Courtesy of San Juan County Historical Society
Courtesy of San Juan County Historical Society
How often does a community show genuine affection for its newspaper?
Seldom. Public comments usually reflect discontent with news coverage and editorials or headlines and copy editing. But for a small weekly in Southwest Colorado, the answer is a remarkable statement of true support.
That’s one reason for the longevity of the Silverton Standard & the Miner and why the newspaper was named a National Historic Site in Journalism by the Society of Professional Journalists. The dedication ceremony will be Saturday, the date of the first Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad train trip to Silverton of the summer tourist season.
The arrival of the train is significant because the D&SNGR is the lifeblood of the secluded former mining town in the San Juan Mountains. The ceremony will be at 1 p.m., one hour after the train is scheduled to arrive from Durango, at the San Juan Historical Society museum complex next to the courthouse.
The location also is significant. In 2009, the newspaper’s owner donated the Standard & the Miner to the historical society, and that action saved the feisty newspaper from ceasing publication.
Founded in 1875, the La Plata Miner survived a parade of newspaper competitors, brutal winter snowstorms, transportation challenges, mining industry dramas and a shrinking population. The Silverton Standard began publishing in 1889, and the two papers merged in 1922.
The SPJ plaque to be presented Saturday says: “The Silverton Standard & the Miner is the oldest continually operated newspaper, and the oldest business of any kind, on the Western Slope of Colorado, telling the stories of a remarkable community of diverse people that at times prospered and at other times struggled to survive in a hostile and isolated part of the world.”
The last mine closed in the early 1990s, and today, Silverton’s population is 638 people.
A local economy based on gift shops, restaurants, saloons and hotels catering to tourist trains doesn’t provide a lot of display advertising. Revenue from public notices helps the county-seat newspaper, but it was the community’s response in 2009 that wrote the latest chapter in the history of the Standard & the Miner.
When the out-of-town owner couldn’t find a buyer for the newspaper, editor Mark Esper began working with the historical society to continue publication of the Standard & the Miner.
A newspaper is vital to a community’s self-image and well-being.
Along with a post office and a school, a newspaper helps define a community’s identity. It records the official and personal history of the residents, informs and entertains readers and provides a public forum for opinions.
Silverton’s residents understand these values.
“This is a very historic newspaper. We are so proud to have kept it in business,” said Bev Rich, chairwoman of the San Juan Historical Society. “We are very proud that we have been designated a Historic Site in Journalism.”
The nonprofit arrangement works because the newspaper operates independently of the historical society and because the newspaper thrives on donations and community support.
Esper and Rich describe the Standard & the Miner as the “Silverton Public Newspaper” because that broad support ranges from fundraising Pint Nights by bar patrons to collections by schoolchildren. The 55 students at the K-12 Silverton School raised $2,000 from bake sales and selling tamales and donated the money to the newspaper.
According to Esper, the newspaper’s circulation is 1,050.
“That includes nearly 200 subscribers who get the digital PDF version of the paper,” he said. “This is our fastest-growing circulation segment.”
This success story still features challenges, however.
In the 1870s, the newspaper’s owner managed to haul an old press by pack mule over a mountain pass to Silverton. One winter, when avalanches closed the passes, he printed the newspaper on blue wrapping paper obtained from a butcher.
Today, Esper transmits his pages digitally to the Cortez Journal on Wednesday afternoons, and Thursday mornings he drives over two mountain passes – Molas and Coal Bank – to Durango each season of the year to pick up the papers on The Durango Herald’s loading dock.
“Last year, I twice got stranded on the Durango side,” Esper said. “I have a four-wheel-drive truck, and I leave very early Thursday mornings. Typically, the highway officials won’t do an assessment and close the highway till 7 or 7:30 a.m. By then, I am already in Durango.
“Once last year, I didn’t get back to Silverton till Friday. The second time, I finally got through at about noon, escorted by a snowplow under very scary conditions – low visibility and cutting through avalanche debris several feet deep.
“There have been mornings where I almost turned back while heading up Molas Pass out of Silverton. It can be very frightening when the snow is really flying, visibility is close to zero, and you are heading across serious avalanche paths on a winding road with very steep drop-offs at 1,500 feet or more.
“More than once I have thought to myself: ‘Is it really worth risking my life to get the newspaper back to town today?’”
Ask the members of the San Juan Historical Society, Silverton’s bar patrons and schoolchildren.
In the winter, they’ll say the answer is ‘no.’ They’re willing to wait till Friday after the snowplows clear the mountain passes.
Ed Otte is membership chairman of the SPJ Colorado Pro Chapter. He retired in 2010 as executive director of the Colorado Press Association.