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
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • FREE RANGE BISON AVAILABLE
    Hard grass raised bison available in east Montana. You harvest or possible deliver quartered carcass to your butcher or cut/wrapped pickup. Contact Crazy Woman Bison...
  • CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST (NORTH CENTRAL WA)
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, and the chance to work with many different kinds of people and accomplish big conservation outcomes? Do you...
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The conservation non-profit Invasive Species Action Network seeks an executive director. We are focused on preventing the human-caused spread of invasive species by promoting voluntary...
  • HIGH COUNTRY NEWS EDITORIAL INTERNS
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is looking for its next cohort of editorial interns....