The High Country News time capsule

What’s left behind when the pandemic forces an office closure?

The Production Room of the High Country News office in Paonia, Colorado, is a time capsule of work life before COVID-19. When you walk in, you’ll find desks, but no computers, and a calendar featuring the pastels of Utah artist Serena Supplee that is still turned to March 2020. The light table — already a throwback to the pre-digital days of cut-and-paste production — holds the April 2020 “Land-Grab Universities” issue. We didn’t know at the time how many national journalism nominations and awards those stories would garner, nor the extent of the reforms they would inspire — and continue to inspire. Nor did we know that this would be the last issue produced onsite at the HCN headquarters. 


Until the summer of 2018, more than 30 people regularly worked at the HCN home base: Editorial, Production, Administration, Fundraising, Customer Service, IT. But reporting from the middle of the rural West had its downsides: Sending a reporter to northern Washington meant either a 20-hour-plus drive or an expensive flight and car rental. A stalwart journalist could drive from Paonia to the U.S.-Mexico border in a day, but that plus the trip back meant two fewer days for reporting. The small-town rural West also made it hard to attract and retain diverse staffers. (Paonia is 90% white.)

Meanwhile, the media landscape was changing. The big papers of the West, including the Denver Post and the Salt Lake Tribune, had been gutted, their coverage of Western issues falling off as their reporting staffs dwindled. But High Country News was still going strong. We’d occasionally had remote staff before: Senior Editor Ray Ring was based in Montana for more than a decade before he retired. And earlier on, Jon Christensen had reported from the Great Basin and Pat Ford from the Pacific Northwest.

What if our reporters and editors were scattered throughout the West?
The HCN newsroom in the early 2000s (left). Today, our interns, reporters and editors are scattered around the West. The Fundraising team moved into the space after Editorial dispersed; today, it’s rarely used (right).
Michael Brands, Luna Anna Archey/High Country News


HCN considered going further. What if our reporters and editors were scattered throughout the West? We could start with a satellite office in the bigger college town of Gunnison — just two hours away — to allow frequent visits to the home base as we fine-tuned our workflow. We could have an editor in Tucson, another in Portland, and one in Moscow, Idaho. We’d be on the ground throughout our coverage area.

That summer, we began to enact our plan. The editorial staff dispersed, and the onsite staff dropped by about a third.

The change proved more fortuitous than we could have imagined.

A 2020 production calendar is tucked under the keyboard and dictionary of Copy Editor Diane Sylvain.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

Our editorial and production systems had been computerized for years, but the move prompted us to create a fully digital work environment, with Slack, Zoom meetings, shared Google Docs. Still, the production and copyediting/proofreading operations stayed in Paonia. We remained old-school, using our massive HP5550 to print full-size color pages to proof on the “flats” on the light table, and we continued to circulate a mockup “book” of the magazine right before press, giving us one last chance to catch errors.

  • Hand-lettered files in the supersized fireproof photo cabinet hold a vast archive of images, some from back in the Lander days (left). A screen capture shows shared file folders containing the stories and images for the May 2022 issue (right).

    Luna Anna Archey/High Country News
  • The HCN light table built new in the 1980s (left), has been replaced by the lighttable channel in Slack, where the Art Department shares drafts of magazine pages in progress (right).

    Luna Anna Archey/High Country News
  • The in-house production cycle included a “flats read” by Copy Editor Diane Sylvain, who noted the final changes on printouts of pages (left). Today, the flats and book reads are done via annotations in a Google doc.

    Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

Fast-forward a year and a half: As COVID-19 spread in the winter of 2020, staff began receiving increasingly urgent directives about postponing or canceling reporting trips and staying safe at the office. The kitchen area became off-limits, and containers of wipes were stationed in every work area. In mid-March, onsite staffers were told to start moving their work stations home. On March 19, we uploaded the magazine to the printer in Denver, packed up our laptops and big-screen monitors, and headed home.

While most of the Customer Service staff and some of the Fundraising team eventually returned to the office, the other teams have remained fully remote. And it looks as if things will stay that way: Our staff hails from nine of the Western states and beyond, and we’re more diverse than ever — not to mention more tech-savvy!

But the rich history of High Country News — the bound volumes of 50-plus years of back issues, a wall full of awards and commendations, framed covers dating back to founder Tom Bell’s first Camping News Weekly — can still be found on Grand Avenue in Paonia. As can the remnants of that last onsite production cycle, a time capsule of the past.

A drawer full of old SLR cameras and film canisters from the pre-digital days (left). Bound volumes of High Country News on the shelf of the common room (right).
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

Five-pound bags of coffee used to keep an office full of HCNers fully caffeinated for a month. This bag has lasted more than two years (left). Luna Anna Archey’s snack drawer holds the staff favorite, dark chocolate, sadly expired (right).
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News
The “cover poster” series that lines walls of the production room stops at 2019.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News
The Editorial and Art departments’ monthly planning meeting, today is via Zoom.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News


Cindy Wehling is the long-time art director for High Country News. She writes from Hotchkiss, Colorado, just down the road from the home office. Email her at or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.