 17 paper instead of newsprint. But Dauben's greatest resource is a rare brand of self-confidence that drowns out even the most logical criticism. "We will supplant the Ellis County Press," he says, "because I believe they've lost their mission." He compares himself to Ron Paul, but with a particular enthusiasm for the First Amendment. His business grows by the month.
"I want to be the Rupert Murdoch of Dallas-Fort Worth," he says. "I want to have it all."
A page in each of Dauben's newspapers is devoted to his Messianic faith, with meditations on his brand of religion — part Christianity, part Judaism, unspoiled by years of church politics — and his calling "to protect the innocent from being harmed or abused." Last fall, Dauben advertised weekly study groups at his house, where they would talk about current events as "birth pains" prophesied in the Bible. He had to quit when the crowds got too big, he says. Ultimately, he would like to start his own congregation.
"Palmer is just — I think it was set aside for me," Dauben says. "I'm a real spiritual guy, too, so I really believe God said, 'This is where you need to be.'"
His attempt to transition from small-town muckraker to elected official may seem unlikely, but there are only 2,000 people in Palmer. The last mayor was re-elected with fewer than 150 votes. It's just the kind of race where an outsider can claw his way into office with hard work and a bold message, Dauben figures. He may be right.
He's definitely right about the shortage of watchdog journalists in towns like Palmer. He doesn't seem fueled purely by narcissism. But there's plenty of it. All the newspapers, all the campaigning — Dauben jokes it goes back to his fourth-grade Halloween when he dressed up like Ross Perot. Since then he's wanted to run for president. "That's my number-one lifetime goal," Dauben says, and he's not joking this time.
Dauben was born in Ovilla, a town south of DeSoto on the Dallas-Ellis county line. He was held back in fourth and sixth grade by his mom, an English teacher who home-schooled him for a while. When he returned to public school, Dauben says, he was bullied for being older and smaller than the other kids.
In high school in Midlothian, though, he found ways to get even. His father, a mechanic, helped him take care of his 1970 Camaro, "the fastest car, and the wildest car in high school," Dauben says. Better yet, his parents knew the owners of the DeSoto newspaper, the Focus Daily News, who gave him a job covering his own school's football team.
"I wasn't a fighter," Dauben says. "So I basically wrote articles about people. That's how I got back at my bullies."
He was eyeing a career in sports writing until he ended up covering a Lancaster City Council meeting. "I was like, 'Holy shit!'" Dauben says. "I just found this bloodthirst." He moved to the Ellis County Press in 2001, the year he graduated from high school.
He made his first run for office at 22, filing for a spot on the Midlothian school board and losing by just 19 votes, he says. In his next race, he won just 10 percent of the vote in a bid to join the Waxahachie City Council.
He tried college, too, leaving the paper in 2005 to enroll in classes at a couple of schools in Waxahachie. But that didn't stick either. "I was using Ron Paul arguments for economic stuff, and [the professor] didn't want anything to do with that," Dauben says. "So I was like, 'Man, this is boring.'"
In 2006, Dauben started the first of his "cyber-squatting" holding companies, buying up domain names that might generate interest from companies later, especially common misspellings like "golfdiges.com" and "texasloghorns.com." His companies included extensive portfolios of URLs, but he says he was really just a paid public front for the anonymous out-of-town bosses who sent him $1,500 a month, covered his legal bills and pocketed the settlements or sales fees. "It was basically a multi-level tax shelter scheme," he says.
It was around this time, while he was trying his hand at school, that Dauben launched the Ellis County Observer, his blog. When college didn't work out, he rejoined the Press' news desk but kept his blog alive, using it to publish rumors. A post from this spring is headlined, "Analysis: Why Many Women Aren't Cops," in which Dauben offers a theory: "Innate differences between a male's sense of direction and their geographic superiority is why we don't see very many female peace officers."
In 2009, after spending his entire life in Ellis County, Dauben decided to move to New Hampshire. He thought it would be a good place to finish college, explore his newfound interest in the law and, he says, "kind of build my base for when I'm running for president."
But not long after he landed back East, Dauben's reportorial gun-slinging backfired. Before he'd left for New England, he's found himself in the middle of a feud between two small-town cops. When one of them, Michael Meissner, asked Dauben to help set up some sites to trash the other, he obliged, and collected $125 for his services. Later, when Meissner fed him a mug shot of a former cop arrested for impersonating an officer, Dauben was all too happy to run it on his blog.
Eventually Meissner's nemesis, John Hoskins, a Combine reserve officer, set out to take his revenge. In September 2009, he secured a warrant for Meissner, claiming he'd found thousands of lewd text messages on Meissner's phone. It was the ultimate score in the long-running spat between the two officers. A SWAT busted into Meissner's Arlington home.
But it wasn't just Meissner who Hoskins was after. He also told authorities that Dauben had conspired with Meissner to post a mug shot obtained illegally from a police database. Dauben was arrested at his new home in the Northeast. He wound up on the evening news in New Hampshire, in stories that referenced his ties to a kiddie porn operation in Texas.
Dallas County prosecutors quickly refused the charges against Dauben and Meissner, but Dauben spent 12 days in jail before word reached New Hampshire.
"First four nights," Dauben says, "not gonna lie — cried myself to sleep. I was scared, terrified, never been in a position like that before."
When he got out, Dauben says, he knew he'd found his calling. He took a cab back to his apartment, packed and drove back to Texas, committed to rooting out small-town corruption.
"I'm walking in with my guns blazing," Dauben says. "I don't care if you're an Elvis impersonator or Jesus Christ Superstar. If you're corrupt, your ass is going in my paper."
After coming home, in late 2009, he tried returning to the Press for a few months. But they weren't on board with his muckraking zeal, or his plan to start new spin-off papers in towns all around Ellis County. So he paid $5 for the Palmer Post, a paper he'd helped some folks in town start earlier but had become a receptacle for recipes, blond jokes and "grammatical debauchery."
It was the start of his life as a mini-media mogul. Dauben started Freedom of the Press Group, a blanket organization for all the papers that would follow, and went about pulling employment records for cops in towns all around Dallas, crooked or not, and posting them on his site.
"We're not gonna do things the way the old corporate media, the journalism schools teach you, because we've seen where that gets you," Dauben says. He envisions a return to the sort of journalism America's founding fathers would have enjoyed, "the way things have been done in the 17-, 1800s, where there were riots in the streets."
Dauben is well trained in the school of journalism he so despises. Charlie Hatfield spent eight years as Dauben's editor at the Ellis County Press, the mainstream paper Dauben now says he'll run out of business someday. Dauben produced solid journalism but grew too tempted to run with rumors, Hatfield says. When Dauben said he wanted to be a more vocal Tea Party activist outside of work, Hatfield told him he'd have to choose between activism and his job at the paper.
"A week later he had a red ski mask on," protesting outside the courthouse, Hatfield recalls.
"I love him to death, I feel like he could've been a son of mine," Hatfield says. "He used to know how to do it, but he chose to go another path." He calls Dauben's current work "libelous trash."
For most people, Hatfield says, Dauben's blog is "sort of like voyeurism. A lot of people go to his site to see who he's going after this week." He's not surprised that Dauben's blog has grown a devoted readership. "There are people out there who want to overthrow the government," he says.
Dauben wasn't conservative about his expansion from Palmer, plotting his Ellis County conquest the way you might start a game of "Risk" — moving counter-clockwise and setting up shop in every town he hit. He began with Rice, south of Ennis on I-45, whose community paper had fallen victim to the recession two years earlier. Then it was on to Frost, Italy, Milford, Maypearl and Venus. Seven papers in seven months, going to council meetings with cameras, making his case to potential advertisers.
"I've cultivated this following already, so when we announced our plans to expand to their city, it's like an NHL team announcing we're bringing a team," he says.
He also filed a civil rights suit against Hoskins and the City of Combine for his arrest, and has led the drumbeat on his blog about the case. Within months, the police chief and Hoskins had resigned, and city council members followed. In September 2010, Dauben posted a speech on YouTube, filmed along the railroad tracks in Palmer.
"Symbolically, this railroad track" — he pauses as the camera pans across the tracks, then back to Joey — "is a picture of just what happened to me. But at the same time, there are others still in jail, falsely imprisoned, at the hands of people like John Hoskins," Dauben says. "This experience was completely worth it. ... And readers, viewers, I'm not going away anytime soon. So you might want to get used to me."
Dauben's editor in Balch Springs is a private security officer named Curtis Butler. A former Navy man, Butler says he's used to the criticism that comes with doing this kind of work. He's one of the conservative franchisee types Dauben says has enabled him to expand so quickly into new towns, a guy who saw what the Freedom of the Press Group was up to and asked how he could join in the fun.
"I know the underbelly of the beast," Butler says, "the name-calling, the abuse that people will pile onto you for telling the truth." That doesn't change the fact that Midlothian's been jacking up its court costs to shore up its budget, he says, that good judges are being run out of their jobs for petty reasons, or that Palmer doesn't even have a working civil defense siren. "Palmer in particular has been locked in this 1940s-, 1950s-style mentality," Butler says. He loves these towns, he says, and he enjoys the voice the paper's given him. "Joey's a good friend and a mentor," Butler says.
He's also a good guy to know when you're looking for some discount vengeance. Lori Walkup, the mother of a teenage boy in Venus, says her son was kicked off the Venus Bulldogs' cheerleading squad for a private Facebook status update that the school said violated the "cheer constitution." Her complaints to the principal settled into a long-running sort of small-town cold war, Walkup says, until she was handed a $500 ticket for disorderly conduct for flipping off her neighbor and calling her "bitch." She says the principal, who also sits on the city council, was out to get her. (Walkup denies calling anyone a bitch; the principal didn't return calls for comment.)
Walkup says she didn't know where to turn, but Dauben was sympathetic to her story. When she happened to find photos online of another girl "drinking Boone's Farm and flipping off the camera," — in clear violation of the "cheer constitution" — she asked Dauben if he could use the shots. "He was like, 'Give them to me!' He bombarded the website with 'em," Walkup says.
On February 8, Dauben's 30th birthday, he scored the biggest get of his career. A source had photos from inside an Ennis apartment found full of child porn, snapped before the cops arrived to clean up. As revelations unfolded in the case, Dauben began reporting on tenuous connections between the man accused in the raid and the 1996 kidnapping and murder of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman — the cold case that led to "Amber Alerts."
One of the men arrested in Ennis claimed his stepfather had been the killer, and Dauben ran with the lead. Citing anonymous sources, Dauben ran a bullet-point list of personal information Dauben says incriminates the man, including the guy's home address and phone number.
"This is Watergate for us. This is Wiki-leaks," he says. "I'm staking my belief on this guy so much that — I'm not kidding — if it comes out tomorrow that he did not do it, I'll shut down the Ellis County Observer."
Dauben alerted Dallas media to the lead (and his role in breaking the story). TV reporters rushed to follow up, and a series of pieces aired on WFAA. But the mainstream media's since gone quiet on the story, even while Dauben continues posting updates on his blog under a "Child Pornography Ring Updates" banner.
"I've known most of my career that I was supposed to break open a child pornography ring in Ellis County," Dauben writes in one blog post, alleging that the murder was just one wrinkle in a kiddie-porn conspiracy that spans the globe.
After his mayoral announcement, Dauben swore he wasn't running against anyone in particular. But not long after his first day of door-knocking, his challenger emerged: Palmer's Kenneth Bateman, an eight-year council member, owner of Bug Out Pest Control, and a member of the Fundamental Baptist Church — Dauben's strongest opponents on the beer and wine election that he eventually won by 19 votes. With the current mayor, Lance Anglin, stepping down, Bateman was the next best establishment candidate.
Bateman says he's generally steered clear of Dauben's blog and the Post, only checking it out when he hears he's been written about. "To me, it's a lot of smoke and mirrors. I don't like to tell somebody something that I can't come through on or prove."
Dauben rails against the city for the brown water that comes out of pipes in some homes, saying he'd find a way to buy bottled water for people instead. But the city's nearly halfway through replacing the bad pipes around town, Bateman says. He says the city just ran a hydrant to the elementary school for fire protection, and that's the kind of project the city needs to spend money on.
"I don't personally feel like he's looking out for the city as much as he's basically trying to sell his wares," says Palmer City Administrator Doug Young, another man who turns up frequently on Dauben's site.
Young says he tried correcting Dauben when he got things wrong the first few years, but quickly learned it wasn't much use. "Whatever I say, Joey tends to twist to fit his own needs," Young says. "He prints what he wants, he handles what he wants. I'm not gonna try to post a correction."
While city officials are polite enough about their resident muckraker, by the time mid-May rolls around, Dauben finds himself the victim of an anonymous smear campaign that might've come right out of his own playbook.
Two days before Election Day, pink papers mailed from somewhere in Dallas made their way to homes all around Palmer. "Before you go to the polls for the City election on May 14th, there are a few things you need to know about the candidates," the letter begins. "When the invocation is given at City Council meetings, JOEY DAUBEN looks away. When the Pledge of Allegiance is said, he turns his back to our flag!" The letter goes on to call Dauben out for printing lies and half-baked stories, and for cursing at the council at its April meeting. "It is frightening that a person such as Joey is even trying to be Mayor of Palmer." Perhaps most damningly, the letter accuses Dauben of wanting to raise the city's taxes. "Watch OUT Palmer! We'll never have enough money for 'Joey's visions.'"
Hours before the polls close on May 14, Dauben is running damage control around Green Acres, a residential neighborhood he says is home to most of the town's registered voters. He catches people out mowing their lawns, sitting on their doorsteps or out in the yard. "Ducks in a pond right here," Dauben says, dialing up his campaign demeanor for the last big push.
"If Green Acres comes out today, I'm gonna be your new mayor," Dauben tells a guy in his mid-30s. "There's a lot of older people in this town that're scared of seeing the town grow."
He finds another woman unloading her car with two kids. "Are you married?" he asks her. "Your husband's a very lucky man."
Along the way, he checks in with Owen and his other campaign volunteers, who are walking other neighborhoods for him, and with Bridge, who he's appointed as his poll watcher. Dauben is fighting an uphill battle, he says, because the only place to vote in town is inside the Fundamental Baptist Church. The church had a barbecue in their parking lot earlier today, and Dauben says Bateman was hanging around glad-handing folks right next to the polling place.
As the polls near closing time, Dauben's team spills out of a pair of cars and joins him in the street. Dauben leans in and whispers that they're carrying "protection" around town. Asked what kind of danger they're worried about, he says, "Hits out on my life." But he isn't too concerned. "I don't think they're willing to do that and vindicate everything I've ever done," he says.
The group walks down the street, looking for stray voters. The homes begin to spread out and eventually the street dead-ends. The polls have nearly closed. No more campaigning left to do, Dauben's friends drive back to the middle of town, to gather up outside the boutique in town — a Post advertiser — for his election-night party. Dauben heads back to the church to wait for the returns to get posted.
Bridge and Butler wait with him outside the church, as the sun begins to sink. Butler reaches over and picks some lint off Dauben's shirt. Bateman arrives in a big red Dodge Ram with stickers for his pest-control business. He greets Dauben. At around 7:30, a woman emerges from behind the door to post the final, hand-written results: 210 votes for Bateman, 64 for Dauben.
It happens so quickly, and with such bewildering certainty. Dauben shakes Bateman's hand. No cheers for Bateman, no big crowd, not much to say about inevitability. It barely seems to register with Dauben, until he considers that number out loud: 64. "I've got more subscribers than I got votes today," he says.
He makes a point of walking along the road past the Fundamental Baptist Church, back to where his election night party was gathering. Standing in the street, the old Palmer water tower and town hall framed behind him, Dauben offers some remarks. Bridge records them on his Flip cam. Owen and other friends circle with cell-phone cameras.
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"We lost the election today, but we're not gonna go away," Dauben says. He congratulates Bateman on the win and denounces the "vicious, vicious lies" in the pink sheet mailer.
He and his friends walk back to his cottage for a drink in the yard. Dauben wonders aloud about buying the "masterbateman.com" domain name. But as much as he tries to keep things light, the air has gone out of the party. Kids sneak extra pieces of a cake brought for election night, with the water tower drawn in frosting.
Dauben's friend mentions how excited his son has been all week that Dauben was going to be mayor. Another woman says she can hardly believe it: "I'm waiting so many years for someone to be passionate about Palmer, and it's just — ugh."
But Dauben offers some perspective. It'll be easy enough to cover up his signs with new stickers for his city council run next year, he jokes. He has another thought, too: "You know, I hate to say it like this, but Jesus was never an elected official."