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Note: This is one in an occasional series of interviews with Colorado journalists.

By Ed Otte

Brian Calvert of High Country News

Brian Calvert of High Country News

Headquartered in a small town in Western Colorado, High Country News has a big regional reputation for environmental news coverage.

The Paonia-based multimedia news outlet produces a 29,000-circulation biweekly publication, website (www.hcn.org) and syndication service featuring cultural, environmental and natural resources stories from Montana to Texas and from the West Coast to the Great Plains.

Founded in 1970, the 501(c)3 nonprofit has grown in stature while collecting a number of national awards – the Utne Media Award, George Polk Award, Science in Society Award, Native American Journalists Association Best Environmental Story and Society of Environmental Journalists Award.

HCN won five writing awards, including four first places, in the 2014 Society of Professional Journalists Region 9 competition.

HCN’s Writers on the Range program generates popular op-ed columns that appear in weekly newspapers, small and large daily newspapers and on a variety of websites. In addition to its stable of writers, syndicated Boulder cartoonist Rob Pudim contributes opinion articles to WOTR.

Two members of the HCN staff, senior editor Jonathan Thompson and associate editor Brian Calvert, received Ted Scripps Fellowships to attend the Center for Environmental Journalism at CU-Boulder.

CEJ director Tom Yulsman cites the reasons for HCN’s success.

“Thanks to world-class writers and editors, High Country News covers the West more comprehensively and incisively than any other publication,” Yulsman said.

“And long before other news outlets began scrambling for new business models in the face of tumultuous change, HCN had already pioneered an independent, nonprofit approach that has, in fact, been key to their impressive journalistic success.”

Thompson was HCN editor-in-chief from 2007-2010. He lives in Durango where he writes articles for HCN. Calvert , a 1994 graduate of the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, worked in Cambodia, China and Afghanistan before moving to Paonia in May 2014 after the Scripps fellowship.

Question: What is the most controversial story HCN has run?

Calvert: Ed Marston’s 1990s special issue on a Brothers, Oregon, ranching couple, Doc and Connie Hatfield. They’d become environmentalists, which made them radicals among other public-land ranchers. But they were also highly successful, starting a co-op, Oregon Country Beef, of more than 100 other ranchers. They were taken up by Whole Foods, selling hormone and antibiotic-free beef, plus the marketing sizzle of everybody involved — and that included the wives to a large extent — working for healthy land that was not overgrazed. “Pure” environmentalists found their approach hard to believe and still wanted public land to be cattle free. Other ranchers criticized their approach as unrealistic and too demanding of cooperation. Feedback was fabulous.

Q: What is the most difficult environmental story to cover?

Calvert: Climate change. The immensity of the problem does not lend itself to great storytelling, and so you have to break it into smaller pieces. The problem is the uncertainty embedded in any little piece. If you were covering a war, you might cover a battle, or retreat, or a band of refugees moving across the border—and in that you would have something tangible and relatable to your audience. With climate change, if you start talking about a singular event—a hurricane, say—you start getting into real trouble if you attach it to climate change. Yes, the hydrological cycle will be affected by warming air temperature. No, you can’t say any one hurricane is caused by it.

Meanwhile, even if you could get folks to emotionally connect with climate change, you’d have the problem of paralysis among people as to what should happen next. What do we do about it? Can we even solve it? The answer is: not yet. But we have to be the ones applying pressure to the wound, so that when the docs get here—the future, smarter generations—they’ll have a shot at turning things around.

Q: What is the most under-reported environmental story?

Calvert: All of them. Environmental reporting, as a sub-section of journalism, is melting into general reporting, economics reporting and other beats. That means, as with many beats, we don’t have enough experts watchdogging those agencies and entities that are supposed to protect our environment—our water, air and other basic amenities. The environmental movements of the 1970s, from which, arguably, High Country News was born, are not the same as they were. Information has been scattered through the prism of the Internet, and perhaps so too have attitudes that led to direct action and bring about change in the past. We’re information heavy and action light, these days. And not just where the environment is concerned.

Q: How do you recruit contributing editors and correspondents?

Calvert: Many of our contributing editors and correspondents were once interns here. The magazine has a very specialized niche, in which we tell the story of the modern West through the lens of its natural resources and environment—those things that make the region unique. We are not an environmental magazine, per se, so our editorial needs are often best met by writers and editors who have some experience with us and understand our nuanced approach to these issues.

Q: How do you recruit people for the Writers on the Range program?

Calvert: Writers on the Range, edited by Betsy Marston since 2002, takes the approach that if you care about Western issues and have done some homework, you can write a convincing opinion piece. She says: “My job is to help all writers, skilled or not, make their argument clearly and effectively. I like to see a draft to make a decision about whether it’s worth my time pursuing. Occasionally, I ask a writer to do a piece about a hot subject.  I send out three op eds every Monday to some 50 papers in the region, including HCN.”

Q: With a network of writers across the West, what is the operation in Paonia? (The town, population 1,500, is known for its orchards and wineries. Annual community events include the Paonia Cherry Days Festival and Mountain Harvest Festival.)

Calvert: We’ve always been small, in terms of headquarters. In 1983, the magazine was based in Lander, Wyoming, and its small staff all quit, leaving the nonprofit board with a decision: Where would HCN go? Ed and Betsy Marston, who’d moved to Paonia from New York for “a year off,” were chosen to run the paper. Self-described workaholics, they had already founded and run a weekly county paper and a regional paper. So with $12,000 in the bank from the Lander crew, they restarted the paper. They hired their first intern plus a part-time development director, and a typesetter, and were off and running. Ed retired as publisher in 2002. Betsy moved from editor to WOTR editor and Heard around the West writer the same year.

We run a small editorial team here, now, led by Publisher Paul Larmer and Managing Editor Jodi Peterson, and including myself, associate editor, an online editor, Tay Wiles, and a social media coordinator, Gretchen King. We have two interns and a fellow, who help with research and writing. We have an art director, Cindy Wehling, and associate designer, Brooke Warren. And that’s it. For the most part, we rely on a network of freelancers, correspondents and contributing editors, who are our eyes and ears across the region. They know what’s important and what’s moving in their areas, and they keep fresh ideas coming.

Q: You offer free digital subscriptions to students and you provide internships, including a “journalism boot camp” in Paonia. Is this part of an effort to attract younger readers and staffers?

Calvert: Absolutely. High Country News has a loyal readership that is very savvy about Western issues and very educated. We want to keep that readership revived, through younger readers interested in these issues, and we want fresh takes on the West, which comes from younger writers eager to learn.

Q: What is the HCN business model? In addition to paid subscriptions and donations, how much revenue is generated from other news organizations using your material?

Calvert: We have subscribers, who are also often our most faithful donors, and we have some paid advertisers, as well. Our business model is a nonprofit model, and so we also rely on funding from foundations that value in-depth stories on complex issues in the West. We run a syndication service to about 70 news outlets around the West.

Q: Is the future of HCN paid digital subscriptions rather than a combination of print and digital subscribers?

Calvert: To us, it’s the combination. We believe in good storytelling, presented either in print or online. We use the print magazine to give the deep dives and hard looks our readers have supported for decades, in a tried and true format you can read in your easy chair. And we use our online presence to react quickly to events that are of interest to our readers. We engage across multiple media platforms, and we think we have a formula that works—and will keep working.

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Society of Professional Journalists Auraria chapter president Aaron Graff introduces speakers at the Feb. 5 multimedia journalism program on the Auraria campus. Phil Tenser, digital executive producer at KMGH 7News; Jim Hill, digital media manager at KUNC public radio; Gil Asakawa, manager of student media at CU-Boulder; and Dan Petty, digital director of sports at The Denver Post, explained the multimedia operations at their respective organizations. The program,cosponsored by the SPJ Colorado Pro Chapter and the Auraria campus chapter, attracted 44 journalism students and faculty.

Freedom of information laws will be discussed by three experts at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 25, at the Denver Press Club, 1330 Glenarm Place.

Sponsored by the Colorado Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, the program is a part of the organization’s Sunshine Week project. The event is free and open to the public.

Sunshine Week, March 15-21, is the annual national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others interested in the public’s right to know.

The project is supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and The Gridiron Club and Foundation. National coordinators are the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

More information is available at www.sunshineweek.org.

The Feb. 25  speakers:

  • Keli Rabon is an investigative reporter for 7News. She was the lead reporter for KMGH’s ongoing series “Contrary to the Public Interest” about problems with Colorado’s open records laws. The series received the SPJ Colorado chapter’s First Amendment award in April 2014.
  • Jeff Roberts, a former Denver Post reporter, is executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.
  • First Amendment attorney Steve Zansberg of Levine, Sullivan Koch and Schulz, is the CFOIC president.

Metered street parking is available in front of and near the Press Club on Glenarm Place. The meters accept credit cards. Parking is also available in a public lot on the southwest side of the Press Club.

The Society of Professional Journalists 2015 Region 9 Top of the Rockies Excellence in Journalism contest opens Feb. 1. The annual contest attracts entries from print, broadcast and digital journalists in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

Click here https://coloradospj.wordpress.com/contest/ to access the contest website and enter your award-winning work.

The four-week period to submit your entries ends on March 1.

The contest fee is $10 per entry for SPJ members and $15 for nonmembers. Payment must be made when entries are submitted and the contest website features a revenue manager module to make payment easier.

Questions? Email contest coordinator Deb Hurley Brobst at dchurley@aol.com.

Last year, more than 800 entries were submitted in the various categories and a similar number of entries is expected in 2015. Another SPJ pro chapter will judge the 2015 TOR entries.

The TOR awards program will be 6 p.m. Friday, May 15, at the Denver Press Club, 1330 Glenarm Place. Winners will be notified in mid-April. More than 100 people, from all of the Region 9 states, attended last year’s awards program at the Press Club.

The 2015 Top of the Rockies Excellence in Journalism contest opens Feb. 1!

Download a pdf version of all the rules and contest categories here: https://coloradospj.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/2015-tor-rules.pdf.

Enter your award-winning entries at Better Newspaper Contest’s website www.betternewspapercontest.com and click on “contestant login” then, as an “authorized entrant” select Top of the Rockies 2014 from the pull-down menu.

Key dates:

  • Feb. 1, 2015 Contest opens
  • March 1, 2015 Contest closes at midnight
  • March 1, 2015 Payment due with entries
  • March 15-April 11 Judging period
  • April 19, 2015 Winners notified
  • May 15, 2015 Awards reception at the Denver Press Club

Questions? Email Contest Chair Deb Hurley Brobst at DChurley@aol.com.

Note: This is one in an occasional series of interviews with Colorado journalists.

By Ed Otte

It takes grit, hard work, creativity and luck to survive 140 years. That – and three other key factors – explains the durability of the Silverton Standard & the Miner.

The 900-circulation nonprofit weekly, founded in 1875, is the oldest continuously published newspaper in Western Colorado.

 Courty of Jerry McBride/Durango Herald Mark Esper reports, writes and edits the Silverton Standard & the Miner. He also delivers the paper, which he used to pick up every Thursday before sunrise from the dock at The Durango Herald building. The paper is now printed in Montrose.


Courtesy of Jerry McBride/Durango Herald
Mark Esper reports, writes and edits the Silverton Standard & the Miner. He also delivers the paper, which he used to pick up every Thursday before sunrise from the dock at The Durango Herald building. The paper is now printed in Montrose.

One of the other key factors is that the Standard is a true reflection of its community. Nestled in a 9,305-feet elevation valley in the San Juan Mountains in Southwest Colorado, Silverton has survived mining busts, a declining population, geographic seclusion and brutal winters.

Geography and weather still define daily life. Today, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is a seasonal economic lifeline for the town of less than 600 year-round residents.

During all of these economic and weather cycles, the Standard reported the boom times and the misfortunes. That recorded history is one of the newspaper’s strongest characteristics. A weekly example is “Silverton Standard & Caboose,” a back-page compilation of old stories and photos from the town’s colorful past. The popular feature is an entertaining sidebar to the newspaper’s thorough coverage of current local news.

The second factor is editor and publisher Mark Esper. The third is the San Juan County Historical Society.

Courtesy of Shaun Stanley/Durango Herald
Mark Esper works the phone for a story for his Silverton Standard and The Miner newspaper from within his office in the old Hospital Building in Silverton.

In 2009, the Standard was on the brink of closure because the owner couldn’t find a buyer. Desperate to save the newspaper, Esper persuaded the historical society to acquire the publication. The unusual business transaction cast Esper – the self-described publisher, editor, reporter, photographer, advertising manager, classified manager, circulation manager and janitor – in an even more visible role in the community.

The new publishing arrangement was seen from the community’s perspective in a documentary by former Rocky Mountain News videographer Sonya Doctorian. Now the senior photo editor of The Washington Post Magazine, Doctorian shot “Publish or Perish: Silverton Saves Its Newspaper” in 2009.

The video can be seen on YouTube here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2gxAqLMU8UA&feature=related and on the newspaper’s website at www.silvertonstandard.com.

In November 2011, the Society of Professional Journalists designated the Standard as a National Historic Site in Journalism. The plaque dedication ceremony was conducted in early May 2012 at the historical society museum to coincide with the arrival of the first D&SNGRR train of the summer.

The SPJ Colorado Pro Chapter in 1969 honored the newspaper as a State Historic Site in Journalism.

Question: It has been five years since the San Juan County Historical Society assumed ownership of the Standard & the Miner. How would you describe the arrangement?

Esper: I would describe it as barely noticeable for the most part. I operate the newspaper and give a copy of our monthly financial statement to the historical society board president, Bev Rich.

Part of my agreement is that I have editorial freedom, and that has not been breached. And I treat the historical society the same as I would any other nonprofit organization.

We’ve managed to hold our own financially since May 2009 when the historical society acquired the newspaper as a donation.

Remember this was occurring in early 2009. Newspapers across the country were in freefall and the owner of the Telluride Daily Planet wanted out of Silverton. The financial statement for the previous year looked grim. This newspaper, which is the oldest business of any kind on the Western Slope of Colorado, was in grave peril. But somehow we ended that first year with a profit of $236 and I have never had to ask for a dime from the historical society since.

Question: Has the relationship caused any problems with news coverage or editorials?

Esper: Nothing serious. Currently there is a recall election going on against a town board member (long story, and trust me you probably do not want to know about it). The historical society board members are themselves split on that matter. However I haven’t gotten pressure from anyone on the board. The historical society is involved in so many projects I have to remind myself to put in a disclaimer line about ownership of the newspaper (though that is also made clear each week in our masthead). I am mindful of not trying to be seen as just some historical society newsletter. And we sure do not come close to that. I do not feel any real pressure from the historical society. I feel much more accountable to our readers, to be honest about it. I write some strong editorials from time to time and as far as I’m concerned that’s my job.

Question: The Durango Herald in November ran a story about you, with the headline “Silverton’s heroic Clark Kent,” about your coverage of a “scandal” involving a fired town employee, recall efforts of a town trustee and election letters to the editor. How difficult is it to cover controversial issues in a small town?

Esper: I came here from the Traverse City Record-Eagle in Michigan, a daily with a circulation of 29,000. I knew Silverton, (population 578) was going to be a different animal. Within a couple of months of arriving I had to cover a bar brawl in which four local people were arrested. And I knew all four of them. It’s just sheer luck I wasn’t at the Miners Tavern at the time. I was on my way down there when I saw all the flashing lights.

The intimacy has great advantages too, of course. I can take a photo including just about any five or six people in town and not have to jot down names and where they are in the photo. I know them all.

Then there was the time just six weeks ago when, after delivering the papers to the nine news vending boxes in town, I got back to the office and immediately received a call from the grocery store. Some kid had just stolen all the papers from the box. And she gave me the name. The kid’s mom was in the paper that week for a drug arrest. He hit every box in town and burned most of the papers before our undersheriff caught up with him. I didn’t press charges.

Question: How many community fundraisers do you conduct each year for the newspaper? What are the events and how much money do you raise?

We have two main fundraisers over the course of the year.

On Labor Day Weekend I produce the Silverton Western Movie Festival, where we feature old movies made in Silverton and the San Juans. These are mostly old Westerns from the 1950s. It’s pretty popular and brought in about $1,300 this year.

And we produce a calendar each year featuring historic photos of Silverton (along with some old funny stories from the Standard each month). That brings in $1,500 or $2,000 a year.

We also have a few generous benefactors who each write us a nice check each year. But the income from donations and fundraisers is less than 10 percent of our total income.

We are still a newspaper business first and foremost. Advertising and circulation is how we make money.

Question: Could this business model work for other nonprofit news organizations?

Esper: I think it could. However the Standard doesn’t really look like or operate much like a nonprofit, with fundraisers and outright donations comprising a small percent of our income. And our subscription rates and advertising rates are competitive with market prices. Community support is one advantage. I call it Silverton Public Newspaper.

Question: What happens to your readership and advertising when the summer train season ends and some Silverton businesses close for the winter?

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad drops hundreds of pedestrians into downtown Silverton every day all summer long. It’s a big driver of the town’s summer economy. The train runs from May to the end of October. After that the town does get a bit dead, though we are seeing more winter tourism recently.

I typically cut my press run by 100 after the last train pulls out (unless it’s an even year and then I wait until after the election to drop my press run). Those 100 papers pretty much account for the seasonal fluctuation in rack sales.

We have many subscribers who summer here and winter elsewhere. So we typically will get a lot of address changes in May and October too. And our biggest growth is in our e-mail PDF edition.

But we have many subscribers who don’t ever get to Silverton. People who just love trains, people who love Western history.

As for advertising, we produce summer and winter editions of a glossy Destination: Silverton travel magazine that’s a very popular vehicle for our tourist-related businesses. There is a seasonal drop off in advertising too, of course. Simply fewer businesses open and fewer special events.

Question: You now drive the three-hour round-trip over 11,000-feet elevation Red Mountain Pass to pick up each week’s edition at the Montrose Daily Press. You had problems before due to snowstorms closing the two passes between Silverton and Durango. Will there be new challenges with Red Mountain Pass?

Esper: The drive to Durango early every Thursday morning was sometimes sketchy enough. I had to go over two mountain passes prone to avalanches. I would usually leave at around 5 a.m. The problem with that being that in the winter the avalanche experts don’t do their assessment of how bad it is until about 7:30 a.m. when it’s light enough to see. Twice I got caught on the Durango side after they closed the highway. I was the only one crazy enough to be driving through those avalanche paths in those conditions. I don’t look forward to the Red Mountain Pass trips.

Question: Do you still hear comments from people who see Doctorian’s documentary about the newspaper?

Esper: Not often. Though in 2012 I got a call out of the blue from a producer for the NBC “Today Show.” He had just seen it online somewhere and called up to ask if we were still around. He was going to pitch it as a story. And as it happens we were just about to get our National Historic Site in Journalism marker from the Society of Professional Journalists. So Bob Dotson came out to Silverton and did an “American Story” piece on the Standard for the “Today Show.”

By Gil Rudawsky

If USA Today sports reporter Lindsay Jones could pick one professional athlete to have dinner with, it would be the Denver Broncos’ Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton. “He’s a genuine good guy,” said Jones, speaking Jan. 8 at the Colorado Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists Fireside Chat at the Denver Press Club.

SPJ Colorado Pro Chapter treasurer Bob Burdick and USA Today NFL reporter Lindsay Jones at the Jan. 8 Fireside Chat at the Denver Press Club.

SPJ Colorado Pro Chapter treasurer Bob Burdick and USA TODAY NFL reporter Lindsay Jones at the Jan. 8 Fireside Chat at the Denver Press Club.

Jones, who is based in Denver, is one of four national NFL reporters at USA Today. Her job is to look for good story lines, not game coverage. The theory is that readers already will know the game story, but will look to USA Today (and her) for something more.

She files for the print edition as well as the online edition of USA Today. Because the two sides have separate editing staffs, this can create conflicts about what she should file, how much and when. In the end, plans are negotiated and her content goes east for editing and processing. She does not file live for the web site, but rather sends her material to editors who put it online.

At the Fireside Chat, she responded easily to questions. Asked who the Denver Broncos are this year, she replied, “I don’t think the Broncos know who the Broncos are.” (That was three days before the Broncos gave a lackluster effort and were ushered out of the playoffs by Indianapolis.)

She said she had a good working relationship with quarterback Peyton Manning, but pointed out that he usually stayed out of controversy, seldom saying anything without thinking it over first.

She worked her way up the journalism ladder, starting by covering sports at Emory University. Since Emory doesn’t have a football team, she covered a number of other sports.

After leaving Emory, Jones worked for The Palm Beach Post covering education before moving on to preps and then South Florida football. The Fort Collins native eventually moved on to The Denver Post in 2008, and then joined USA Today in 2012.

She said she had not sought out a chance to leave The Denver Post, but was contacted by USA Today. The job sounded good, she could stay in Denver and she knew there was a logjam of people ahead of her at The Post.

She is part of a two-personal journalism family, with her husband, Chris Paul, working as a designer at the Daily Camera in Boulder.

She credits her mentor, veteran sports journalist Vicki Michaelis, with providing her a game plan for her career. Michaelis, who helped establish credibility and opportunities for women sports reporters, also worked at The Denver Post and USA Today. She now is on the faculty of the Grady College of Journalism at the University of Georgia, where she is the John Huland Carmical distinguished professor in sports journalism.

“I’m proud to walk in her footsteps,” said Jones.

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