A Paper's Scrapping Western Crusade
Colorado newspaper digs up stories that grab national attention
OUT of a cluttered storefront office in the tiny mountain town in Delta County, Colo., ("Home of the National Little Britches Rodeo"), a small band of journalists is chronicling the future of the American West.Their team is small - less than a dozen staffers and unpaid interns - plus a network of low-paid freelancers. Their region is vast - 10 states covering a million square miles. Resources are modest, with $400,000 budgeted this year, mostly from subscriptions. And circulation is limited - 10,000 subscriptions passed around to 33,000 readers. But High Country News, published in the old mining town of Paonia, is making a distinct mark. It is closely read in congressional offices and state houses, as well as in the government agencies that control most of the rural West. It has broken important stories subsequently picked up by the New York Times and other national media. Two of its special series have been republished in book form. It has won the prestigious George Polk Award for environmental reporting, and last year was named to "The Roll of Honour for Environmental Achievement" by the United Nations Environment Programme. "It's the only place where you can really know what's happening in the rest of the West," says former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt. "There is simply no other way to know what's going on, particularly as environmental controversies develop which have not yet reached the courts or the administrative process or Congress. It's required reading...." Begun 20 years ago by Wyoming rancher and firebrand conservationist Tom Bell, the biweekly newspaper has been run since 1983 by Ed and Betsy Marston, a husband-wife team of transplanted easterners who have lived in rural Colorado since 1974. Ed, once a college physics teacher, is publisher. Betsy, who won an Emmy Award for her work as a New York public television producer, is editor. The Marstons have just returned from a year at Stanford on a journalism fellowship. The original role of the paper, says Ed, "was to act as a Paul Revere," to warn of the environmental damage that accompanied the mining-energy boom of the 1970s, as well as the harm from grazing and logging, plus threats from recreational development and water projects. When the region's boom turned to bust in the 1980s, the story became as much economic and cultural as environmental. Recent stories have covered ancient forests, Pacific salmon, and the future of Yellowstone National Park. Throughout the paper there is an ethic of conservation that leans toward what supporters of increased development and extractive industries deridingly call "preservationism." The Marstons don't deny it. "We have a beat - it's the environment," says Betsy, the more outspoken Marston. "I don't believe in objectivity, but we try to be fair." "You need a place to stand," adds her husband. "The trick is not to just stand there." Thus the paper seeks all points of view and is not simply a mouthpiece for environmental and preservationist groups. On some issues (like the validity of well-run cattle ranches) the Marstons part company with their more ideological brethren. "One of the really nice things about the paper is that it doesn't have an ax to grind, and it really tries to involve all sides," says Mary Jarrett, who with her husband Lawrence Mosher has been running High Country News during the Marstons' absence. "We don't have ideological paths, but we write with passion," says Mr. Mosher, who spent 23 years in Washington, D.C. as a writer and editor before returning to his native West. In any case, the newspaper apparently has influence beyond its circulation. Thirty percent of its readers work for government agencies and another 18 percent are education professionals, according to surveys. Jim Martin, state director for US Sen. Tim Wirth (D) of Colorado, looks particularly for "which issues are developing critical mass." Former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm finds the High Country News "a terrific institution ... filled with good sense and a lack of extremism." The Marstons are "eloquent spokesmen and thinkers," says Mr. Lamm, now head of the Center for Public Policy and Contemporary Issues at the University of Denver. With this reputation, High Country News has an unusually loyal readership. When the newspaper was down to its last nickel some years back, readers chipped in $30,000. Since then, it has been run as a nonprofit organization with a board of directors from the 10-state region. To help cover costs, readers donate to a "research fund." "We have a very personal contact with our readers," says associate publisher Linda Bacigalupi. "They really are our best source of what's happening in their region." Following board meetings, there's a picnic in the town park for readers.
EVEN though High Country News is on more stable financial ground these days, it remains a lean operation. Its principal contributors are reporters who welcome the chance to write at length from a broader perspective - and with more of the passion Mosher talks about. "We pride ourselves on being a little low-tech," says staff writer Florence Williams. The motto on the masthead is "A Paper for People who Care about the West," and that comes through in the lively letters from readers, literary essays, poetry, and photo spreads. Beyond the beautiful and fragile environment of the West, the Marstons and their crew also express concern for the working people in rural areas who have suffered through boom-and-bust cycles. For the Marstons, that compassion comes from raising their family in a hard-times town of 1500. "The environmental agenda of more wilderness, more wild rivers, less logging, less drilling, and less mining is well enough, so far as it goes," Ed wrote in a series of articles titled "Reopening the Western Frontier." "But a vision that sees only land and wildlife has the same weakness as a vision that sees only ore bodies and old-growth forests. A vision that does not recognize the small communities and rural human activities that accompany the land and wildlife has an enormous blindspot."