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Know the West

HCN in the 2000s

A look back at time when extraction was king and Jonathan Thompson was our editor-in-chief.


In 2002, after nearly two decades at the helm, Publisher and Editor Ed and Betsy Marston decided to step down. Longtime staffer Paul Larmer became publisher, and Greg Hanscom took over as editor. Together with Art Director Cindy Wehling, they turned the black-and-white tabloid into a full-color magazine that celebrated the beauty and exposed the ugliness of the West.

This included deep reporting on the region’s extractive industries. The 2000s brought an unprecedented oil and gas boom, spurred by $100/barrel oil prices and new hydro-fracking technology that enabled producers to tap new reservoirs of hydrocarbons. George W. Bush’s industry-friendly appointees opened the doors to new development on public lands.

Despite sophisticated computers on some rigs, it is ultimately up to the drill operator to take the pulse of the rig and to watch the backs of his fellow roughnecks.
JT Thomas

Labor camps sprang up overnight in Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico, turning boomtowns like Gillette, Wyoming, into hotbeds for quick money, drugs and sometimes violence. Combing through state and federal records, Senior Editor Ray Ring found that between 2000 and 2006, thousands of oil and gas workers were seriously injured on the job, and 89 died, victims of dangerous work conditions and an underregulated industry. HCN published the names of all of them.

Even as energy boomed, evidence mounted that fossil-fuel-driven climate change was already impacting the West, bringing a diminishing snowpack, increased wildfires, forest die-offs and drought. HCN Contributing Editor Michelle Nijhuis wrote the groundbreaking climate series, “Hot Times,” years in advance of mainstream media coverage and received the 2006 Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism.

The magazine also began to expand its coverage of social issues, exploring immigration and the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands and writing about drug addiction and gang violence in rural and urban communities. In 2006, HCN published its first piece of fiction, “The Tamarisk Hunter,” set in the desert Southwest in 2030. The author, Paolo Bacigalupi, who then served as HCN’s digital editor, has gone on to become an internationally acclaimed science fiction writer.

Scandals, stress and a ray gun

I came to HCN during a time of barely controlled chaos. We were on a two-week publication schedule and were still as much “newspaper” as “magazine,” trying to stay on top of all of the current news, particularly as it related to public lands. And boy, was there a lot of news: The George W. Bush/Dick Cheney administration was on a public-land-pillaging rampage, while its associates and underlings were constantly entangled in scandals. (Remember when Jack Abramoff’s lobbying fraud and the Minerals Management Service’s sex-and-drug parties with oil executives were still considered scandalous? Those were the days).

Thompson in the studio helping record HCN Staff Editor Cally Carswell’s podcast.
Courtesy of Jonathan Thompson
Often that meant assigning stories on Friday that would go to print two weeks later, but only after a “layered” editing process that involved no fewer than five editors marking up the pages with sticky notes. Sometimes we literally ripped a story off the flats hours before it was to go to the printer because it just wasn’t ready. The resulting stress took years off our lives, but it also kept the office lively, since we used humor and laughter (and toy ray-guns) to blow off steam. 

It was a time of transition for our region. Long dismissed as flyover country, the Interior West became the heart of national politics in 2008 when Denver landed the Democratic National Convention. The same issues we’d covered for years in obscurity were suddenly all over the front page of The New York Times. The housing crash, which was centered in Western cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas, and the natural gas boom and bust kept our stories in national view.

Meanwhile, we were trying to transform the publication, bringing more narrative into our features, and broadening our scope to include more environmental justice, social and cultural issues. Just a few months after I arrived, we ran a cover story by Angela Garcia on the heroin epidemic in Chimayo, New Mexico, and shortly thereafter I spearheaded an entire issue devoted to immigration. A few years later, Ray Ring wrote a heartbreaking essay on suicide. Readers almost always loved the pieces, even as they criticized us for running them because they didn’t adhere to our “mission.” 

We took some crazy risks with stories during those years. But HCN has always been willing to take risks when needed as it evolves with the West. And I hope — and believe — it always will.

—Jonathan Thompson, editor-in-chief, 2007-2010

Krystal Quiles/High Country News

Thanks to readers and donors across the country, we’re more than halfway to our ambitious goal of $10 million dollars to grow our reach and impact, and to ensure that HCN flourishes in the future. We need your support to reach this summit! To learn more and contribute: hcn.org/50-years

In celebration of HCN’s 50th anniversary, we’re looking  back through the decades, one issue at a time. To scroll through HCN’s full timeline, visit our webpage: hcn.org/events/50-years-timeline