Town fights to save its newspaper

Jul 2, 2012

By Stan Schwartz
Managing Editor | Pub Aux

SILVERTON, CO—High in the Colorado Rockies, a small town worked to keep its community newspaper open and operating.
Residents of this tiny community were faced with the loss of the Silverton Standard and the Miner when GateHouse Newspapers could not sell the weekly and decided to close it.
“They offered the paper to the Durango Herald for $100,000,” said Editor Mark Esper. “They even offered it to me for $50,000.” But he did not have the capitol to make the deal.
Esper began his journalism career in the Rockies, but had been working at a paper in Michigan five years ago when he received an offer from GateHouse to run his own weekly paper back in the mountains he so loved.
“It was something I’ve always wanted to do,” he said.
Instead of losing the only paper the town had, Esper said they came up with the idea of donating the publication to the local chapter of the San Juan County Historical Society.
Esper said it was a scary time, thinking about how to make this work, but after looking at the numbers, things didn’t look so bad.
“It’s a tough place to make a living,” Esper noted in a phone interview from his paper’s office. Silverton was once a bustling mining town, home to more than 3,500 people. After the mines closed about 20 years ago and the ore mill shut its doors, most everyone moved away. Today, just a little more than 600 people live in the entire county, most of them in the town of Silverton. The main economy is tourism, but even that can be sketchy at times, because Silverton sits at an elevation of more than 9,000 feet. Yet towering snow-capped peaks surround it. The high mountain passes can become treacherous in the winter months.
Esper knows those passes all too well. The paper is printed 50 miles away at the Durango Herald, and Esper, as the paper’s editor, has to make that journey every week—rain or blizzard—to pick up the finished product.
Esper discussed making the Standard and the Miner Silverton’s public newspaper with Bev Rich, who runs the Historical Society.
Rich said she convinced the society’s board to take on the paper, but only if Esper would agree to continue to run the operation.
“We had never worked with a for-profit entity before,” she said.
Esper said he told Rich that he would do it, providing he had complete editorial autonomy.
Rich said she and the board would not have it any other way, and a deal was struck.
This past January, The Society of Professional Journalists designated the newspaper’s office a National Historic Site in Journalism.
“It is the only one in Colorado with this designation,” Esper said.
He mines the early editions of the paper, which started publishing in 1875 as the La Plata Miner, for historical stories. The Silverton Standard began publishing in 1889, and the two papers merged in 1922. Esper publishes those historic stories every week.
“There’s a lot of rich history in this town,” Esper said after relating the story he found about a local miner who had come into the newspaper’s office drunk, brandishing a gun. The publisher, at the time, reached for the office gun to dissuade the miner from mischief.
The historical society, which boasts more than 600 members nationwide, set up an account at a local bank and deposited $10,000 from which Esper can draw when needed.
“They came up with a new business model (for the paper), Esper said. The Historical Society appointed a three-person board to oversee the business aspects of the operation, “but they left me alone,” he added.
In the five years Esper has been running the newspaper, circulation has grown 62 percent. Including single-copy sales and issues mailed out of the county, circulation is about 1,050. But a loss of $5,000 over a six-month period prompted GateHouse to put the paper on the market, Esper said.
When the paper financial situation became tenuous in 2010, Esper said local school children had a bake sale to raise money to keep the paper open. That is saying something when the one school in town (K-12) has only 60 students and there were only two in the most recent graduating class.
“They raised about $2,000,” he said. “It was my most humbling moment.” The town gained national attention recently when NBC’s Today show sent a crew to do a story on how the people of Silverton were working to hold onto the town’s identity by saving its newspaper. Esper said a 2009 documentary done by Sonya Doctorian highlighted the newspaper as well. A link to those videos can be found on the paper’s website under Galleries/History.
When asked if the public attention from the Today show helped his circulation, Esper said, yes, but not as much as he hoped.
Rich said it is important to keep the newspaper running.
“It was a huge deal,” she added. “It’s how we communicate.”
Rich explained that Silverton is the oldest town on the western slope of Colorado.
She was worried about her local paper when nobody stepped forward to buy it, especially after learning how some of the large metro papers were faring in the poor economy.
“I cried when they closed the Rocky Mountain News,” she said.
After meeting with Esper, the Historical Society looked at other operations with a similar business models to base what it eventually did with the Silverton Standard.
Esper agreed to stay on for two years in his agreement with the Historical Society. That was two years ago and he’s still there. Although business is not booming, it is showing a profit, Esper said, and he has not had to ask for more funds.