Welcome, BethNot wanting to admit that her hometown, Staten Island, N.Y., is known best for its garbage, new intern Beth Wohlberg would rather refer to the most recent city she has lived in - Missoula, Mont.
But Staten Island, home to the largest landfill in the world, Fresh Kills, gave her an urge for clean air, open space and beautiful landscapes. She found all of those things in Missoula, plus a passion for environmental journalism.
She worked part time for the Missoula Independent, an alternative weekly, her first year in graduate school for journalism and then went on to intern at the daily newspaper, the Missoulian, last summer.
Most recently, she has been hiding in her office trying to finish her thesis project, a series of stories about the recreation fee demonstration program, with the help of Sherry Devlin at the Missoulian. She didn't despair when she saw that High Country News scooped her on the series (HCN, 2/14/00: Land of the fee). Her stories, which focus on fee demo in Montana, were published in the Missoulian on June 1.
How is sausage made?How much do consumers of sausage want to know about the manufacturing of the sausage? And how much do readers of High Country News want to know about our internal Sturm und Drang: conflict over the proper position of a toilet seat; the hunt to discover who leaves dirty dishes in the sink; and who put the last ink cartridge in the fax and then didn't reorder?
Most people can digest High Country News without knowing these details. But there are issues that do concern readers. Several surfaced at the May 22-23 board meeting in Albuquerque. Here is the publisher's version.
Until recently, three board meetings a year were enough, because change here has been gradual. But over the past two years, in response to the changing West and to suggestions from the board, High Country News' pace has begun to accelerate.
We will publish two books this year; Writers on the Range op-eds appear in 55 subscribing publications across the region; the half-hour weekly "Radio High Country News" is on 11 stations in three states thus far; and the Web site lets 1,000 visitors per day consult seven years of archives and read the paper. Then there is the news syndicate, which last year placed 214 news stories from High Country News in regional newspapers and magazines. (In 1998, two of our stories were picked up by other newspapers, and we were thrilled, and spent a half hour talking about it at a board meeting.)
All of this in pursuit of our mission: to bring our news and perspective to a broader audience. Internally, we already see the effect of this effort, and it is large. This used to be a narrowly based, top-down, micromanaged organization. No more. Too much is going on. Decisions once made at the "highest levels' are made by young members of the staff, quickly. More happens in four months than used to happen in four years.
It's exhilarating, and we think it's great for the region and the paper. But it means that the board of directors is presented at each meeting with large changes that tend to take them by surprise. That truth hit hard at the Albuquerque meeting. In the morning, staff presented a 35-page, tersely written document packed with financial tables. The theme was "ready, fire, aim," with the proposed business plan being the "aim" part.
We had already fired off the new media over the past two years on the basis of a hand-waving argument: the several million people who will learn about the paper through radio and syndicates and the Web would expand our circulation so that we would again be self-supporting.
When, over the past four months, staff engaged in tougher financial reasoning, we found that without additional steps, "self-sufficiency" would always be three or four years in the future. The steps include more sophisticated direct mail or advertising, finding underwriters for radio, finding contributors and advertisers for the Web, and converting the Web site to a database so someday we can charge for parts of it.
In the old days (pre-1999), the board would have spent significant time on each item. Now they went past in a blur. After lunch and a talk about urban-rural frictions by Jim Baca, former director of the Bureau of Land Management and present mayor of Albuquerque, staff outlined an ambitious fund-raising effort to finance some of the changes.
This information-overpacked day coincided with changes in board membership that some directors fear will reduce the board's ethnic and gender diversity and commitment to grassroots environmentalism.
Each director had his or her own fears: that High Country News wasn't ready to raise significant philanthropic funds because it didn't have an experienced development staff; that such an effort would make the small contributors, who are the heart of this paper, feel left out; and that High Country News was in danger of losing its soul.
This was a very smart group of people gathered in La Posada de Albuquerque hotel's meeting room, and if the answers were easy, they would have been forthcoming. But they are not easy. Board President Emily Swanson, the former Democratic leader of the Montana House, did a masterful job of keeping the meeting on track. To avoid future information overload, she suggested an executive committee, so that at least a core group of board members would be up to speed on the paper's changes.
The board sent the staff home to rework the business plan and to think harder about the paper's capacity to raise money in larger chunks than in the past, and its effect on current fund raising. Was it possible that the new media could earn more money sooner than projected?
Although there were many questions and doubts, no one moved to chop radio, or the Web, or the news syndicate. The West is undergoing dramatic changes. Unless we choose to be like our favorite whipping boys - the Western senators, with their undying loyalties to reform-resistant cultures and economies - this organization must move.
We meet with readersIn counterpoint to a difficult board meeting were two wonderful evenings with readers: One in Santa Fe on Friday evening at the home of former HCN board member Lynda Taylor and spouse Robert Haspel, and one on Saturday evening at the Albuquerque Museum. Both were packed with good food and excellent company, and both reminded board and staff what High Country News is about.
In Santa Fe, former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall took over the room for a few minutes, and gave a wonderful, impromptu talk about the value to the West of High Country News.
At the Albuquerque Museum, where mostly longtime readers gathered for a lively evening, Walt and Helen Peters decided to create an Internet discussion group among the people who came. Everyone there seemed to sign up, and we followed up with a mailing, from this office to safeguard privacy, of a letter to all Albuquerque-area readers, inviting them to join the group.
We were especially taken by Walt because of his farmer's hat, which read: "Combat Wounded." When people ask him where he got it, he tells them, "I found it while crawling across France."