Thank you, Ray Ring
To avoid a fight, we waited on this column until senior editor Ray Ring was out of the office. Not that Ray has been argumentative while here. Far from it. But he is a man who has never heard a compliment he liked.
If we were writing this just for Ray, we would spare him the truths below. But his 12 months at HCN may have fundamentally changed the paper, and it is important that there be a record of his tenure.
Ray and his family came to this valley from Tucson where spouse Linda Platts worked as an editor at the Tucson Star, while Ray spent 10 years in a small, darkened room of their house writing freelance articles and mystery novels. Between paragraphs, he helped care for Molly, now 9, and Henry, now 5.
We think we know what his writing room in Tucson looked like because of how he established himself in our spacious, wall-less, airy, well-lighted building. He immediately seized our communal "quiet" room - small, airless, dark, out-of-the-way - and worked there, blinds drawn, with only a small desk lamp and glowing computer screen for light.
We didn't begrudge the loss of the room because out of this cave poured Ray's first-rate lead stories on Denver International Airport and the West's servant economy. In addition, Ray worked on many of the lead articles HCN published over the last 12 months, making suggestions to writers, and then cutting, burnishing and sharpening their final drafts. He was often a prospector, digging deep into an otherwise uninspiring story to find the organizing idea or key paragraph. At other times, he was an architect, deftly rearranging paragraphs to add clarity and structure to a story. Between editing and writing, he took over the final proofreading and writing of headlines. From last July until early this spring, his was often the final shaping hand on each issue.
In his last few weeks at HCN, Ray agreed to give two talks about his work to the rest of the staff. He debunked the idea that he had some special talent, a talent that might, for example, be "blocked." He implied that when you take your pickup truck to a garage, you don't expect to learn at day's end that the guy working on it had had a block that day against putting in a new fuel pump. In the same way, Ray said, a writer gets up in the morning and writes, just as others in the North Fork Valley get up and dig coal or grow fruit.
What he did in the 8 to 10 hours a day he spent in the office, he told us, was to work to make each sentence compelling. The craft was in linking the sentences together so that the reader was never conscious of the links, but instead saw the total effect as the logical unfolding of the narrative. And that narrative, he said, should never dawdle. It should pull the reader through the story the way an undertow pulls a swimmer through the ocean. Ray illustrated these ideas by walking us through stories he had edited and stories he admired, taking them apart to show us what made them work.
Now, the payoff
In addition to the day-to-day work he did for the paper, Ray did two large things for High Country News.
First, he provided us with additional senior editorial capacity. And that freed previously overwhelmed staff members to stretch themselves. Because of Ray, associate editor Paul Larmer was able to work on the most ambitious story of his still-young career: the article he did on prison-slayer Tom Huerkamp.
Second, Ray raised the paper's standards through the examples of his writing and editing, by his creation of the "Heard Around the West" column, and by pushing us to improve layout and design.
The change in the paper's quality was so marked, staff believed, that we waited month after month for a sign readers were noticing. A few days ago, we got that sign. The most important measure of HCN's quality is the subscriber renewal rate. For the past several years, it has been a respectable 70 percent. Now the January 1995 renewal rate is in. (It takes months for slow renewers to re-up after being canceled). January's rate has jumped to an extraordinary 80 percent, and preliminary results for February through June also look strong.
The improvement, if it proves real, has been due to more than just Ray. Circulation under Gretchen Nicholoff has changed how HCN asks subscribers to renew. The paper looks better. Freelance writers are sending better material. The printer in Glenwood Springs is doing more consistent work.
But a good chunk of the improvement, we're convinced, is due to Ray and his twin talents as mystery writer and investigative journalist.
With Ray's departure for Bozeman, where he will go back to fiction ("Thanks to this year off," he says, "I'm bursting with plots," ) will HCN decline? Perhaps not. We remember some of what Ray taught us, or gave us the chance to learn. More important, he is going to remain tied to the paper as a freelance writer and editor through the Internet.
We are concerned that our collaboration will weaken as time goes on, but Ray says not to worry: "I'm going to need the money."
*Ed Marston for the staff