Comedians stranded in rural Nebraska find purpose running local newspaper

Teri Saylor

Special to Publishers' Auxiliary

Jul 1, 2024

In February, the Sun-Telegraph, Keep Sidney Beautiful, and the Sidney Public Library partnered with five public schools to decorate newspaper vending machines that were going to be discarded because they had outdated logos. Rather than get rid of or sell them, two machines were dropped off at the participating schools for students to decorate and “upcycle” in their own styles. Area residents were encouraged to “vote” for the best from each school. Each vote costs $2, and the participating schools kept the money raised by their machines  votes. After the fundraiser, the machines will be placed out in the local communities for people to enjoy.  (Photo courtesy of Sidney Sun-Telegraph)
Mike Motz and Barbara Perez (Photo courtesy of Sidney Sun-Telegraph)

The story coming out of Nebraska reads like a pilot for a TV sitcom.

Two stand-up comics from New York City embark on a self-funded comedy tour across the U.S. in a minivan, tricked out as living space on wheels. Along the way, they book comedy shows in any smalltown honkytonk, restaurant or sports bar that will have them.

Then on one fateful day when their van breaks down, they find work running a weekly newspaper in a tiny old western town in Nebraska and settled in for the long haul.

Barbara Perez and Mike Motz are now at home in Sidney, Nebraska, after putting down roots, surviving the COVID-19 pandemic and turning the 150-year-old Sidney Sun-Telegraph into an award-winning community newspaper.

Motz is the sports editor who covers more than sports, and Perez is publisher and editor.

“And here we are, two outsiders that are basically running the newspaper here,” Motz said. “We have found that we fit in well; we’ve joined the Elks Lodge and are keeping active in the community.”

For Perez, it was trial by fire. She joined the newspaper to sell ads, but as COVID took hold and the staff began leaving, she stepped into her leadership role.

“I learned real quick how to do an awful lot,” she said. “I was thrown into learning Interlink for circulation and InDesign for laying out the paper.”

They credit lessons learned during their years in comedy, combined with previous careers, for their ability to not only survive but thrive, and they have embraced their roles at the newspaper.


Motz, a New Jersey native, discovered his talent in fencing when he was in high school. He won a state championship and a scholarship to Rutgers where he was the captain of the fencing team and an alternate to the 1988 Olympics.

He majored in history and spent the first half of his career working in corporate sales, representing various companies and selling products like lab supplies, internet infrastructure, pharmaceuticals, mortgages and construction equipment. In 2008, he was laid off during the financial crisis. Unemployed in his 40s, he decided to pursue a new career in stand-up comedy.

“I started performing at some of the best comedy clubs in New York City and a lot of shows around the region,” he said. “I was also fortunate that I was able to do an off-Broadway show with a former writer from ‘Late Night with David Letterman’.”

Perez, born and raised in Colorado, had worked in sales and marketing her entire life, including a stint in advertising sales for the Sterling (Colorado) Journal Advocate.

Like Motz, the age of 40 was a turning point for her, and she decided it was time to launch her lifelong dream of performing stand-up comedy. She recalls watching “The Carol Burnett Show” and seeing how it brought her family together around laughter.

As a kid, she began hamming it up and doing whatever she could to make people laugh.

“I remember a teacher in my parochial school telling me if I didn’t stop with the comedy before I grew up, I would not amount to anything but a clown,” Perez said. “I thought that was the greatest compliment in the world.”

In 2010, at the age of 38, she won the title in the Denver’s Top Comic competition, sparking her ambition to make comedy her career.

She moved to New York City, and as a way of connecting with her audience, she began weaving jokes about weird attractions and facts from every state in the nation into her comedy routine. At the time, she had no way of knowing how this funny bit would shape the course of the rest of her life, and Motz’ life, too.


Perez and Motz met while doing stand-up comedy and have been friends for 14 years. When Perez pitched the idea of going on the road and performing in all 50 states, he thought she was crazy.

“There’s no way this can work, and you are insane,” Perez recalled him saying. “There’s a reason nobody does this.”

But after reading her business plan, he changed his mind.

“I told her that this is the dumbest idea in the world, but just might work,” Motz said. “So we launched in July 2013 and were on the road for about two-and-a-half years.”

Focusing on rural regions of the country and small towns, they embarked on their self-made comedy tour, called it “Project Highway” and began filming videos chronicling their journey, which are still available for viewing on their YouTube channel.

The pair enjoyed a moderate amount of success, booking their shows along the way and earning enough to stay afloat, until they hit Colorado near Perez’ hometown of Sterling.

“We were preparing to head back to the northeast, but while we were in Sterling, the engine in the van seized, and we got stranded there,” Motz said.
It was a turning point.

“That’s where everything ended for that part of our journey,” he said. “But it’s also how everything else started.”

Sterling is a picturesque place where Perez has family. She recalls her realization that she and Motz had been on the road for over two years and remembers thinking if they were not out of there in 24 hours, they would end up staying for 24 years.

“And then the van broke down,” she said.

Sidney, Nebraska, population 6,500, sits in the southwestern panhandle, just nine miles north of the Colorado state line. Sidney, founded in 1867, is the Cheyenne County seat, and named for Sidney Dillon, president of the Union Pacific Railroad.

As Sidney’s history goes, the town claims the title as one of the wildest “Old West” frontier towns that ever existed and was the gateway to the California Gold Rush of 1848.


Stranded in Colorado, Motz learned of an opening for a sports reporter at the Sidney Sun-Telegraph and landed the job. He reasoned that he liked sports and thought he could make a go of it. He began commuting from Sterling before moving to Sidney.

Meanwhile, in Sterling, Perez stayed with her daughter and learned of another opening at the Sun-Telegraph for an advertising manager. She joined the newspaper, and when the publisher left, Perez took the helm.

Motz is enthralled with the lore of the place.

“The newspaper has changed ownership a few times and changed its name a few times, but it has been continuously published since 1873,” he said. “We have all the bound issues since the newspaper was launched, and the library has digitized them.”

From the pages of those old editions, readers can experience the region’s colorful history.

That is not lost on Motz, and he realizes that someday people will read the stories he is reporting today and it will be history for them.

“I think about that all the time,” he said. “There’s a responsibility that goes with this business, and I’m accountable for making sure I get it right.”

Motz covers high school sports across Cheyenne County and dips into Peetz, Colorado. Over time, organizational changes have resulted in expanding Motz’s sports beat to covering “everything else,” he said.

“I didn’t have any experience covering government or courts, and I had to learn by doing it,” he said. “It’s been challenging but interesting, and I have gone from knowing all the athletes and their families to pretty much knowing everybody now.”

The Sun-Telegraph is published weekly on Thursdays. Its circulation is around 2,000 with newspapers largely distributed by mail. It’s going well, Perez said.

“Our circulation is up, and complaints are down,” she said.

Still, there’s plenty of room to grow.

“I want to make sure that we are Cheyenne County’s newspaper and not just Sidney’s newspaper,” she said. “We are working hard to get people involved by encouraging them to send us pictures of what they’re doing, whether it’s a volleyball tournament or a community fundraiser, and the feedback we’ve been getting is really good.”

She recently created a program to integrate the newspaper into education and used a bank of old news racks to spark creativity and contribute to the town’s Keep Sidney Beautiful program.

“We had 10 newspaper vending machines we couldn’t use because they had our previous name on them, so we divided them up among the five area schools and set up a competition to paint and decorate them,” she said.

Launched last February, she arranged for the decorated news racks to be collected on April 27 and placed in the county library, where community residents were encouraged to vote with their wallets on their favorite racks.

“Each vote cost $2, and each school kept 100% of the money raised during the voting,” she said. At press time, the votes had not been tallied, but even for those that don’t win, the project will instill pride among the participating schools when they are deployed as actual working news racks around town.

For both Perez and Motz, the learning curve has been steep and they are still climbing, but at the end of the day, they have built a newspaper they can be proud of.

“I know there are people that have been in this business for 20, 30, 40 years, and the shine has kind of rubbed off their apple,” Perez said. “But for me, everything is still new and shiny and exciting.”

Even the smallest things provide thrills, like the first newspaper Perez produced as editor, the first big newspaper award she received from the Nebraska Press Association, and the young reporters that are “gung-ho and super excited,” she said.

“I just see ourselves representing a rebirth for this newspaper,” she added.

She allows that neither she nor Motz will get rich in the business, but the newspaper is worth giving it their all.

“Everybody is strapped and trying to operate on outdated equipment and doing the very best they can,” Perez said. “Still, we make one half of our readers happy and the other half mad at us.”

Motz admits he’s learned he’s not as smart as he thought he was, but he’s surprised himself with his flexibility and resilience.

“I have a good education and many experiences, but the people in our community have different perspectives, and there are things they know that I’m completely out of my element,” he said. “There are certain times when I realize this work is really tough and I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I always find a way.”

Both admit that the small-town vibe of life in the Old West and the hardships inherent in keeping a small-town newspaper going have been hard to get used to, but these circumstances combined with the constant striving to serve their newfound community are exactly what is keeping them there.

“There’s so much that goes into publishing a newspaper, but I’m still very much in love with it and its potential for bringing the community together,” Perez said.

Teri Saylor is a writer in Raleigh, N.C. Contact her at