Note: this essay introduces several feature stories in a special issue about community media in the West.
A hissing wind blew against the wavy glass of the single-pane window. My fingers pounded on the sticky keyboard. It was 2 in the morning. I’d given up drinking coffee a few hours earlier and was now mainlining, chewing coffee beans chased with chocolate chips. But the caffeine’s potency was fading.
It was hour 18 of yet another 20-hour pre-print-day haul on the Silverton Mountain Journal, the fortnightly newspaper I had started nine months earlier. The area of coverage was San Juan County, Colo. — 387 square miles, one incorporated town, fewer than 600 people and, during the six months of winter, approximately 15 potential advertisers. That’s not enough to sustain one newspaper. Yet the Journal was the second paper in town, the upstart next to the Silverton Standard & the Miner, which had fought off a half-dozen other competitors during its lifetime and survived many a bust.
Launching a second newspaper in Silverton was irresponsible, insane, idealistic and occasionally a bit of an adrenaline rush. Why did I do it? I felt that my community, small though it was, deserved more than it was getting from the existing news outlet. And there you have the spark behind the grassroots media revolution: Someone sees a need in the community — for information, or creativity, or inspiration, or journalistic energy, or just basic truth-telling — and he steps in and does his best to fill it.
This spring, High Country News called on its readers and contributors to tell us what they know about the West’s scrappy grassroots media outlets. These independent efforts are an antidote to the failures of the mainstream media. We received dozens of suggestions, only a handful of which are profiled in this issue. There are hundreds more out there: Folks hunched over computers in grungy rooms, blogging, publishing and producing, often for very little in return.
Most of these efforts are short-lived; both the economic and creative capital eventually dwindle to nothing. But in a world where giant media conglomerates continually gobble up the little guys in the name of profit, even the briefest incarnations of grassroots media are important. If nothing else, they keep the big guys on edge: No one knows who’s going to come along next, ready to start a new paper. All it takes is a computer and enough cash to foot the first issue’s printing bill. That, and something important to say — and, of course, enough coffee to help you say it.
Three years after starting the Mountain Journal, I bought the "mainstream" paper. But after a few more years of single-handedly producing a weekly newspaper for minuscule wages, I’d had enough. I searched in vain for someone like me to take over. Eventually, though, I sold my paper — to a national chain that owns hundreds of other papers across the country.
"You’ve done this community a great injustice," somebody told me when I returned to Silverton recently. I can’t blame her: Who wants the voice of their community to be controlled by outsiders who live far away? But it’s not enough to just sing a dirge for the loss of independent, community-based media. I hope people across the West will find inspiration from this issue’s stories. Enough, in fact, to maybe go out and do something crazy — like start a newspaper of their own.
Jonathan Thompson is associate editor of High Country News.