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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • SECLUDED COLORADO HIDEAWAY
    This passive solar home sits on 2 lots and offers an abundance of privacy and views while being only 15 minutes to downtown Buena Vista....
  • COMMUNICATIONS COORDINATOR
    Introduction: Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization with offices located in Kanab and Escalante, Utah. We are committed to the conservation...
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    For more information visit www. wyofile.com/careers/
  • THRIVING LOCAL HEALTH FOOD STORE FOR SALE
    Turn-key business opportunity. Successful well established business with room to grow. Excellent highway visibility.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    For more information, visit www.wyofile.com/careers/
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a high-impact, nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 27-year legacy using...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Position Summary Join our Team at the New Mexico Land Conservancy! We're seeking a Project Manager who will work to protect land and water across...
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • DIRECTOR OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
  • WILDLIFE HAVEN
    Beautiful acreage with Teton Creek flowing through it. Springs and ponds, lots of trees, moose and deer. Property has barn. Easy access. approx. 33 acres.
  • ARIZONA CONSERVATION CORPS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Arizona Conservation Corps is seeking a Program Director in Flagstaff or Tucson
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...