Dear friends

  • HCN readers Michelle and Gary French from Las Vegas

    Ed Marston photo

A very good year

The board of directors of the High Country Foundation met in St. George, Utah, on Jan. 23 to review 1998's circulation and financial results and to consider the 1999 budget proposed by the staff.

The past year was better than expected. HCN's circulation grew by 4 percent, ending the year at just under 19,000. This was due to a 1 percent return on 350,000 pieces of direct mail sent to potential new subscribers and an increase in the rate at which existing subscribers renewed. The latter went from 66.2 percent to 69.2 percent, which is just under the paper's goal of 70 percent. The results were especially welcome because they represent the reversal of what we had feared was becoming a trend: Both the paper's circulation and renewal rates had dropped between 1997 and 1998.

Because this nonprofit paper receives about 80 percent of its income from readers, the strengthened circulation showed up in the financial results. A projected budget deficit of $110,000 turned into $12,000 in positive margins (nonprofits don't have profits, by definition) on revenues of $1.1 million. The income was made up of $523,000 from subscriptions, $208,000 from the Research Fund, $191,000 from grants, and the remainder from advertising, the Writers on the Range op-ed syndicate, interest on reserves, T-shirt sales, back-issue sales, and so on.

After digesting the 1998 results, the board discussed, amended and finally approved with some nervousness a 1999 budget which predicts $1,223,000 in income and $1,338,000 in expenses, for a cash deficit of $115,000.

The expected deficit is a result of the board's decision to move more aggressively into other media in an attempt to project the paper's perspective and information beyond its 19,000 subscribers. The HCN Web site, with its free access to our back issues, attracts several hundred readers and researchers each day. The op-ed syndicate, Writers on the Range, has 37 subscribing newspapers (it had 12 a year ago) with 1.8 million circulation. Radio High Country News, an hour-long biweekly program, was started on a shoestring in August; it is broadcast by public radio station KVNF in west-central Colorado. A news-and-feature-story syndicate was started in November 1998 to sell articles to papers in the region. It currently feeds stories to 49 large, medium and small papers, using tools and contacts developed by Writers on the Range.

The deficit in the 1999 budget is a result of the need to support Writers on the Range, which isn't expected to break even for at least a year; the decision to hire a Web editor to strengthen the Web site, and to hire a half-time radio producer to improve the radio program so that it can be broadcast elsewhere in the West; and the determination to expand the reach of the news-and-feature syndicate.

In addition to furthering HCN's mission, board members hope that these initiatives will pay for themselves directly, or will attract enough new subscribers to pay for themselves indirectly, or will do both.

We're taking some risks

We are not betting the organization on this move into other media, but it is a stretch. The board has been urging this expansion on the staff for several years, and staff has been edging in that direction. But the 1999 budget represents an all-out push, and the board was initially taken aback when it saw what the full costs were. After some discussion, it made some changes in the proposed budget, and then approved it unanimously. In addition to the new media, the budget also contains money to pay interns. The stipend is modest, but HCN also provides free housing, which should lower financial barriers to anyone who wants to work as an intern.

Because HCN has not raised its subscription rate for six years, and because the paper has been hit by substantial increases in postage and printing costs during that time, the board - at the request of the publisher and after a long discussion - authorized staff to increase the cost of a personal subscription from $28 to $32.

Finally, the board elected Emily Swanson of Bozeman, Mont., as its new president; Maggie Coon of Washington, D.C., vice president for fund raising; Rick Swanson of Flagstaff, Ariz., vice president for board development; Karl Hess, Jr., from Las Cruces, N.M., secretary; and Farwell Smith of McLeod, Mont., treasurer.

Other board members who attended were Tom France of Missoula, outgoing president; Suzanne Van Gytenbeek of Salt Lake City, outgoing secretary; Maria Mondragon-Valdez of San Luis, Colo., outgoing vice president for board development; Diane Josephy Peavey of Carey, Idaho; Dan Luecke of Boulder, Colo.; Bill Mitchell of Seattle; and Luis Torres of Santa Cruz, N.M.

In addition to board and staff, HCN free-lance writer Tony Davis of the Arizona Star and Rick Keister of the Washington, D.C., area, a former senior fellow at the paper, attended the board meeting and the Friday evening potluck, which was held at the St. George Community Arts Complex and which attracted a large and lively group.

* Ed Marston for the staff

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