Continuation of Feeling the Heat
By Buzz Bissinger
Buzz Bissinger won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Now a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, he is the author of two highly acclaimed books, “Friday Night Lights” and, most recently, “A Prayer for the City.”
The lead story Larry Atkinson is editing broke late, tunneling into the newsroom from that greatest source of news in a small town, the Main Street rumor mill, blowing past the Brown Palace Apartments and Jerry and Mary's Appliances and the Good Neighbor Store and Anderson's Family Shoe Store and the Silver Dollar Lounge and the Scherr-Howe Arena where Bill Spiry once lit up the varnished parquet with 42 points.
The local hospital is going bankrupt. That's the talk.
Like all Main Street rumors, this particular one is an unbalanced cocktail of drama and truth, but there is a basis to it: Mobridge Regional Hospital, serving patients from a 60-mile radius, has agreed to enter into an affiliation with a larger medical facility in Bismarck. It could be good news for Mobridge, if the result is better health care at lower cost, but any time a bigger fish decides to link up to a smaller one, there are other possible repercussions--loss of local control, potential loss of jobs, maybe even closure. The story has enormous ramifications for those who live in the area, and since the weekly newspaper is the only source of what the affiliation really means and what it doesn't mean, the wording can't be casual.
Atkinson is staring at the computer screen in his office, trying to edit the hospital story. Next to him is the reporter who wrote it, Eric Davis. Davis has been at the Tribune only four months, so Atkinson is gently probing him with basic questions. But virtually every time he asks Davis something, someone else casually walks in to ask Atkinson something. It creates a Beckett-like dialogue, in which Davis tries to answer Atkinson's question and Atkinson in turn responds to Davis' answer by answering a question from someone else who has suddenly appeared in the middle of the tiny office. At other moments people come in, offer brief bulletins on some aspect of the operation that either has gone haywire or is about to go haywire, then turn around and leave.
A couple of days earlier the hard-drive system on the computers had gone out, and since Mobridge is one of those places in America so remote that it's a hundred miles from every place you'd never dream of going to anyway unless you were threatened or hallucinatory, Atkinson has basically become the de facto computer technician for the Tribune. It took him two days to fix what was wrong, but some of the terminals are still crashing without rhyme or reason.
"Computers are dropping like flies," someone reports at one point, with the detachment of a war scout.
But Atkinson can't worry about it, at least not right now. He is still putting the finishing touches on Davis' story, and once he is done with that he has the editorial to write. He already had one banged out, but the news of the hospital affiliation is too big to ignore without commentary. Atkinson's voice is needed, just as it has been needed on so many other issues that have affected this complicated community of 3,800 over the past 15 years--the economy, racism, alcoholism, violence, the sad and seemingly irreparable fissures that exist between Mobridge and the Standing Rock Indian Reservation just across the Missouri River.
But now the phone repair guy is here, because there is annoying static in at least one of the outside lines, not to mention the sudden and mysterious absence of recorded music when a caller is put on hold. And even before the phone guy got here, there was the letter from Marlo Utter informing Atkinson that she was quitting her composing room job to take a position over in Corson County with the South Dakota State University extension service.
Given the critical shortage of labor at the Tribune, the shoes of Marlo Utter won't be easily filled, and her resignation comes right on the heels of the assistant pressman who quit. Grosch, who has the title of production manager and is Atkinson's perfect alter ego, has become so desperate for applicants that he is willing to take on just about anyone as long as they have a driver's license. It is an admittedly liberal hiring strategy, but it has its pitfalls anyway since, as Grosch somewhat forlornly notes, "Half the applicants don't have a driver's license." He did just manage to hire two guys he likes, but he has no idea how long they will last. He certainly isn't going to hold his breath, since the paper has been through five pressmen in five years.
It is Grosch who breaks the news to Atkinson that the phone repair guy is here, and it is Atkinson, still staring at the hospital story on the computer screen, who patiently tells Grosch to take the phone repair guy back to the cable boxes so he can get started. Grosch leaves, and Atkinson in turn continues to prod Davis on his story, because he understands him for precisely what he is--earnest, willing and totally inexperienced.
The shortage of labor at the Tribune, a problem that weekly papers all over the country are being forced to confront, doesn't simply include people in production. About 15 years ago, Atkinson had 40 applicants to choose from when he advertised for the position of news editor at the Tribune. Roughly a year ago, when Travis Svihovec decided he wanted out of the weekly newspaper business, Atkinson placed advertisements in Editor & Publisher, the Denver Post, Omaha World-Herald, Fargo Forum and Minneapolis' Star-Tribune. The net result was three applicants, one from the East Coast (how come the biggest wackos are always from the East Coast?) who told Atkinson of his determination to turn the Tribune into a national newspaper. Another wrote well but had floated around so many places that it made Atkinson nervous. That caused him to settle on Davis, who basically applied to the Tribune because his newlywed wife had roots in the community.
At the time, Davis was a student at Western Carolina University. He worked for the literary magazine, but when it came to journalism experience the only thing he could point to was the Cedar Cliff Echoes, his high school paper. But Atkinson hired him anyway with the eventual hope of making him the paper's news editor. "I was very surprised," Davis admits. "I was just looking for something smaller. I was very surprised."
And Atkinson himself, as much as he likes Davis, also knows the whole thing is something of a crapshoot. "I had three applicants, two of which I never would have hired. The third, who had no experience, I did hire, because he was willing to try."
Atkinson wants to make sure that Davis has quoted people precisely in the hospital story. He questions Davis' use of the term "job engineering," since Atkinson knows it's one of those squirrelly corporate terms that can mean just about anything. He also wants Davis to pin down the precise date when the hospital board first told staffers what was in the works. The reporter doesn't know, but he's pretty confident he can find out quickly, since the wife of the paper's sports editor, Jay Davis, was at the meeting.
That kind of easy access has made life easier for Eric Davis in other ways. When he needs to find the mayor of Mobridge or the president of the Mobridge City Council, he once again doesn't have to go very far--both of them work at the Tribune. The mayor, Darrell Gill, is an advertising sales rep with long experience, since he used to work for one of the local radio stations. And the head of the city council is Leo Grosch.
For Davis, this is a kind of journalistic godsend. "When I need a quote from one of 'em," he says, "they're right there."
For Grosch it's not so nice, since what's on the record and off the record inevitably becomes muddled. "I've gotten burned by talking in the office and having it in the paper," he admits, but it has also taught him a valuable lesson. "You just have to be careful around reporters," particularly, it seems, when they work around the corner from you.
Atkinson concedes the situation is less than ideal. In the past he had a policy prohibiting workers from holding public office. But Gill and Grosch are valuable employees who don't work on the editorial side, and in the difficult economic climate of the Tribune he can't afford to lose them. "Does it create a credibility problem? Yes it does," he says. "If I could wave a magic wand, I'd love to keep Darrell Gill and Leo Grosch and not have them as elected officials."
Grosch reappears in Atkinson's office to make sure he hasn't forgotten about the phone repair guy, since time costs money.
"You'll need to come back and talk to this guy."
"I'll be back in just a second."
"He's standing and waiting."
Atkinson gives Davis a final instruction on how to
tighten the strands of the hospital story, then gets up from his chair and heads into the backshop to talk with the phone guy. Over the past 18 months, this area has become a literal shop of horrors. The equipment is used, because Atkinson is a small weekly publisher. Because it is used, it breaks down, or it never quite works the way it should, and the cost of that has put a severe financial strain on him. It has become even more heightened by the fact that the Mobridge area, almost completely dependent on agriculture, is one of the few economically depressed places in the country. In 1997, the worst South Dakota winter in a century killed thousands of cattle. The following year, grain prices plummeted, and the little dollop of tourism there was in the area, because of the worldwide reputation for walleye fishing in Lake Oahe, dropped as well.
In the meantime, Atkinson decided he needed a better press both to print the paper in color and maybe make a little extra money doing some outside work. In a trade publication he saw an ad for one that belonged to the publisher of a black weekly newspaper in North Carolina. Atkinson bought it for $135,000, and according to various estimates figured he would have to spend around $100,000 to rebuild it. He swallowed and put that figure into the budget. But the cost of the rebuilding ballooned to $190,000. Then ad revenue started falling because of the economy, and Atkinson found himself facing negative cash flow.
To help with the cash situation, Atkinson has basically refinanced the operation through a series of different loans. Cash flow is positive again, and next year Atkinson hopes to do $1.5 million in revenue. Like many weekly publishers he has diversified to stay afloat--a vinyl sign business, a business trading in personalized coffee cups and pens and jackets (humming along at a quarter million dollars a year), the publication of several regional phone books.
But the situation is precarious, particularly after the bank told him there would be no more loans even if a piece of machinery went down and didn't come back up. There have been sleepless nights. There has been the stress and struggle of making bank payments. There is the awareness that there are 31 people who work for him and depend on him.
"It's probably why the Tribune has survived as long as it has," says Eryn DeFoort of Atkinson's efforts. "He could have really given up on it." But DeFoort, the special sections editor of the paper until she left in October, has also seen the toll it has taken on him, regardless of his stoic facade. She is well aware of the industry trend, how the chains are coming in and buying up papers like Atkinson's. She is also aware of the neverending burden the publisher carries. "It's just not wondering if the industry will eat us up," she says. "It's wondering if the industry will eat up Larry."
Atkinson stands in the corner of the backshop with the phone repair guy, who has fixed the mystery of the recorded music by pointing out to Atkinson, as gently as he possibly can, that there can be no recorded music if there is, as happens to be the case here, no tape in the tape recorder.
"That'll do it," says Atkinson.
"Yes sir," says the phone repair guy.
As for the static problem, the phone repair guy can't quite pinpoint it, but he is pretty sure that an open container of chemicals sitting in close proximity to the phone wires doesn't help.
"You got corrosive chemicals here and that'll eat away at these."
Atkinson nods. He chats for a few minutes with Jim Nelson, owner and publisher of the Timber Lake Topic in a town 35 miles to the west. They bemoan the fact that the nearest computer expert is very, very far away. Then Atkinson goes into Davis' office and reboots his computer, which has crashed. Then he goes back into his own office to work on the hospital editorial. Because of all the distractions, it takes him a bit of time to figure out where he left off. He has just gotten back into the rhythm of it when the receptionist comes in to ask if he wants to talk to a caller about an apartment that Atkinson rents out for extra income.
"Are you taking calls?"
"Just tell them to call back."
He finishes the editorial and goes back into the newsroom. Since Davis is still new he needs help with pagination, and Atkinson eagerly volunteers to do Page 6. He returns to his office, where someone is using his computer because of another terminal crash, so he shifts back instead to Davis' office and begins the work of filling in an 18-inch hole with various briefs--a guilty plea to possession of heroin, the closing of Revheim Bay because of a high bacteria count, a correction, a three-column house ad.
As Atkinson toils, Davis is at a terminal in the newsroom working to close some other pages, another art he is still learning. When asked by DeFoort what stories he plans to use on a particular page, he says with Sad Sack weariness, "I have no clue."
DeFoort is only 23, but she promptly gives Davis the best advice he will ever receive in his career, perhaps the best advice ever dispensed, on how to succeed in newsroom management:
"Eric, the art of being an editor is to bullshit your way through and say, 'I have a clue.' "
"What did you say?" asks Atkinson from the adjacent office.
She laughs. He laughs.
And somehow, despite the late break on the hospital story, despite the phone guy and the random computer crashes and the rewriting of the editorial and the mystery of the disappearing music on hold and the static in the line and the caller about the apartment, it all gets done.
"What I find is through all this confusion, I manage to get a paper out," says Atkinson. "I find that pretty amazing."
As for the product, it's pretty much the same as it has been since Larry Atkinson took over the Tribune in 1982--solid, exhaustive, not a rabble-rousing voice in the community but a voice willing to prod readers to face issues they may not want to face. It is a relationship made all the more complex by the fact that anyone who writes a story for the Tribune is pretty much guaranteed to have a personal relationship with those they are writing about--knows their kids, knows their golf handicap, knows whether that story of catching a walleye bigger than Shaquille O'Neal's shoe size is fact or fancy.
"The people you write about aren't these faceless names," says Atkinson. "I think it makes us better journalists. It makes us more accountable in what we write. I think we care a little bit more. We can write with more understanding, but that's a good check and balance to have in the industry."
But it doesn't mean that Atkinson shies away. Like the time he took the head of the school board, who also happened to be one of his closest friends, to task for advocating closed meetings. Or the special section, all locally produced, he put out to address the problem of alcohol and drugs in the community. Or the decision he made several years ago to reproduce in its entirety a poignant and horrifying story from the Philadelphia Inquirer that dealt with the monumental tragedy of alcoholism on the Standing Rock reservation. Or the letter to the editor he insisted on publishing that called him an "ignorant, small-town newspaper publisher" putting out a paper that encouraged racism and violence toward Native Americans.
In Atkinson's view, all this comes with the territory of being an independent weekly newspaper publisher, the same territory in which a reader calls and thanks him for that terrific picture of her daughter at homecoming, the same territory in which a reader calls and wants to know why in hell he didn't get his paper delivered, the same territory in which Hilda Jones has her shorts in a stitch because a reporter got her name confused with Hilda Smith.
As I watch Larry Atkinson, it is clear to me that he loves this profession in a way that, without getting too maudlin about it, is inspirational, a reminder of what it means to be a journalist, or at least what it used to mean before the Internet made all of us feel like we were counting down to a funeral. The work that he does is a part of his soul.
But he is not a saint. He is a man with a family to support. He is a businessman with a payroll to meet, and while the last year has had its sublime moments, it has also had moments where "it hasn't been fun." No fun struggling to make bank payments. No fun when the cash flow has gone red. No fun when the cost of repairing that bitchy press, even though the actual time in the shop was three hours, still came to $2,000 because Atkinson also had to pay the repairman's airfare, rental car, travel time and parking in the airport lot. No fun when you advertise for seven months and realize that there is no one out there anymore who has any interest in doing what you have spent your life doing.
Over the past year Atkinson got calls from three brokers wondering if he might be interested in selling. They were calls he resisted, because he could pretty much predict what a lot of chains would do if they came in.
But the conversation with the bank, in which he was told there would be no more loans, jarred Atkinson to the bone, because it means there is no room for natural disaster in a business that is predicated on it. "I'm leveraged so much now that I can't make a mistake," he says. If the press needs a major repair, or the address labeler goes kaput, or the computer system fatally crashes, Atkinson knows he may be sunk. "I'm worried at this point. I'm worried about whether or not I'm going to be able to hold onto this business."
And it has created a harsh reality for him, one fraught with so many dimensions and questions of personal principle that it marks the only time he shuts the door to his office when he speaks to me.
"Prior to that discussion with the bank, I probably wouldn't have sold," he says. He pauses for just a second, knowing that the sentiment he is about to express is one that he never thought would occur to him.
"But after that discussion with the bank, I probably would sell."
The words linger in the cozy and cluttered office, swollen and sad and in their tiny way momentous, the specter of another independent weekly fluttering to the forest floor. Not right now. Maybe not even in the near future if the farming picks up and Atkinson can kick up the revenues to that $1.5 million goal. But sometime, because in the malling of America, weekly newspapers are just another tenant.
"Realistically," says Larry Atkinson, "I'm the last private owner of this paper."
Later that night, over steaks the size of meteorites at the Fireside, I watch Atkinson as he interacts with the other patrons. I see the mutual warmth, how Atkinson understands just how damn tough it is to make a living in Mobridge today, how the others exude a familiarity that comes with knowing that here is a man, a good man, who has become as important a fixture in their community as any preacher or teacher or politician. It is here, in these brief exchanges of how's the wife and how's the kids and good luck and God bless, that I understand why local ownership of the weekly newspaper is so indispensable. As I continue to watch, I try to think of what the community of Mobridge would be like without Larry Atkinson as the publisher of the Tribune, putting out that reliable product week in and week out, year in and year out.
And I can't.
I just can't.
Two days later, when I cross the bridge over the Missouri that separates Mobridge from the Standing Rock reservation and head further west, it is still something I am thinking about. The prairie of South Dakota is a flood of burnished gold in the crystal morning, shimmering and magnificent and breathless. There isn't another car in sight, and as the ribbon of highway carves its way to what must be eternity, I feel I may be in the only place left in America as close in spirit to the last century as to this one.
I can hear the hoofbeats of the buffalo tamping over the floor of the golden grass before they were slaughtered for sport. I can see men and women in the sun of the early morning fitting together hard beams of wood. Somewhere out there in that prairie, the holder of all secrets and dreams and disappointments, I can hear the sound of a fiddle at a barnyard dance, just as I can hear the coughing breaths of a farmer who is dying before he should. Mile flows into mile and reflection into reverie, until I pull into the town of Faith, population 542, to get some gas. I look around as I fill up, getting a fix on the Wrangler Cafe and the Bogue & Bogue law offices and the blue of the Faith water tower. I walk inside to pay, and I also pick up a copy of the Faith Independent.
I read about the death of Grace Lenk at the age of 63, and how Aldene Carmichael, while visiting her daughter Judy, did something she hadn't done in years and picked wild grapes so she could make jelly. I see that Cori Lee Collins is getting married to Joshua Wade Mackaben--their parents have taken out an ad inviting everyone to the wedding. I learn that Ace Gallagher, an aide to South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle, has been in town, and I read a lead paragraph that the New York Times would never have the guts to print:
That's right. Ace is a female. I have no idea if she is a "fast-draw" or a poker player, but what I do know is that she has a lot of information...
As I read the Faith Independent, I realize that for all my romanticized perception of awesome isolation, there is a community here, a spirited and proud one woven together by its newspaper. And then I remember that this is one of the little weeklies that Larry Atkinson prints up each week at tiny profit, and I also remember what he said.
"If I didn't print them, no one else would, and that town would lose its paper."
Would a chain, if it were to buy Atkinson's operation, share a similar philosophy?
As I place the Faith Independent on the back seat and turn toward Wyoming, I know that of all the questions I have posed to myself on this trip, this is the one most effortless to answer.
It was earlier in my travels, during a stop in Sheldon, Iowa, to see the operation of the N'West Iowa Review, that I heard publisher Peter Wagner offer the theory that the plethora of buy-ups by the deep-pocket boys was actually a good thing for the weekly newspaper business.
It didn't make much initial sense to me, given that Wagner's newspaper, arguably the best community weekly in the country, crafted with a blend of color and photos and columns that most good metro dailies don't come close to, is a testament to the very act of being able to do something without some obsequious memo to the corporate office.
The Wagner theory made even less sense when he told me he had resisted the overtures of three different media companies within the past year dying to have the N'West Iowa Review among their holdings. After all, if the chains are good for the weekly newspaper business, then why not sign on the dotted line like so many others?
The first two overtures, expressed through panting brokers, were easy to ignore, he had told me. But the third one, up in that stratosphere of multiples times earnings, made Peter Wagner slightly woozy, in the same way that it made Larry Randa slightly woozy.
"The first two I said no to," says the 59-year-old Wagner, who whirls around the office with such determined speed he makes the Energizer Bunny look like a shut-in. "The third I said to myself, 'Maybe there's something they know that I don't know.' "
The company, which is involved in a variety of different products besides the newspaper, was doing about $3 million in revenues. Wagner won't disclose the amount of that third offer, except to say that it was so "incredible" that he turned to his wife and son and daughter-in-law to see if it was something that in all good conscience could be refused.
They said it was up to him. So he thought about it. Thought about that first year when he decided to publish on Sunday and just about every minister was ready to boot him out of town because that was the Lord's day, not some newspaper's. Thought about how the initial subscription base was three--that's three paying customers--and how revenues had once been just $360,000. Thought about how, despite flirtations with bankruptcy, he had always believed that the best way to long-term profitability was through quality and community commitment. Thought about how an outside bean counter would come in, take one look at his editorial payroll and start constructing the gallows. And he realized he couldn't accept that third offer, unless, as he put it, "I could sell it and move to Timbuktu and never see a copy."
And yet, here is Wagner saying that the entrance of the big companies into the weekly business is a good thing. He seems to be arguing with himself, a contrarian view for the sake of attention, until I figure out what he is getting at. A fancier of bow ties, Wagner is too nice to phrase it this way, but what he is basically suggesting is the natural tendency of the big, whenever they try to subsume the small, to screw up everything.
As Wagner sees it, the major holders of weeklies, by the very act of coming into a market and stripping the existing papers of their distinctiveness, or merging one paper with another, or closing a paper completely, create an opportunity for someone else to seize readers starving for something that has some actual stake in their community besides profit margin. Newspaper startups are always risky, of course, but the cost of getting a weekly going, especially given today's technology, is considerably more manageable than it once was. And in recent years there have been some nice success stories: Main Line Life, which took on both the Main Line Times and the Suburban & Wayne Times in the Philadelphia suburbs and now outpaces both of them in the number of ads; the Stranger alternative weekly in Seattle, now considered a far more hip and fresher voice than the Seattle Weekly and with the ad lineage to prove it; the Sublette County Journal in western Wyoming, which has been an absolute stinger in the butt of the far more established Pinedale Roundup and just took away that sweetest of all mother's milk--the weekly grocery insert.
In a sense that's exactly what Wagner did in 1972 when he started the N'West Iowa Review, capitalizing on a perceived vacuum in the market and an abiding faith that readers, unlike cows, will not simply graze at whatever is beneath their feet but will know the difference between what is homegrown and some biogenetic ripoff. With time and patience and perseverance, Wagner saw it happen at the N'West Iowa Review. The subscription base is up to 5,500. Ads come in sweet bucketfuls, and so do awards. The paper has won the National Newspaper Association's "Best of the Best" honor the past three years in the medium-size weekly category, and it has been named Iowa Newspaper of the Year 11 times. In other words, quality does have a place in the weekly marketplace, and as Wagner peeks over his shoulder and sees what is happening slightly to the east of him, he can't help but wonder if the same thing may happen there.
At the end of 1998, Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., a company that didn't even exist three years ago and now owns more U.S. newspapers than anyone thanks to its backing from Alabama's $22 billion state pension fund, moved into the northwest Iowa market. The company purchased a package of six weeklies and three dailies from Edwards Publications. Since then, all the weeklies, in such towns as Alta, Aurelia and Sioux Rapids, have been closed and merged into other products. Three were combined into a single new weekly called the Dickinson County News. The other three were merged with daily papers in the area. In addition, one of the dailies CNHI purchased, the Storm Lake Pilot Tribune, has been pared back from a five-day-a-week publication to three days. "These are small communities with small circulations," says Kevin Kampman, senior vice president and chief operating officer for CNHI's western papers. "They were very, very small, and we didn't think we could serve the readers." What readers are getting now, says Kampman, is "a more complete package."
That may be so, even if it's a package that has to be shared with someone else. From Wagner's vantage point, what CNHI has done is put this market in flux, and he believes the closures and mergers could ultimately create new opportunities for enterprising, locally based publishers. "This is the best time that has existed for honest to God hometown community papers since World War II," he says bullishly.
Driving through Wyoming, I took some small measure of solace in what Wagner said, particularly since his own homegrown product is such exquisite proof that profitability and quality, far from being the principals in endlessly bitter and acrimonious divorce proceedings, can in fact snuggle up and share a bed and get along pretty well. Over the past several years there has been more than 10 percent annual growth at the N'West Iowa Review and its other properties. Despite declining population in the area, circulation of the weekly is going up. "We're reinvesting each week to continue those volumes that we're doing today," says Wagner.
An admirable philosophy with ample reward. Still, I couldn't help but wonder: Could Peter Wagner be perceived as a workable model for the weekly newspaper business? Or in a world of 20 percent margins on a bad hair day and 30 percent on a good one by snips and cuts, was he just some anomaly? After watching the noble struggle of Larry Atkinson in Mobridge, I wasn't so sure.
And then I pulled into Jackson.
I want to like Mike Sellett.
I do like Mike Sellett.
But I hate Mike Sellett.
Hate him out of jealousy. Hate him because there he is across the desk from me, smart and satisfied and successful, the realization of the dream all we journalists have fancied at a given point in our careers to get out of the mental ward of the city desk and away from all those editors who insist on hovering around you on deadline like fruit flies (is there any stupider question in life than "Are you finished yet?") and go buy a little weekly in some part of the country that is so beautiful there is no point in trying to describe it.
Which of course is exactly what Mike Sellett did when he ended up in Jackson, a relentlessly charming resort town at the foot of the Grand Tetons. Which of course is why, for a little bit at least, he deserves to be hated, even if he did once play a round of golf with President Clinton and nail him by seven strokes with a 78.
In 1972 Sellett left Chicago, where he was a regular contributor to the Chicago Tribune's Sunday magazine, and became managing editor of the Jackson Hole News. In a way the situation seemed too fairy-tale to be true, and in fact it was, since the News was a startup competing against the established Jackson Hole Guide.
"I wasn't walking into Bumfuck, Idaho," says Sellett. "This was already a competitive town."
But the founders of the paper, Ralph Gill and Virginia Huidekoper, had a vision of creating a product that was rich and deep and graphically breathtaking. True to Peter Wagner's philosophy, they saw a crack in the market and they went for it. A year later, in 1973, when running the paper began to take up far more time than they had bargained for, they turned to Sellett and asked him if he would like to buy it. He found the suggestion quite tantalizing, and also quite amazing since he had no money. But since Gill and Huidekoper believed he would continue the mission of the Jackson Hole News, they agreed to carry a note for roughly 90 percent of the $100,000 purchase price.
But it was still a lot of money, and as Sellett mulled over what to do he called Mike Howard, whose family knew a little about the newspaper business since they were the Howards of Scripps Howard. Howard, himself a year away from becoming editor of the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, wrote Sellett a lengthy letter back saying that his accountants, after taking a look at the financials, had come to the firm conclusion that the News would never be able to compete effectively against the Guide. Its pockets were simply too deep. "I don't know why I persisted after that," says Sellett. "I suppose that I had no place to go."
Nearly three decades later, the 55-year-old Sellett still owns the Jackson Hole News. According to unofficial figures, he can boast of a circulation lead over the Guide, about 7,100 to 5,100. Over time, Sellett also began to see value in another Wagner principle: Make quality the cornerstone of your product and they will come.
Or as Sellett himself put it, "What I had to learn for survival was, How do you turn editorial excellence into dollars?"
Of course, on the business side of the equation, Sellett had the serendipitous fortune to be in an area that was rich and exclusive when he bought the paper, and 26 years later has only become more rich and more exclusive. Each week the paper is chock full with color real estate ads in which a three-bedroom, three-bath TERRIFIC OPPORTUNITY adjacent to Grand Teton National Park at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort can be yours for $2.45 million. Not grand enough for all those IPO earnings? Then try the UNMATCHED VIEWS AND PRIVACY of 117 acres at the top of the north end of East Gros Ventre Butte for $4.95 million.
The editorial-excellence part of the equation was established through a series of hires over the years that any paper in the country would envy: chief layout artist Cammie Pyle, who graduated from Radcliffe and worked at The Atlantic Monthly before having enough sense to chuck it all to become a ski bum; Richard Murphy, the paper's first chief of photography, who was at the helm in 1984 when the National Press Photographers Association cited the News for best use of photographs by any paper in the country; Garth Dowling, who guided the photo department when it won the Wyoming Press Association's overall award for photographic excellence in 1993 and 1994 and 1995.
Today the news side is in the hands of 47-year-old Editor Angus MacLean Thuermer Jr., a softspoken and slightly laconic and very windburnt Yale graduate who speaks a kind of mountain-climber patois that reveals itself in such keep-on-trucking whispers as "I always wanted to be a photographer. Fuck this word shit. Way too complicated."
There is something inscrutable about him, probably due to the fact that his father, after a stint as a foreign correspondent in the late 1930s when Europe was exploding, quit and joined the OSS. But Angus Thuermer knows how to get what he wants. Twenty-one years ago, when he was trying to land a job at the News, he sweet-talked Sellett's golden retriever onto the porch, put a sign around his neck that said "Hire Angus or Else," signed it The Phantom and then sent the dog to find his owner. And on each Tuesday night when it's deadline, Thuermer stares at his computer with a look that is far more intense than dissolute. He coaxes the staff gently, and it bothers him that there wasn't enough time to get an interview with the guy from Seattle who got mauled by the grizzly in Yellowstone. Because news is news. "A good grizzly mauling, if you get the victim, goes on the top of Page 1 automatic. That's kind of a rule of thumb around here."
Acutely aware of how easy it is for a weekly to fall into the malaise of meat-grinder laziness, Thuermer derives inspiration from the front page mockup of an imaginary paper called the Bugle-Beacon that has been posted on the newsroom bulletin board. It carries the following headlines:
Boring stuff debated at dull meeting
Something crashes, burns or blows up
Some old politician retires or dies
Another project will cost lots & lots of dollars
Hey! They're doing that wacky thing over there
On a given week, it isn't unusual to find a 50-inch, in-depth piece in the Jackson Hole News on some aspect of life in Teton County, whether it's an investigative story on a local developer who kept trying to develop despite a string of bankruptcies, a story on the scarcity of affordable housing in the region or a series on the future of the national park system. But this is a community newspaper, and when the community doesn't like something it tends to stampede. "People here are sensitive," is the way a photographer at the paper, Jim Evans, gently puts it. "It's a very sensitive town."
The issue of what properly belongs in the paper and what does not came to a boiling point last Christmas season. Some 2,500 students from California were in Jackson for their usual winter-break sojourn, and chief photographer John Brecher, as talented a young shooter as you will find in this country, set out to take a picture that would capture it all. But he didn't want the usual saccharine fluff shot. "I thought this year, well shit, maybe there's something else I can photograph."
Brecher ended up in a hotel room where 15 teenage girls were partying at high velocity. With their permission, he shot a picture of several them that captured the rite of adolescent passage in all its essence--the sexuality of the girls with their tight midrift shirts, the way one of them held a lollipop with one hand and guzzled down a can of beer with the other. It was a spectacular picture. Thuermer published it without consulting Sellett, and then all hell broke loose. Members of the community felt that the very prettiness of the picture glorified teenage drinking, and so did Sellett, who would not have run it had he known about it.
To a certain degree, Brecher wondered if Sellett's attitude reflects a basic reluctance "to put [the News] in the firing line." But after 30 years, Sellett has come to realize that community reaction is intertwined into every story. For better or worse, richer or poorer, readers view a weekly as something that belongs to them.
Several months after the picture episode, a student at Jackson Hole High School was arrested when police found a suspected explosive in his pack. Given that the shootings at Columbine High School in suburban Denver had occurred only two days earlier, the News decided to put out a special edition--not to inflame the community but to inform it. Included in the four-page package was a heated session of the Teton County School District Board, in which a parent claimed that members of the school's speech club were part of what she described as the "trenchcoat church."
The special edition came out Friday. By 6 that night, Sellett had already gotten a call from an outraged reader. On Saturday, Sellett went to a meeting with speech club students and their parents at the famed Wort Hotel in Jackson. He tried to explain why the paper had a right to print what had been said at the school board meeting since it was a matter of public record, but for most of the three hours he listened as kids he knew, and parents he knew, vented and expressed their devastation and sometimes cried.
"It was such a vivid reminder for me..that this community is small and we know these people," says Sellett. And although it was difficult, it was also a welcome reminder of the role that a weekly plays in a community, and the role that a publisher with local roots plays within it. "The difference in small towns is that people end up in the publisher's office. They just walk up the back stairs, sit in that chair and call me an asshole."
I wondered how other weekly publishers around the country might feel about such interaction with the community, but in the current climate of buy and swap and consolidate, I figured they had other things on their minds.
In a corner of the Jackson newsroom there is a bookcase crammed with weekly papers from all over the region. During the two days I was there, in between interviews and trying to get Thuermer to say two complete sentences in a row, I rummaged through it, and what I found only confirmed the seismic shifts that are taking place in the weekly business. "Either you chain up or you get big or you die," was the way Ted Biedron, the executive vice president of Pioneer Press, had put it to me before I hit the road, and the reality of that statement was only underscored by that helter-skelter bookcase.
There was the Steamboat Pilot, which used to belong to Jack Kent Cooke, late owner of the Washington Redskins, and is now held by an outfit from Lawrence, Kansas called WorldWest LLC. There was the Aspen Times, which is looking for new investors. There was the West Yellowstone News, which was bought by Big Sky Publishing. There was the Wyoming State Journal in Lander, which was bought by the daily in Riverton. There was the Hungry Horse Tribune and the Whitefish Pilot in Montana, which were bought by Lee Enterprises out of Davenport, Iowa, earlier this year, and now not only run identical commentary page columns (in the Hungry Horse Tribune G. George Ostrom is identified as a columnist for the Tribune; in the Whitefish Pilot he's identified as a columnist for the Pilot), but on at least one occasion had an identical editorial, as if to suggest that the two communities are fundamentally identical.
The trend suggested by that bookcase does not go unnoticed by Mike Sellett. At a certain point in his life he will sell out, because everyone sells out, but he is determined, just like the owners who sold to him were determined, to find the right buyer.
"If I sell, I don't want to sell to a chain," he says. "I would take less money from a buyer who lived here and worked here than from someone who showed up with an armored truck and then made [the News] part of some homogenized chain."
Sellett's statement gave me a surge of hope. But the results of that bookcase sampling were ominous at best. When I walked back to the hotel that night, I swore I saw pinstripe boys for Liberty and CNHI and Dean Singleton riding around town in their armored trucks. And the next day, when I left Jackson for good and headed for the coast, I figured I had only one final shot of salvation left--the alternative weekly market.
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