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Know the West

Dear friends


Join us in Socorro

Do High Country News readers have as good taste in food as in newspapers? Come join us at the year's first HCN potluck in Socorro, N.M., on Saturday, Feb. 1, at 6:30 p.m. to find out.

Potlucks are held following meetings of the HCN board. This potluck will be at the Epiphany Episcopal Church, across from the New Mexico Tech Library, at 908 LeRoy.

Please bring a dish to share, and call Linda or Mary at 970/527-4898 or send an e-mail to [email protected] to tell us if you think you can come.

Life is ironic

Not so many years ago, High Country News had 3,300 subscribers. Back then we thought: "If we only had 5,000 subscribers, life would be great."

Today, we have 19,000 subscribers. And life is great, but not because of the numbers. It's in spite of the numbers.

In part that's because we do everything - addressing, mailing, billing - in our building. We used to haul the papers back from the printer, 70 miles and a mountain pass away, in an old Ford sedan. Now we need a really hefty pickup truck.

The mail crew used to be small; now it's a small army.

We like that. We like being self-sufficient. We like keeping the money at home.

But there are other challenges. In the old days, HCN's subscriber renewal rate was 60 percent. That meant every year we had to find 1,320 new subscribers to stay at 3,300. Today, the renewal rate has improved to 70 percent. That means we have to find 5,700 new subscribers to stay at 19,000.

Luckily, a lot of subscribers literally fall into HCN's lap, as gift subscriptions and "white mail" that arrive spontaneously. But until some marketing Einstein comes along, most new subscribers will keep coming from one place: direct mail. And direct mail is burdened by staggering mathematics. The rule of thumb is that you send out 100 letters to get one subscriber.

To find, let's say, 3,000 new subscribers, we need to send out 300,000 letters. To try to beat these numbers, we're drafting new letters that we hope will do better than 1 percent.

At the moment, we're fighting over what the envelopes (we're going to test two letters) will say. We've created a sort of accordion mailing that will show a dozen or so past covers. And we've decided on the two different letters to go with the accordion. But we're scratching our heads about what slogan we should put on the envelope. The contents don't matter, after all, if people won't open the envelope.

So this is creative work. This is what environmentalism (and every other ism) is about: creating direct mail packages. It's satisfying work. After all, HCN only goes to 19,000 subscribers; these letters will go to several hundred thousand people over their lifetimes.

But there's a problem. It comes every day about 11 a.m. when we are brought face-to-face with the world we're part of. One day's mail brought the following:

An envelope from Greenpeace that showed the photos of three corporate chieftains (from Dow, Pacific Telesis and Tyson Foods), all thanking me for not contributing to Greenpeace. I felt extreme guilt.

An envelope from Meryl Streep, writing for Green Guide, which said: "Sperm counts are down, Breast Cancer is up, Children's reproductive organs are threatened." I felt extreme fear.

An envelope from Self Healing, which said, "You have an itch, it develops into a rash; you have hay fever, antihistamines make you groggy; you're on estrogen, will it increase your cancer risks?" I felt extremely itchy.

Most mildly came an envelope from Poets and Writers Magazine: "We've helped 50 percent of our readers find publication for their work. YOU MAY BE NEXT!" I felt like maybe I didn't need to open this one.

So how can High Country News compete against outfits talking about cancer and itchiness and using corporate presidents to pitch their product?

At first, we told ourselves we're in a different market niche. But then comes a letter from a class-act publication: Harper's. Its envelope says:

"Inside: Covert class warfare in America. Style tips for congressional spouses ... Balancing greed and fear on Wall Street. Nazi icons at a sports superstore. Just say "NO" to the Net ... The hidden power of envy. No more Mr. White Guy."

We can no longer fool ourselves. If HCN is to save the West, it's got to get tough. Here's what we're toying with:

"Meet the grizzly bear that will probably eat you. Why Wilderness lovers make better lovers. How an Ansel Adams wilderness photo cured my disease."

Some of us think that's too mild. Some of us think those blurbs won't create an acre of wilderness or stop the cutting of a single tree. Here's what they want: "Open this envelope or it will blow up." That's the hardliners. The softliners are pushing: "Subscribe today or we'll sell your name to some really yucky direct mailers."

New for 1997

The new year brought us a new intern, Danielle Desruisseaux, who pronounces her French-Canadian name the Italian way: "DeRusso." She's a professional archaeologist who has been living and working in the Southwest for most of the past nine years.

A transplanted Easterner from upstate New York, Danielle came West soon after graduating from Binghamton University as part of an international research team locating and recording archaeological sites in northern Mexico. She has since found herself excavating sites just before development occurs in places as diverse as the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona, the piûon- and juniper-covered mesas of southwestern Colorado, and the sand dunes near Roswell, N.M.

Despite a visit to Roswell's UFO museum and keeping a close eye on the sky, her only close encounter there was with a family of voracious raccoons. After a recent move from Durango, Colo., to Tucson, Ariz., Danielle says she's happy to be back in snow.

In other news

Congratulations to board member Tom France and to Lucy France on the birth of Sonja Brown France in Missoula, Mont., on Jan. 1 at noon. She entered the world at 5 pounds, 10 ounces.

Becky Rumsey and Dennis Brownridge tell us that it's tough being an HCN freelancer. Becky describes her beat on Colorado's Animas-La Plata water project as "A-LP - the suspense drags on," and Dennis compares wading through hundreds of pages of documents on sightseeing flights over the Grand Canyon as "a lot like getting a root canal."

Martha Wright says she was in her elevator at One Lincoln Plaza in Manhattan when a fellow rider spotted her HCN. In talking about the paper, Martha pronounced Paonia as PAH-ONIA. No, her acquaintance said, "It's PAY-ONIA."

That must be quite a town - New York.

Subscriber Chris Meyer of Boise, Idaho, writes to say that he no longer tries to convince out-of-towners that there's more to Idaho than potatoes and militias. "Instead of my usual hype about Boise's thriving arts culture, ethnic restaurants and so on, I will just confess that we celebrated New Year's Eve last year by launching potatoes from rockets in our backyard."

Thank you

We failed to acknowledge the extraordinary help that Ginnie Newsom of Driggs, Idaho, gave writer Lisa Jones, in her work on the El Nuevo West article in the Dec. 23, 1996, issue.

A belated thank you, Ginnie.

- Ed Marston for the staff