The little paper that could

  • Art

    Diane Sylvain
  • The new HCN building under construction in 1991

    HCN staff photo

Like one of those gravity-defying trees that grows horizontally out of a rocky mountainside, High Country News has found its niche.

Its beat is 10 Western states - the 1 million square miles where so many of the nation's wild things live on mostly public lands.

How do you cover this world from a small, remote town of 1,400, and with only a handful of staff? With presumptuousness, and with lots of help from the 16-page biweekly's readers, who also serve as its reporters, tipsters, essayists and drop-in visitors. Some, like Washington reader John Moran, faithfully send us clips; others give us feedback about lapses in fact and in taste.

The relationship often feels tribal: "Hang in there," we'll be told, and sometimes, like a combative family we'll grumble: "Hey, this reader doesn't like a headline in the last issue. Let's let her put out the paper!" "A paper for people who care about the West" is its motto - one broad enough to corral everyone from ranchers and environmentalists to tourists, professors, hikers and residents of small towns. One of the paper's conservative readers recently suggested calling it "A paper for Liberals who care about the West," but he added: "In any case, it's a welcome change from the miserly Western reporting we get elsewhere."

The motto, along with the "mascot," the Rocky Mountain goat, was created by staff in the paper's Wyoming birthplace of Lander. The goat, I recall hearing, was chosen because its expression seemed both humorous and wise. These days mountain goats make news because of their lust for antifreeze in Glacier National Park. Oblivious of gawkers, the goats lick up the coolant from park roads. So in addition to being humorous and wise, this is one tough animal, taking on the worst Detroit can throw at it. It's the perfect symbol for one scrappy paper.

High Country News began 25 years ago, in 1970, with the first Earth Day, at the dawn of environmental consciousness in the nation and in the West. To be a pioneer journalist, Tom Bell had to also be a financial pioneer. Few advertisers emerged to support an independent paper concerned about environmental issues; no foundations rushed to fund the effort.

Necessity forced him to depend solely on readers. There were readers who shared his outrage about ranchers killing eagles and stripminers scouring the land, but never enough. So after several years of exhausting struggle, Tom sadly wrote, in early March 1973: "Barring a miracle, we have come to the end."

Columnist Marge Higley spelled out the terrible financial and human costs: Tom had sunk $30,000 in the paper and had drawn less than $l,000 out; he'd had no time off in three years. The crushing, personal blow fell when his wife, Tommie, revealed that, with winter lingering into spring, she'd had no money to buy their three adopted children snowboots.

The paper would fold, Tom announced.

By the end of the month something approaching a miracle took place. Readers such as geologist Louis Bibler of Montana had sent a check for $30 and a letter, which Tom printed. One thousand other subscribers did the same. Checks totaling more than $7,000 rolled in; circulation grew to 2,262. Papers all over the country carried news of "the miracle." The New York Times may have misspelled Tom's last name as Hill, but it too told the tale.

Although the paper had come through this crisis, a year later, Tom, then 50, and his family decided to "go back to the land" in rural Oregon. Tom, a fifth-generation Wyomingite who was rural to his core, said he "had grown discouraged and dismayed with an economic and political system wedded to ever more growth and ever more consumption." He left the paper in the hands of two young staffers: Joan Nice, now editor of Sierra magazine, and Bruce Hamilton, now a staffer with the Sierra Club in San Francisco. Tom told them to do whatever seemed right "until the string runs out."

The string has frayed over the years, but the paper has never missed a publication date or stuck anyone with an unpaid bill. Joan and Bruce, and later Joan by herself, brought stability to the paper and built up its reputation through the last half of the 1970s. A major change came in 1982 when then-editor Geoff O'Gara converted the paper from a privately owned business owned by Tom Bell to a nonprofit foundation. For HCN's fledgling board of directors, the crucial test came in 1983. Publisher Jill Bamburg, editor Dan Whipple, and designer Kathy Bogan had taken over the paper from Geoff. Now, more or less coincidentally (Dan and Kathy were about to marry), all three were leaving in September 1983, and no one was willing to move to Wyoming to take over the paper. The board needed to find a new location and a new editorial team.

There were only two applicants: freelancer Don Snow, who lived in Missoula, Mont., and Ed and I in Paonia, Colo. It took the deadlocked board a long weekend to decide, while the candidates walked the streets of Lander.

In a pickup a few weeks later, a lone Lander intern drove south to Paonia with the paper's assets: a superb photo file built by Kathy Bogan, a list of subscribers, an addressing machine called "the wiz," two chairs, back issues and a heavy-duty dolly. By the time the bills and Lander staff were paid, the paper was left with $7,000 to start up again in Paonia.

Missing was the enormous knowledge that had been accumulated during 13 years in Lander. The editorial staff was the overwhelmed Marstons (-Who did you say was the governor of Montana?" "Can they really graze cows in wilderness areas?" ). C.B. Elliott was the part-time bookkeeper. Nancy Barbee took care of circulation. A typist, Sally Valen, was recruited from a local restaurant to join the publishing effort in what had once been a Seventh Day Adventist Church (the spotlight that once illuminated the cross now fell on Sally). It was August 1983, and all along Paonia's two-block business section, stores were shuttered, victims of the energy bust.

Walking across Grand Avenue to the post office, I'd hear the echo of my footsteps. I didn't bother to look left or right crossing Second Street; there was no danger of being run over. Back in the office we hunted for writers and scoured the atlas: "Where is Dupuyer and how do you say it?"

At first, as we blended in subscribers from Western Colorado Report, a regional biweekly we'd founded, the subscription list appeared healthy: almost 1,000 from the Colorado paper added to 3,400 readers of High Country News. The marriage quickly foundered as Colorado readers balked at a beat that had ballooned to encompass several states. Some complained they didn't care about Wyoming, much less about Utah. They dropped out like flies, and the subscriber renewal rate was barely 50 percent that first year.

HCN subscribers were of sterner stuff, but they too had complaints. Some Wyoming readers thought of Colorado as slick. Paonia, they reasoned, must be like Aspen. One New Yorker revealed that the move had made him "physically sick."

By September, when the first Paonia intern, Mary Moran, arrived to pitch in, we were often feeling sick, too. But there was a thrill in learning fast about the several hundred thousand square miles we didn't know anything about. As Tom Bell can attest: "There is something exciting and exhilarating in creating each new issue of a paper." Of course, he said that just before leaving for Oregon.

Two milestones occurred before the end of 1984 that meant we had weathered the worst. In the first Paonia scoop, writer Tom Wolf described how a raging Colorado River had almost shaken Glen Canyon Dam to rubble (HCN, 12/12/83). Ed recalls that Tom's story seemed so incredible that, after the paper was mailed, he kept waiting for calls of outrage and demands for corrections from the Bureau of Reclamation. Instead of calls, pictures released later by the Bureau revealed just how close the dam came to deconstructing. The only discouraging part was that it was a tough story to top; too many years later, people still said: "Do you remember that article you did a while back on Glen Canyon Dam? That was really good."

The second milestone came when two anonymous subscribers sent checks - each for $10,000. We opened one, then another, in December 1984, just at Christmas, and cried.

Paychecks could now come on time; we wouldn't have to call sources over the lunch hour so that they would have to call us back on their nickel. A paper with an annual budget of $100,000 now had a $20,000 stake.

Thanks to development director Judy Moffatt, who insisted that first we promote the paper and then pay the staff, the paper began to grow in circulation even as staff began to grow in knowledge about the region. Ed Marston was frank about how the paper tackled new subjects: "We learn in full view, "colonizing" a subject like Western water little by little and then doing a special issue."

In 1987, the paper's series, "Western Water Made Simple," won the George Polk national award for environmental reporting. We shared the spotlight at a New York City ceremony with Bill Moyers, The New York Times, the Boston Globe and Newsweek. The water series was later published as a book by Island Press, as was a 1988 series on the decline of extractive industries called Reopening the Western Frontier.

When Earth Day 1990 rolled around, reporters and photographers from Rolling Stone, People magazine, and Harrowsmith Country Life rolled into Paonia. The "small town paper for the rural West" and its vast beat fascinated reporters from what we thought of as the "real world."

High Country News represented something increasingly rare: a paper rooted in rural America, and focused on serious issues. Its centerspread celebrities were "beasts the color of winter' - mountain goats - or cabins buried under 10 feet of snow. In the real world, media moguls swinging big chains bought papers to eliminate competition and boost profits, reduced the news hole, and filled what remained with crime and show-biz news. Advertising counted for everything.

High Country News continued to follow Tom Bell's formula: It depended on readers for support, and not on advertisers. As a nonprofit foundation with an educational mission, the paper is no different than a church.

Last year, HCN did have its first-ever advertising crisis: Ads threatened to spill over onto a second page. So staff drew tighter restrictions and imposed higher rates, squeezing ads back onto a single page. That makes HCN's news hole a comfortable 15 out of 16 pages; if it were ad-driven, the paper would swell to over 60 pages for the same amount of news.

For years, staff knew for a certainty that HCN would never reach more than a core of 5,000 subscribers; it now goes to 16,000. The budget is secure enough to permit health insurance and sabbaticals; Washington, D.C., journalists Larry Mosher and Mary Jarrett took over the reins while the Marstons took a year off at Stanford University; associate publisher Linda Bacigalupi has taken a sabbatical as well.

Thanks to board member Andy Wiessner - the man who helped Rep. John Seiberling designate wilderness throughout the West - and the rest of the volunteer board, staff works in a well-lighted place, spacious and airy, that once served as a feed store. Where drop-in readers once stared, appalled and slightly embarrassed, at our crowded quarters, now they are delighted to tour the office. And the real world has come to once-remote Paonia in the form of Internet: We can reach out and be found on the World Wide Web.

The board does more than raise money. It meets three times a year to provide oversight, to set broad policy, and to watch expenses. It has also done something much harder than keeping the books balanced: It has left the day-to-day editorial decisions to the staff.

Tom Bell says it best: "Founded in adversity, High Country News is not an ordinary paper."

It has developed a corps of readers who would not let it die. Its eyes and ears are a far-flung cadre of writers and photographers. Its home staff thrives on curiosity and challenge. But all of us involved with the paper know someday we will be replaced by yet another enthusiastic band.

What will we take away? Former HCN editor Joan Nice Hamilton sums it up: She learned from Tom Bell the wonders of the places we were trying to save, she learned from readers how much they cared about the paper's work, and she learned from other staff and neighbors the values of community.

High Country News, we are happy and somewhat surprised to report, is a solid Western institution.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at