My fingers pounded on the sticky keyboard. It was 2 a.m.; I'd given up drinking coffee a few hours earlier and was now chewing coffee beans chased with chocolate chips. In less than five hours, I'd make the 50-mile drive over two high mountain passes to the printer's in Durango, in western Colorado, fretting the whole way about what I'd left out, the mistakes I'd made and who I'd probably libeled.
It was hour 18 of yet another 20-hour pre-print-day haul on the Silverton Mountain Journal, the newspaper I'd started nine months earlier. I covered San Juan County's 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 had survived bust after bust as gold and other hard rock mines closed.
Launching a second newspaper in Silverton was irresponsible, insane and idealistic. Why did I do it? Part of it probably had to do with romantic notions associated with being a small-town newspaper editor. Deeper down, 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 most grassroots media startups: Someone sees a need in the community — for information, or creativity, or inspiration, or journalistic energy, or just basic truth-telling — and he or she steps in and does his best to fill it.
This happened as the West was settled, and seems to keep on happening as newer people arrive. The same month that I set up a used computer and printer in a grungy office in the former Miners Union Hospital in Silverton, four employees of the Crested Butte News walked off the job in that Colorado mountain town. Then they started a competing publication. Down in Taos, N.M., the previous year, Bill Whaley launched the Taos Horse Fly to fill gaps in local coverage left by the establishment paper. In just about every region in the West there's at least one alternative publication available; in cyberspace, ranters and journalists are starting blogs and Web sites to cover left out aspects of the West's news.
Technology deserves a lot of credit for facilitating these grassroots media efforts. These days, all it takes to launch a publication is a computer and enough cash to foot the first issue's printing bill, and even that's not necessary for a blog or Website. That, and something important to say, and, of course, enough coffee to get you through saying it. Silverton had as many as three competing newspapers at a time during its mining heyday, each with its own viewpoint, printing press and printing "devils" to set lead type.
Most of these grassroots publishing efforts died early deaths. Economic capital dwindles fast when reporting comes before business interests; and creative resources peter out under the workload required to put out a weekly or even a monthly. But in a world where giant media conglomerates continually gobble up the little guys in the name of profit, even the briefest lives 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. That threat, no matter how small, keeps the established press on edge, hopefully resulting in a better product.
Three years after starting the Mountain Journal, I bought the 127-year-old "mainstream" paper. But after a few more years of single-handedly producing a weekly newspaper for miniscule wages, I'd had enough. I searched in vain for someone like me to take over. Eventually, 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," a woman 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. People who want a local voice need to stand up and do something crazy — like starting up a newspaper of their very own.
Jonathan Thompson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the paper's associate editor in Paonia, Colorado.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.