From the ground up

A staff walks out; a grassroots newspaper is born

  • Than Acuff and Melissa Ruch (front row), and Jill Claire Hickey and Ed Stern (back row) on the roof of the Crested Butte News office on Elk Avenue

    Alex Fenion/Crested Butte News
  • Life in News

    Than Acuff

Note: This article is one of several feature stories in a special issue about community media in the West.

The creation myth of the Crested Butte News goes like this: Back in April 2000, five young staffers from the Crested Butte Chronicle, the town’s venerable paper of record, sat exasperated in a Crested Butte bar. The beer flowed, and the lunch hour expanded into three hours. Eventually, the group decided to return to the office, clean out their desks, then walk out into the sunshine of economic uncertainty and start their own newspaper.

That’s the story I’d heard, anyway. "That’s not how it happened," says Melissa Ruch, the News co-publisher, who boasts a journalism degree from the University of Indiana.

I am sitting at a wobbly "antique" (read: freebie) table in a second-story meeting room in the News’ Elk Avenue offices: A funky Victorian house-cum-office straight out of mountain-town-weekly-newspaper central casting. Desks and tables and computers are wedged into every available nook. Baled copies of the latest issue are stacked all over the place, awaiting distribution. Empty beverage cups abound. Ruch and two of the other founders, Than Acuff and Jill Claire Hickey, have met with me, despite the fact that all three were in the office until late last night getting the thick, three-section Labor Day issue to the printers. They’ve agreed to tell me the real story of how this feisty mountain-town newspaper came into being.

It turns out that, while the details may have been embellished, the main storyline holds. The staff (the three people sitting before me, along with Edward Stern and Tiffany Wardman) was indeed frustrated with the Chronicle, which was owned by American Consolidated Media, a Dallas-based chain that owns 40 papers, mainly in Texas and Oklahoma. The Chronicle had burned through two editors in less than two years, and the corporate suits had become increasingly intrusive.

"They told us we were going to start having department head meetings at 9 a.m. every Monday," remembers Acuff, the News’ resident disheveled, gnarly mountain guy, who had worked for several years as a Chronicle staff writer. "We were told that, as department heads, we were supposed to meet with our respective staffs beforehand, then report those meetings to management at the Monday-morning meetings. Well, I was the sports editor and the only sports reporter, so I was supposed to have a pre-meeting with myself. It was getting absurd."

The corporation was also putting profit over community — the biggest sin of all in the world of people who are blessed (or cursed) with whatever wild gene it is that makes otherwise sane individuals start small-town newspapers.

The chain was pushing for more national and international wire news at the expense of local stories. "It was increasingly apparent that they were looking at the Chronicle less as an important part of our community than they were as a source of revenue-generation," Acuff says. "Words to them amounted to filler space between ads."

There was even talk of moving the Chronicle’s design and production to the corporation’s centralized facility back East. "Half our staff, all of whom were friends and members of the community, would have lost their jobs," says Hickey, a young mother of two who owned her own design and production company before signing on with the Chronicle. "It just seemed wrong for a community paper to have its production taking place on the other side of the country."

The five co-founders of the News did not get drunk and quit in the middle of a work day, as I had heard. But they did make plans to abandon ship. And quietly, over a two-week period, they laid the foundation for the birth of the independently owned Crested Butte News.

"Edward had already given his notice at the Chronicle," Ruch says. "We talked him into joining us. We each came up with $5,000. We wrote letters of resignation and, along with our keys, placed them on the publisher’s desk on a Friday. We launched the News the following week. The first issue was produced in Jill’s apartment."

It is difficult to generalize about the origins of new local papers. We ought to begin by defining our terms. In the old hippie days, there was the "underground press," which pretty much covered anything of interest to people who smoked lots of pot. The staying power of the underground press was, well, predictable.

This evolved into the "alternative press," which was usually characterized by local incarnations of Rolling Stone: Heavy on entertainment, personalities and the kind of journalism that didn’t necessarily adhere to traditional journalistic mores, such as factual verification. Today’s "alt-weeklies" cover the stylistic and compositional gamut, but tend toward leftiness, with a heavy dose of environmentalism, personality profiles and entertainment-as-lifestyle.

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