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Fine, they'll just publish the newspaper themselves

When a rural weekly in Colorado folds, volunteers step up to fill the void. 'It just beat the dickens out of sitting around whining,' one says.

March 23, 2009|DeeDee Correll

CARBONDALE, COLO. — Though people sometimes complained about the Carbondale Valley Journal, its demise came as a blow after 34 years as the mountain town's only newspaper.

Residents felt its loss in the dearth of information about local life: births, deaths, proposed developments, high school sports scores.

A friend of Rebecca Young's died and there was no obituary. "I didn't hear of his death for a couple of weeks," she said. "I was so sad I wasn't at his service."

Young, who founded the newspaper in 1975 and ran it for five years before selling it, sent out an e-mail: Was anyone else upset? By the next day, she had 45 messages from people agreeing that something had to be done.

So Young and six other residents started a new newspaper, the Sopris Sun, run as a nonprofit and staffed mostly by volunteers. The free weekly is named after a snow-capped peak towering over the Roaring Fork Valley.

"It just beat the dickens out of sitting around whining that our paper was dead," Young said.

Their efforts come at a time when newspapers nationwide are dealing with declining advertising revenue and circulation. Though community newspapers haven't experienced the steep declines in revenue that metropolitan dailies have, they remain vulnerable to the loss of advertisers, said Brian Steffens, executive director of the National Newspaper Assn.

Rural newspapers that aren't located in a county seat or that don't have their county's contract to publish legal ads are particularly vulnerable, said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.

At least 20 community newspapers -- including the Valley Journal -- have closed or merged with other publications in the last year, Steffens said. As small papers fold, he and Cross said, it's not common to see attempts to replace them.

In Carbondale, the timing of the effort was not lost on organizers.

"Isn't it crazy? Starting a newspaper now?" asked editor and reporter Trina Ortega, a former Valley Journal employee who has become the first paid member of the staff.

She is aided every week by board members. Young designs pages, while Allyn Harvey, a former newspaper editor, writes stories and helps with the editing. Russ Criswell, a former town trustee, donated money and volunteers as a paperboy.

A mortgage broker helps with advertising sales, and a former director of the Chamber of Commerce pitches in with the bookkeeping.

When Denver's Rocky Mountain News closed in February, the Sopris Sun bought some of its newspaper boxes and spray-painted them yellow. The first issue was published Feb. 12 with a run of 3,000 copies.

Since then, the town has buzzed with news of the paper.

"I don't know if they have a business model that will work," said Carbondale Mayor Michael Hassig. But people have a sense that "we're all in this together," he said.

"It wouldn't surprise me if [the newspaper] was sustainable because there are an awful lot of people who do labors of love here," Hassig said.

For example, some residents help the one-screen movie theater on Main Street by selling concessions.

The newspaper is seeking to tap every possible source of revenue, including grants, said board member Colin Laird, who heads the local community development corporation.

It was important to make the effort, he said. "There was a void. Every town should have a park, a library and a newspaper."

One man called from out of state to offer help with the paper's website, and Ortega, 40, has received a small stack of resumes from writers and photographers willing to work for free.

But she wonders how long volunteers will be willing to work without any pay.

She works seven days a week, covering school board meetings, typing up the community calendar, writing a story about a couple celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary, assigning volunteer photographers to cover a local eco-friendly fashion show.

"Who knows where this will go? We're winging it," Ortega said as she fielded a call: Could she squeeze an extra ad into this week's edition? (She couldn't.)

"But I want to do this. I think it's important," she said. "I believe 100% we still need some form of journalism, whether it's online or print. No one else will cover our news."

Readers seem to be enthusiastic -- if only because the newspaper exists.

"They have a little work to do," said resident Sophie Schlumberger, 32. But it's good to have a paper again, she added; the month without one "felt like a long time."

"We're delighted we got our paper back," said rancher Emma Danciger, who has driven into town every Thursday for years to pick up the latest issue. "We've got to have our paper."

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Correll writes for The Times.

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