Forgive us if we sound dramatic. But this fall, as every fall, subscribers will make a life or death decision about High Country News. The decision will be whether to contribute to the paper's Research Fund.
The letter asking for your support will tell you that without the Research Fund, there is no High Country News. Subscription income covers basic overhead, but the Research Fund puts words and pictures on the page. Roughly 30 percent of the paper's income comes from these voluntary, tax-deductible gifts.
Each year about one quarter of all readers choose to contribute. This year, we are also asking you to consider an additional gift to HCN's Writers on the Range syndicate, which places up to three columns a week in more than 30 newspapers, reaching over 1 million readers in towns as varied as Libby, Mont., and Park City, Utah.
This is sweeps month for the print media; in October, all publications that distribute through the U.S. Postal Service must print a form showing what their circulation is at the moment, and what it averaged over the past year. For this paper, the form on page 14 shows modest growth, from a paid average over the last 12 months of 18,642 to last issue's 19,075.
However, that includes shipments to bookstores as well as the 400 copies we send each fortnight to professors who use the paper as a text in their courses. A more accurate picture comes from circulation manager Gretchen Nicholoff's computer. She says the second issue in September 1997 went to 17,380 subscribers. The second issue in September of 1998 went to 18,557, for a growth rate of 6.7 percent.
This, too, may be misleading. A large cadre of new subscribers joined the paper in summer 1997, and if this class of 1997 fails to re-up in significant numbers, circulation will plummet.
Nevertheless, we are as surprised to see the numbers climb as we had been two years ago to see them slide, when mailing lists acquired from large conservation groups started failing. In addition, the renewal rate among existing subscribers began drifting down about two years ago.
It is too early to predict change. But the renewal rate has gone up somewhat, and, because we now use scores of small lists obtained from grassroots groups rather than a few large lists from major groups, direct mail numbers have also turned upward.
One additional surprise in the Postal Statement was HCN's circulation in its home county. For years, we had only the tiniest of signs to mark our office. About a year ago, we changed policy, and hung as large a sign as the town's sign code would allow (but tasteful, of course) in front of the building. And under the leadership of staff member Betsy Offermann, we set up booths at Paonia's Earth Day and Cherry Days celebrations. More recently, we went electronic with Radio High Country News on local radio station KVNF. Perhaps as a result, or perhaps coincidentally, HCN's circulation in Delta County over the last year has gone from an average of 204 subscribers over the last 12 months to 272 subscribers for the last September issue. Old-timers on the paper can remember when we had 40 or so subscribers here, and we thought that was a lot.
A get-together in Pueblo
The board of the nonprofit High Country Foundation, which governs this paper, met with staff in Pueblo, Colo., to discuss the paper's new strategic plan and to talk about the class and ethnic diversity of the paper and its programs.
The discussion was sparked by board member Maria Mondragon-Valdez, a resident of San Luis, Colo. She told staff and fellow board members that the paper's staff, its freelance network, its Writers on the Range syndicate and its intern program lacked diversity, and therefore could not accurately portray the West. Using her ethnic community as an example, she said, "Since 1848, we've been stereotyped by the press." It is "others," she said, who control the narrative about her people. She was accompanied by Juan Espinoza, a reporter for the Pueblo Chieftain, and Bob Green, who is with Sierra Newspaper.
Green said, "Hispanic folks see wilderness as bogus. Those who live in land-based communities see themselves as part of the environment, and not as a threat to wilderness."
In the discussion that followed, board member Luis Torres of Santa Cruz, N.M., said HCN's white, middle-class makeup is standard for natural resource organizations. But High Country News and groups like it "stand a chance to change the situation if you have the will. It will be done by a narrow band of functional nonprofits. It won't be done by government agencies." Torres also said that ethnic groups see unpaid intern programs, like HCN's, as a way to screen out poor people. (We provide free housing, and pay interns during their fourth month.)
The discussion went on for two hours and spilled over into lunch. In the end, the board appointed a committee to work with staff on possibilities ranging from paying interns to a more intense and focused search for freelance writers and interns.
In addition to Maria Mondragon-Valdez and Luis Torres, the meeting was attended by board president Tom France of Missoula, Mont., Maggie Coon of Alexandria, Va., Rick Swanson of Flagstaff, Ariz., Dan Luecke of Boulder, Colo., Andy Wiessner of Vail, Colo., Caroline Byrd of Lander, Wyo., Bill Mitchell of Seattle, Wash., Farwell Smith of McLeod, Mont., and Brad Little of Emmett, Idaho.
Two board members had excellent excuses for missing the meeting. Tony Skrelunas of Flagstaff, executive director of government development for the Navajo Tribe, was at his alma mater, Northern Arizona University, receiving its Centennial Alumni Award. Skrelunas received a Master's of Business Administration from NAU in 1994.
Tom Huerkamp of Delta, Colo., called to say that his vehicle's cooling system had blown up on Monarch Pass, on the Continental Divide, and he had been forced to retreat back into western Colorado. But the next night he made it to Golden, Colo., to accept an award from the Colorado Wildlife Federation on behalf of the Sportsmen's Wildlife Defense Fund. The Conservation Organization of the Year award recognized Huerkamp's group for its lawsuit against the Department of Interior, the Colorado Department of Natural Resources and the Colorado Department of Corrections for allegedly wrongly diverting federal tax funds collected from sportsmen. By law, the suit charges, the money could only be used for wildlife habitat. Instead, some Colorado funds went to prisons and other uses (HCN, 6/26/95).
The meeting and potluck for readers were held at the Nature Center, a tranquil oasis along the Arkansas River. We thank the staff for its hospitality, and Pueblo resident Will Wright for his help in setting up the meeting.
Gabriel Ross, the second intern to join us this fall, arrived in the middle of September after almost a month on the road. His route from Washington, D.C., to Paonia took him through Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee (twice), Illinois and at least half a dozen other states.
In Washington, Gabe worked for National Public Radio, first as an intern for the afternoon news show, All Things Considered, and later as an editorial assistant on Morning Edition. His first few months at the morning show were spent working the overnight shift, 3 a.m. to 11 a.m. The dues-paying earned him the right to work in daylight hours, during which he set up interviews and developed story ideas, trying to make sure Western news made the national broadcast.
A native New Englander, Gabe went to Swarthmore College, near Philadelphia, where he studied biology and art history and centered his life on the Swarthmore Fire and Protective Association - an old-fashioned name for a volunteer fire department. Firefighting led him West for two summers on wildland fire crews, first for the Bureau of Land Management in northeastern Wyoming, where Gabe encountered High Country News as it made its way around the office, then for the Park Service on the Mojave National Preserve in California.
A scout from the University of Colorado at Boulder came by. Alan Kirkpatrick is the internship coordinator for the School of Journalism, and he came to talk about placing college interns here.
Eric and Sandra Bergman of the Denver area found no one at the office over the Labor Day weekend, but they left a note to say hello.
We chatted with Bill and Sundae Gray of Lowell, Ind., who read us on the Web. Their arrival reignited the debate here over whether to charge for access to the paper's Web site at www.hcn.org.
Subscriber Rudolf Knirsch, a professor at Frankfurt am Main who spends part of each year in Tucson, came by with his latest book, Ein Paradies auf Abruf, which roughly translates as A Paradise on Recall, published in 1997 by Campus Verlag.
Knirsch, a thin, energetic man in a pickup that looks as if it has seen every dirt road in the West, teaches environmental issues in Germany. Over the past few decades, he says, German students have learned more about the West. "I wrote a book in the 1970s about U.S. environmentalism, and my students didn't believe there was a progressive movement in the U.S. They believed that only the Indians were pure. In the 1990s, students think more critically."
Of his latest book, Knirsch says, "Germans have a romantic view of the West and of Native Americans. I destroy that view."
* Ed Marston
for the staff