Don't like the local rag? Start your own

 

My fingers pounded on the sticky keyboard. It was 2 a.m.; I'd given up drinking coffee a few hours earlier and was now chewing coffee beans chased with chocolate chips. In less than five hours, I'd make the 50-mile drive over two high mountain passes to the printer's in Durango, in western Colorado, fretting the whole way about what I'd left out, the mistakes I'd made and who I'd probably libeled.

It was hour 18 of yet another 20-hour pre-print-day haul on the Silverton Mountain Journal, the newspaper I'd started nine months earlier. I covered San Juan County's 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 had survived bust after bust as gold and other hard rock mines closed.

Launching a second newspaper in Silverton was irresponsible, insane and idealistic. Why did I do it? Part of it probably had to do with romantic notions associated with being a small-town newspaper editor. Deeper down, 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 most grassroots media startups: Someone sees a need in the community — for information, or creativity, or inspiration, or journalistic energy, or just basic truth-telling — and he or she steps in and does his best to fill it.

This happened as the West was settled, and seems to keep on happening as newer people arrive. The same month that I set up a used computer and printer in a grungy office in the former Miners Union Hospital in Silverton, four employees of the Crested Butte News walked off the job in that Colorado mountain town. Then they started a competing publication. Down in Taos, N.M., the previous year, Bill Whaley launched the Taos Horse Fly to fill gaps in local coverage left by the establishment paper. In just about every region in the West there's at least one alternative publication available; in cyberspace, ranters and journalists are starting blogs and Web sites to cover left out aspects of the West's news.

Technology deserves a lot of credit for facilitating these grassroots media efforts. These days, all it takes to launch a publication is a computer and enough cash to foot the first issue's printing bill, and even that's not necessary for a blog or Website. That, and something important to say, and, of course, enough coffee to get you through saying it. Silverton had as many as three competing newspapers at a time during its mining heyday, each with its own viewpoint, printing press and printing "devils" to set lead type.

Most of these grassroots publishing efforts died early deaths. Economic capital dwindles fast when reporting comes before business interests; and creative resources peter out under the workload required to put out a weekly or even a monthly. But in a world where giant media conglomerates continually gobble up the little guys in the name of profit, even the briefest lives 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. That threat, no matter how small, keeps the established press on edge, hopefully resulting in a better product.

Three years after starting the Mountain Journal, I bought the 127-year-old "mainstream" paper. But after a few more years of single-handedly producing a weekly newspaper for miniscule wages, I'd had enough. I searched in vain for someone like me to take over. Eventually, 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," a woman 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. People who want a local voice need to stand up and do something crazy — like starting up a newspaper of their very own.

Jonathan Thompson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the paper's associate editor in Paonia, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • SENIOR ENVIRONMENTAL PLANNER
    The City of Fort Collins is seeking a Senior Environmental Planner to lead the Nature in the City team. This interdisciplinary position is housed in...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League (ICL) is seeking a dynamic community engagement assistant. The individual will work to identify and empower members, supporters, volunteers, and others...
  • VOICES OF WISDOM 2019 SOUTHWEST
    May 25 & 26 At the bank of the Colorado River, at Riverbend Park in Palisade, Colorado, the Sacred Fire Community in the Grand Valley...
  • PHILANTHROPY COORDINATOR
    Wyoming Wildlife Federation - collaborates with the Executive Director and staff to ensure the effective implementation of all philanthropic activities. https://wyomingwildlife.org/hiring-philanthropy-coordinator/.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    HawkWatch International is hiring an Executive Director to lead the organization. The next leader of this growing organization must have: 1. Enthusiasm for conservation, birds...
  • EVERLAND MOUNTAIN RETREAT
    Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Home Resource is a non-profit community sustainability center. We work with, in, and for the community to reduce waste and build a more vibrant and...
  • COUNTRY ESTATE NEAR KINGS CANYON AND SEQUOIA PARKS
    Spectacular views of snowcapped Sierras. 15 miles from Kings Canyon/Sequoia Parks. 47 acres with 2 homes/75' pool/gym/patios/gardens. 1670 sq.ft. main home has 3 bdrm/1 bath....
  • BRN DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    Borderlands Restoration Network 501c3 is hiring a full-time Development Director. Description and job details can be found at https://www.borderlandsrestoration.org/job-opportunities.html
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST NEW MEXICO
    Beautiful off-the-grid passive solar near the CDT. 9.4 acres, north of Silver City. Sam, 575.388.1921
  • WEB DESIGN AND CONTENT MANAGER
    We are seeking an experienced designer to be the team lead for web development and digital media. Part creator and part planner, this person should...
  • CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER
    at RCAC. See the full description at https://bit.ly/2WJ3HvY Apply at [email protected]
  • GRASSROOTS ORGANIZER
    The Utah Rivers Council is looking for an energetic individual with strong communication and organizing skills. The Grassroots Organizer works to ensure our campaigns are...
  • JOHN DEERE SNOW BLOWER 24"
    Newly refurbished and tuned. Older model, great condition. Gasoline engine. Chains on tires. Heavy duty for mountain snow. Call cellphone and leave message or email.
  • STRAW BALE, ADOBE, TIMBER FRAME, HEALTHY HOME, NEAR LA VETA PASS, CO
    unique custom home in Sangre de Cristo Mountains of CO near La Veta Pass, 3 bed, 2 1/2 bath, private gated park, two hours from...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, KANIKSU LAND TRUST
    Kaniksu Land Trust, a community-supported non-profit land trust serving north Idaho and northwest Montana, is in search of a new executive director. The ideal candidate...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Flathead Lakers are seeking a dynamic, self-motivated and proven leader to be our next Executive Director (ED).
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Blackfoot Challenge, a renowned collaborative conservation org in MT, seeks our next ED.
  • COPPER CANYON MEXICO CAMPING & BACKPACKING
    10-day tour from Los Mochis airport, 2/nyts El Fuerte, train, 2/nyts canyon rim hotel, 5/nyts camping. 520-324-0209, www.coppercanyontrails.org.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, ALASKA
    Earthjustice is hiring for a Staff Attorney