Sunday, December 29, 2019

Not just another newspaper obit: California's oldest weekly

A Mark Twain bust looks on as Don Russell edits The Mountain Messenger. (Los Angeles Times photo by Kent Nishimura)
About 2,000 newspapers in the United States have closed or merged in the last 15 years, all but a few of them weeklies, about two-thirds in metropolitan areas and close to third in rural areas. That's more than two and a half papers a week, many with only local notice. But when California's oldest weekly announces it's folding, that's worth broader attention -- especially when it once carried the byline of Sam Clemens, who later adopted the name Mark Twain.

Sierra County, California, with Plumas
County to the north (Wikipedia map)
The Mountain Messenger serves Sierra County, which has a population of only 3,240, not enough to support a newspaper, as several very small U.S. counties have learned in the past century, increasingly in recent years. It also served Plumas County, pop. 20,000, which has its own papers.

"Editor-Publisher Don Russell had spent the past year trying to sell the state’s oldest weekly newspaper with no luck. He is planning to retire by the middle of January, at which point publication will end," Brittany Mejia reports for the Los Angeles Times. He told her, “I haven’t taken a salary to speak of” for the last two years. “Nobody in their right mind would buy this paper. . . . I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I’m tired of it.”

The Messenger's circulation is "about 2,400 on its best day," Mejia writes. "The paper dates to 1853, when it was started as a twice-monthly publication. It became the Mountain Messenger in 1854 or 1855 and moved to La Porte and then to Downieville, a Gold Rush community about 110 miles northeast of Sacramento. The paper’s claim to fame is that Twain once wrote there while hiding out from the law. He was only there for a couple of weeks, writing under his real name, Sam Clemens, according to Russell, who read some of his articles on microfilm."

“They were awful,” Russell told Mejia. “They were just local stories, as I recall, written by a guy with a hangover.”

As most of America's early newspapers did, the Messenger has survived in recent years on income from public notices bought by local and state governments, and from other legally required ads. Now Sierra County won't have an official organ. County Supervisor Lee Adams told Meija, “It has chronicled our history for 166 years, and to see it disappear now is just quite sad. This is more than a newspaper; it really is an institution.”

No comments: