Monday, March 23, 2009

Chain closes a weekly, so volunteers start one

When Swift Communications stopped printing the weekly Valley Journal in Carbondale, Colo., three months ago, residents of the town of 6,000 quickly concluded that they would not be well served by the company's daily papers in the Garfield County seat of Glenwood Springs, 13 miles to the north, or in Aspen, 30 miles to the southeast. (Encarta map)

Rebecca Young, who founded the paper in 1975 and sold it five years later, told DeeDee Correll the Los Angeles Times that the loss of the paper and such essentials as obituaries hit home when a friend died and she didn't find out until two weeks later. So she found six other town residents to start the Sopris Sun, a free-circulation weekly named for a local mountain and run mostly by volunteers. "It just beat the dickens out of sitting around whining that our paper was dead," she told Correll, of the Times bureau in Denver.

Carbondale has a volunteer ethic. Its one-screen movie theater is supported by volunteers who sell concessions. "It wouldn't surprise me if [the newspaper] was sustainable because there are an awful lot of people who do labors of love here," Mayor Michael Hassig said. Staffers are looking for revenue in any way possible, even applying for grants to keep the paper running, and editor Trina Ortega, the first paid employee, received resumes and phone calls from people willing to donate their time, as well as a phone call from someone in another state who volunteered to work on the paper's Web site.

For the first issue, published Feb. 12, the Sun printed 3,000 copies. The Valley Journal had a circulation of about 5,000 when it announced its closing on Christmas Day. It said in a farewell note, "The need for Carbondale to have a newspaper is still very real, and we of course prefer to look at this as a temporary situation, with the goal being the return of a stand-alone newspaper ... whenever the economy allows." The paper said the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, circulation 5,000, and The Aspen Times, 11,000, would have more "Carbondale news, happenings and human interest stories." The Valley Journal site reported Jan. 17 that volunteers were "in the throes of birthing a new community newspaper," but as far as we can tell it has not reported that they delivered. It did report that a Spanish-language paper had started to fill the niche vacated by La Tribuna, another shuttered publication of the Swift subsidary Colorado Mountain News Media.

Young told Aspen Times reporter John Colson for the January story that the Sun would not try to cover government meetings, "which she said can be amply covered by the dailies." She told him, “I kind of think the old model of weeklies is dead,” and that the Sun would focus on “what comes after the meetings, what are the biggest subjects, the impacts” of decisions made at them. "Plus, she said, the paper will publish 'the human features,' stories she said are intended 'to introduce people to one another,' from one generation to the next or from one social sphere to another." (Read more) And, despite Young's inspiration, there are no obituaries.

Correll's story ends with a quintessential quote from rancher Emma Danciger, "who has driven into town every Thursday for years to pick up the latest issue." She told Correll, "We've got to have our paper." (Read more) That calls to mind a maxim often cited by Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, who is quoted in the story: "You know it's a community newspaper if the readers say 'our paper,' not 'the paper'."

UPDATE, April 6: Doug Burns reports in the Daily Yonder that the Sun is especially valuable when it comes to covering land-use issues.

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