Any time a small-town newspaper is in jeopardy of closing, we hold our breath.
The loss to communities is immeasurable, especially when the paper in financial trouble regularly punches above its weight, representing well those who read it. So was the case in October for the Rio Blanco Herald Times in Meeker – serving readers since 1885 – with its print circulation of 900 and online newsletter of 1,600 subscribers in a town of 2,482.
The owners – a mother, daughter, son team – did something unusual. And bold. After the worst month of advertising sales in September in seven years, daughter Caitlin Walker in this family operation punched numbers for multiple scenarios, panicked, drank a little whiskey, then shared their pending plight with readers.
Walker hit send on the email with the subject line “Crisis Alert: Save your community paper.” The email began, “Dear community, Today is a very bad news day.” With minimal money in the account, Oct. 26 would be its last edition.
Seeing themselves more as stewards than owners, Niki Turner, mother and editor of the Herald Times, said the paper really belonged to the community, evidenced by its hometown focus with a large chunk contributed by readers. The family shares the usual news from Meeker and the White River Valley, but it could be from any small community.
Local boards behaving badly, sports coverage, an obit for a dog, “gentle shaming of officials” and longtime family-owned pharmacy Meeker Drugs replaced by a hospital-based one. How could the new pharmacy meet customers’ needs in ways the old one did?
Just how much did readers value the Herald Times? Enough that by Wednesday afternoon, the paper received $38,152 to keep going through the end of the year.
And it took these journalists, telling their own story, their own truth to keep the doors open. This is tough to do. It goes against the grain. We’re in the business of telling other people’s truths, not our own around business matters. We tend to keep that to ourselves.
In this situation, it makes good sense. For the Herald Times, it was essential. What they do, why they do it. Let people know what’s needed to deliver what they expect. Deadline to deadline, paycheck to paycheck is the lifestyle. Hard work, low pay is the reality. Yet, look at all it produces.
“We’re a living history book,” Turner said.
The Herald Times has done fine, in-depth investigative work, too, examining a police shooting in Rangely of a man with untreated paranoid schizophrenia and this rural town’s silence about it.
Stepping into the stories, Turner soon realized the situation wasn’t black and white. “Everyone was just gray,” she said.
The work, with mentoring from longtime Denver-area journalist Susan Greene of the Colorado News Collaborative, stretched Turner as she fleshed out narratives. She learned how to reinforce a story’s framework by, for example, requesting an autopsy report
The two-part piece included lackadaisical attitudes about mental health care in the area.
Together, Turner and Greene were a dynamic duo. In exchange for Greene’s expertise, Turner explained shadings of appropriateness in small towns, where everyone shops at the same grocery stores.
In her weekly column, Turner kept up the conversations and raised the question, “What kind of community are we?” She also shared her deep well of grief and her journey, after the death of her son Ethan in a car accident in 2018, hoping “our experience can help someone else.”
Turner added, “I wrote my own kid’s obituary.” Then “people came out from everywhere” to offer support.
To keep the Herald Times going well into the new year and beyond, Walker and Turner are considering all possible sustainable business models – nonprofit, foundation, fiscal sponsor. All expenses are scrutinized and son Lucas Turner, the paper’s only full-time reporter, will become a stringer.
In the same breath in talking about challenges, the family plans to share any good fortune – if a windfall comes – including donating to a historic museum that houses the paper’s old printing press and mentoring more interns. Giving back to their community that held them when they needed it most.
As the paper transforms to survive, the Herald Times will shape itself around what this community needs and wants. We expect the Turner/Walker family will continue holding up truths like lanterns.
One thing they learned when facing the paper’s possible closure? “Print is not dead,” Turner said.