Homegrown news: Money can't buy it

  • Jonathan Thompson

 

Note: this essay introduces several feature stories in a special issue about community media in the West.

A hissing wind blew against the wavy glass of the single-pane window. My fingers pounded on the sticky keyboard. It was 2 in the morning. I’d given up drinking coffee a few hours earlier and was now mainlining, chewing coffee beans chased with chocolate chips. But the caffeine’s potency was fading.

It was hour 18 of yet another 20-hour pre-print-day haul on the Silverton Mountain Journal, the fortnightly newspaper I had started nine months earlier. The area of coverage was San Juan County, Colo. — 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 survived many a bust.

Launching a second newspaper in Silverton was irresponsible, insane, idealistic and occasionally a bit of an adrenaline rush. Why did I do it? 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 the grassroots media revolution: Someone sees a need in the community — for information, or creativity, or inspiration, or journalistic energy, or just basic truth-telling — and he steps in and does his best to fill it.

This spring, High Country News called on its readers and contributors to tell us what they know about the West’s scrappy grassroots media outlets. These independent efforts are an antidote to the failures of the mainstream media. We received dozens of suggestions, only a handful of which are profiled in this issue. There are hundreds more out there: Folks hunched over computers in grungy rooms, blogging, publishing and producing, often for very little in return.

Most of these efforts are short-lived; both the economic and creative capital eventually dwindle to nothing. But in a world where giant media conglomerates continually gobble up the little guys in the name of profit, even the briefest incarnations 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. All it takes is a computer and enough cash to foot the first issue’s printing bill. That, and something important to say — and, of course, enough coffee to help you say it.

Three years after starting the Mountain Journal, I bought the "mainstream" paper. But after a few more years of single-handedly producing a weekly newspaper for minuscule wages, I’d had enough. I searched in vain for someone like me to take over. Eventually, though, 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," somebody 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. I hope people across the West will find inspiration from this issue’s stories. Enough, in fact, to maybe go out and do something crazy — like start a newspaper of their own.

Jonathan Thompson is associate editor of High Country News.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CHAPTER DIRECTOR - IDAHO SIERRA CLUB
    Idaho could lead the nation in the transition to clean energy, and the Idaho Sierra Club is committed to making that happen. We seek to...
  • SEASONAL SAN JUAN RANGERS
    Seeking experienced crew members to patrol Colorado's most iconic mountain wilderness.
  • ENDANGERED SPECIES STAFF SCIENTIST
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks a staff scientist to advocate for the conservation of endangered species. General position overview: The position will involve working...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY - ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH PROGRAM
    The Center for Biological Diversity - a national nonprofit organization dedicated to the protection of imperiled plants, animals and wild places - seeks a dynamic...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks a Staff Attorney to join our team of attorneys, scientists, campaigners who are working to protect America's public lands...
  • SOUTHWEST CONSERVATION ADVOCATE
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks a Southwest Conservation Advocate to join our team of attorneys, scientists and campaigners who are working to protect America's...
  • OCEANS PROGRAM CAMPAIGNER
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks an experienced campaigner for its oceans program. The aim of the position is to campaign for the protection of...
  • CLIMATE LAW INSTITUTE ATTORNEY
    The Center for Biological Diversity's Climate Law Institute is looking to add an attorney to its team and will consider applicants at both staff attorney...
  • FULL-TIME CAMPAIGN DIRECTOR
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks a full-time Campaign Director in our Climate Law Institute to join our campaign for progressive, urgent government action to...
  • WESTERN WATER PROJECT MANAGER
    National Wildlife Federation is hiring NM-based position focused on riparian corridors, watershed health. Learn more and apply online: https://www.nwf.org/about-us/careers
  • ASSOCIATE PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Associate Program Director Location: New Mexico; flexible in state Position reports to: Senior Program Director Position Closes: March 13, 2020 GENERAL DESCRIPTION: The...
  • DEAN, W. A. FRANKE COLLEGE OF FORESTRY AND CONSERVATION, UNIVERSITY OF MONTANA
    Dean, W. A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, apply http://bit.ly/2548umjobs. AA/EEO/ADA/Veterans Preference Employer
  • GRAPHIC DESIGNER
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a creative and driven graphic design professional to design high quality print and digital collateral. The Graphic Designer will bring...
  • STEWARDSHIP SPECIALIST
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks experienced person to manage its 133 conservation easements in south-central Colorado.
  • CAMPAIGN REPRESENTATIVE
    Sierra Club's Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign is hiring an experienced campaigner to lead our work challenging the oil and fracked gas industry on the Gulf...
  • AG LANDS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Oregon Agricultural Trust (OAT) seeks passionate relationship builder experienced in coordinating agricultural conservation easement transactions.
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • FINANCE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Coms/Engagmnt Mngr; Dev/Engagmnt Dir; Americorps vol
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND ENGAGEMENT MANAGER
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Dev/Engagement Dir; Coms/Engagement Mngr; & Americorps volunteer
  • SEASONAL TRAIL CREW LEADERS
    Lead the nation's premier volunteer-based trail crew programs on the spectacular Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. This is a great career-building opportunity for rising professionals....