These are challenging times in the newspaper industry, but from where I sit as editor and publisher of the tiny Silverton Standard & the Miner, high in the Colorado Rockies, things don't seem all that bad.
Well, at least not much worse than usual.
This is the oldest newspaper in the western part of the state. In fact, it's the oldest continuously operated business in the region, founded in 1875, just a year after the mining town itself was platted.
Silverton is all about history, so I tend to do a lot of historical research, poring over microfilm in the basement of the town's Carnegie Library. You can visit a saloon here where the legendary Wyatt Earp once dealt cards, and his pal, Bat Masterson, spent some time gambling here, back in the early 1880s. Those were the days when three newspapers struggled to survive in this remote outpost.
One of the editors remarked at the time that the problem with the town's newspaper editors is that "we are all starving and thus ill-tempered." This was also a time when being a newspaper editor meant being a part-time gunslinger. The "office gun" was kept at the ready and occasionally used against some of the pioneer journalists' harsher critics.
Actually, the early Silverton newspaper editors seemed to spend more time sniping at each other than anything else. It was a dog-eat-dog world, and they weren't about to play nice. In the struggle for survival, threats – maybe serious, maybe not – were simply a part of the business model in those days.
In 1897, this newspaper stated that it would charge a fee of "one quart of Demon's Delight whiskey to suppress news of a family fight." In 1899, Standard editor Oliver Klinger noted that there were rumors going around town that he, while serving as justice of the peace, had fined someone $18 for not subscribing.
"If this is true, and I don't deny it," Klinger wrote, "others should take warning and be law-abiding in the future." And in 1901 the Standard took it all to the realm of the absurd, warning that "death notices for delinquent subscribers will not be inserted."
But by 1920, the newspaper wars in Silverton were over. The San Juan Herald was gone, as was the Silverton Democrat and the Animas Forks Pioneer. The surviving La Plata Miner and Silverton Standard merged that year – into today's Silverton Standard & the Miner. Since then, this little newspaper has hung on, enduring the isolation, harsh winter weather at 9,300 feet above sea level, and the disheartening boom-and-bust cycles that invariably inflict mining towns, even to this day.
The last mine here closed in the early 1990s, and now we rely on tourism for our bread and butter. About a year ago, we had a close call. The newspaper was then owned by a chain, which ran into a financial crunch. The Standard's closure appeared to be imminent and this tiny county seat, population 531, would be left without a newspaper for the first time in 134 years.
I managed to engineer a deal whereby the newspaper was donated to our local historical society. Thus we have become what I refer to as "Silverton's Public Newspaper," operating as a nonprofit and holding a variety of fund-raisers, including our infamous Pint Night at the Silverton Brewery. Even the children at our 58-student K-12 school got into the act, donating $2,000 to the cause, thanks to their bake sales and selling some very yummy tamales.
When the historical society inherited a newspaper that was not exactly making money, it also discovered that the weekly no longer had a business office in Silverton. All the bookkeeping had been transferred to Telluride a few years earlier. But we managed to fix all that and even ended up having a pretty good year. Circulation is up about 25 percent -- a remarkable achievement by any measure, especially nowadays -- and advertising revenue is also up, despite the wobbly economy. We even turned a profit of $234 last year.
The Standard is demonstrating that it can be a viable business, if not exactly a lucrative one. And I've been getting inquiries from all over the country from small-town newspapers interested in our "public newspaper" model.
I tell them that a quality product is essential, as is community ownership. I also suggest that they may want to review their policies regarding death notices for delinquent subscribers. Not to mention accepting, on occasion, some Demon's Delight whiskey.
Mark Esper is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He publishes the weekly Silverton Standard & the Miner in Silverton, Colorado.