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.