Dear Friends

 

Survey results are in

Living in a small town, it’s easy to make generalizations about your community. It’s a little harder to make sense of a community that’s spread across the million-square-mile West — and all the way to Washington, D.C. — as are the readers of High Country News. Sure, we send out a short, informal readers’ survey every year, we meet a handful of you at our potluck dinners, and we read your letters religiously. But we’d never done a focused, scientific survey of HCN’s subscribers — until this winter, when we hired a Denver research firm to interview 300 of you, chosen randomly.

Here’s what we found:
You’re rooted and involved: 61 percent of those polled have lived in the West for 25 years or more; 64 percent are members of environmental organizations; and of those, 68 percent said they were active in local groups.

You’re smart: 83 percent of those called have at least a bachelor’s degree. Educators topped the list of professions (11 percent), followed by government employees (9 percent) and scientists (8 percent). You read publications like National Geographic, Audubon, Newsweek, The New Yorker, The New York Times and Smithsonian.

And you’re overwhelmingly middle class: 65 percent said you live in households with total annual incomes between $25,000 and $100,000. That’s not to say that you’re a homogenous group. Politically, it’s a mix, with 60 percent Democrats, 15 percent Independents, 12 percent Republicans and 9 percent Greens. Your professions range from agriculture to computer programming to nonprofit work.

You also told us a lot about High Country News. Overall, readers seem pleased with how we’re covering issues such as water, forestry, grazing, mining and wildlife. One spot where we need to improve, however, is our coverage of population and growth. Your biggest complaints: "Not enough news about my area," and "long lengths of stories."

And there were some surprises. We’d known our readers were aging, but we didn’t know to what extent. Seventy-eight percent of you are 45 years old or older. The under-35 crowd makes up just 8 percent of our readership, and only 2 percent are students. This is not to say that this isn’t a feisty, influential crew. But it tells us we’ve done a lousy job of reaching out to young people.

HCN gets a makeover

On the subject of reaching a broader, and perhaps younger, audience, the HCN staff is in the process of giving the ol’ paper a facelift. HCN Production Manager Cindy Wehling has been spearheading this project with help from Portland, Ore., designer Katherine Topaz of Topaz Design.

We’re not just doing this for the sake of aesthetics. We’re trying to project a more accurate image of what’s inside the paper. (After showing it to a handful of colleagues, Kat reported, "In my ‘unscientific study,’ most people who looked at your publication for the first time thought HCN was a conservative, slightly-to-the-right community paper. And many used the word ‘boring.’") We want HCN to look more smart, cutting-edge and vibrant — and we want to make it impossible not to pick the paper up if you see it sitting around the local coffeeshop or bookstore.

We’ve thrown the doors wide open, considering everything from a different size to putting color on the cover to redesigning the flag — that age-old, hand-drawn High Country News header that runs across the top of the front cover. But we’re optimistic that we can come up with something with class and subtlety, that doesn’t leave tradition behind. (Not to worry — we won’t be slamming you with cover shots of sweaty guys with big pecs. We’ll save that for the Men of HCN calendar.) And one thing will not change significantly — the stories inside. Look for the new design sometime this spring.

New interns arrive

If you have ever wondered how the biology of the sugarbeet affected the culture of northern Colorado, talk to HCN’s new intern, Sierra Standish. She’s spent the last two years chasing down survivors from the heyday of the sugarbeet factories and folding their stories into a master’s thesis at Colorado State University. "The very nature of the beet made a cultural community in the Fort Collins area," she says. Because beets shrivel quickly, factory owners imported thousands of Spanish-speaking workers to keep up with field production demands. The industry faded in the 1950s, but a thriving Hispanic community remains.

Sierra’s own story is rural, although not agricultural. She grew up in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, where her father was the head ranger at Castle Rock State Park. "I lived behind a gate my whole life," she laughs, describing the barrier that separated the ranger’s quarters — with its power generator and lizard infestation — from Bay area tourists. After trying her hand at journalism in Paonia, Sierra will marry a laser beam engineer, Carl Embry, next fall, and prove that "history majors do not need to become teachers."

No stranger to the high seas, new intern Jess Toubman is used to being called "schooner trash." She could sail around a lake before she could drive, and her current résumé includes such titles as "Galley Slave" and "Head Steward."

Born and raised in rural Readfield, Maine, Jess attended college in Oberlin, Ohio, where she picked up a degree in geology and feasted on fresh corn and tomatoes. Soon after graduation, Jess headed south and west to an internship at Big Bend National Park. In that dry, isolated part of west Texas, she inventoried dinosaur fossils and experienced "a winter that felt like summer."

After enduring 100-degree weather in her trailer in May, she jumped at the chance to work for North Cascades National Park in Washington State. Now, Jess works as a seasonal interpreter at the park for half the year and spends the remaining six months sailing, adventuring — and now writing for HCN.

Author holds hope in dark times

Utah writer and environmentalist Terry Tempest Williams knows about animal-unit months, acres of wilderness and tons of tailings waste. She spent a lot of time last year fighting against the oil-exploration vehicles known as thumper trucks.

But when she talks, it isn’t about numbers or pollution. It’s about the heart, and about beauty and madness and evil.

A talk she gave here in December at the home of Bill and Sarah Bishop was no exception. The event was a luncheon fund raiser for two groups: the Western Slope Environmental Resource Council and the statewide Colorado Environmental Coalition.

"I don’t think the Bush administration has really met the American public," Terry told the audience. She said the administration is flying blind, through emotional and political skies it does not comprehend.

In contrast, she cited the commissioners of Delta County, Colo., who have thus far thwarted coalbed methane drilling (HCN, 9/2/02: Backlash). She also talked about her home base, Castle Valley, outside of Moab, where Mormons, libertarians, environmentalists and people who hate the federal government have joined to protect that beautiful, red-rock valley. As a result, she said, "I’ve never been more hopeful."

Still, Terry said, she knows many Westerners are haunted by despair. Despair comes of solitary existence — of "single imagination," she said, and the cure is to build relationships among individuals, and then combine those relationships into a diverse and strong community.

Terry Tempest Williams is the author of Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, and other books. Listen to Radio HCN’s interview with Terry on the Web, at www.hcn.org/radio.