Jon Mark Beilue: A one-stop shop for news


As aggregator of local news, WT looks to fill a mission


The idea began to germinate when Walter V. Wendler was making his every-other-year road trips in 2017, 2019 and 2021. The West Texas A&M University president made it a point to visit the high schools of every school district in the Texas Panhandle not once, but twice, and took one trip deep into the South Plains.

That was 184 high schools—133 of them repeats—and close to 20,000 miles in all. Wendler got a first-hand flavor of West Texas communities, how they were different and how they were not.

“They share sort of a common bond,” he said. “Almost all are agricultural, and a lot of them are struggling. But there’s still an important sense of purpose in these communities. They find ways to make things work.

“Sharing in that and sharing in the joy of competition, there’s a lot community pride in that. Knowing who is born and who died, these things are important not to just that community but to the whole of the Panhandle.”

WT is the Panhandle’s University. Perhaps, Wendler reasoned, WT could play a role in sharing the news of Panhandle communities, and in a way, tighten the bond of the Panhandle. It could also fill a void left by the decline of print and electronic media locally and nationally.

The first exploratory meeting with Wendler and top WT staff about a Panhandle news website began before the COVID pandemic in early 2020. It was put on hold for much of the pandemic, but it was never shelved.

That quiet persistence to see the idea through has evolved with a runout of , a one-stop news-shop website that features stories and information from news outlets across the area.

“I thought this would be a tremendous public service just for people to know what’s going on in the constellation of communities that make up the Panhandle,” Wendler said.

On the home page are 10 information tabs: WT, Amarillo, Canyon, Borger, Childress, Clarendon, Hereford, Perryton, and Pampa and one, “All Towns.” There is a collection of news from 22 communities in the Panhandle, plus Palo Duro State Park.

In all, there are as many as 70 stories to click on the home page, including obituaries. On this day, one week before the mid-term election, there are stories on both gubernatorial candidates, Beto O’Rourke and Gov. Greg Abbott, who was making an Amarillo stop.

Not by coincidence in the masthead, it reads: “Keep Up with Local News By Subscribing To Your Local News Source.”

“We don’t want to take away anything from the local newspapers,” Wendler said. “We encourage you to subscribe. It’s not a big deal, but it is there in the masthead. I value local newspapers.”

‘Paying attention to regionalism’


Panhandle Regional News was designed by Eyoel Mengesha, a LINUX system engineer in WT’s Information Technology-Web Services. Mengesha, who earned his master’s at WT, has worked for the university since 2012.

James Webb, WT’s vice president of information technology and chief information officer, gave Mengesha the assignment in July, and he completed the prototype in about two weeks.

“What to use and what programming language to go with, that was up to me,” Mengesha said. “As to what the president was wanting, it sounded like a news aggregator for the Panhandle region. I thought it would be hard to set up, but it turned out better than I thought it would be.”

PRN_JMB2Photo: West Texas A&M University graduate and employee Eyoel Mengesha designed the University’s new news aggregator, Panhandle Regional News.

News updates from around the Panhandle are through RSS feeds. RSS is a web feed that allows users to access updates to websites in a standardized format. It can keep track of many different websites in a single news aggregator, removing the need to manually check them.

“Right now, it runs itself,” Mengesha said. “You have to keep an eye on it to make sure it’s doing what it’s supposed to do, but for the most part, yes, it runs itself.”

Why then would a university be in the business of a local news gatherer? What’s in it for WT? It’s not for any kind of profit. Wendler repeated that WT is not monetizing the website. There is no advertising, and there are no plans to ever do so.

Until Wendler arrived at WT in 2016, his time in higher education had been spent at research universities. A regional university has a mission, an obligation, to the area that it surrounds.

“I’ve become a fan of regional universities because they do this service to the communities in their locales that is remarkable in its impact to affect local economies and local people,” Wendler said. “It’s a powerful force and in many ways the best of what public higher education can be.

“We’re trying to build this university on paying attention to regionalism and not being ashamed of that, but being proud of that by responding to our region and the people who live here and their needs, aspirations and desires.”

Wendler, a native of Long Island, N.Y., said if students want to come from the region of his youth or elsewhere, they are welcome. But 43 percent of students are from the Panhandle, and it’s this region that is a priority.

“The first people we need to serve are the people here and by broadcasting various activities of the communities and people here, that heightens the affection and appreciation for the Texas Panhandle and that’s part of WT’s job,” Wendler said.

In 2021, the university launched WT 125: From the Panhandle to the World . Its mission, to culminate on the 125th anniversary of WT in 2035, is to be hyper-focused on solving or addressing local issues that could eventually impact the world beyond the Panhandle region.

Does Panhandle Regional News fit WT 125?

“Like a sledgehammer,” Wendler said. “It’s about serving locally first, and this is a service. I’ll say it again, we’re not monetizing this. This is a service that we provide so people will know about each other in the Texas Panhandle, to know where we need improvement, to know when to put our hands up high when we’re doing a good job. That’s WT 125 from start to finish.”

Though not the stated intention of starting this local news website, a rewarding offshoot would be if other regional universities one day began something similar in a Panhandle-to-the-world kind of way.

“There is value in a university setting an example by being a servant to the community,” Wendler said. “Nothing would warm my heart more than to find a regional university in California or somewhere in Wyoming or Kansas doing this same thing.

“WT 125 says from the Panhandle to the world, and someone seeing how we serve and the value in that and deciding to do the same thing would really be rewarding.”


Photo: West Texas A&M University graduate and employee Eyoel Mengesha designed the University’s new news aggregator, Panhandle Regional News.


Do you know of a student, faculty member, project, an alumnus or any other story idea for “WT: The Heart and Soul of the Texas Panhandle?” If so, email Jon Mark Beilue at [email protected] .