Silbernagel at Sentinel: 30 years as observer, critic, commentator
The week Bob Silbernagel’s byline first topped a story in The Daily Sentinel, the newspaper inked editorials protesting President Carter’s 10 cent a gallon fuel tax and condemning Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan as “barbarism on the march.”
Thirty years later, with Silbernagel no longer a reporter but himself writing editorials, energy and Afghanistan are still editorial topics commanding column inches.
Silbernagel started his Daily Sentinel career April 21, 1980, as a reporter in The Sentinel’s Montrose bureau. He stayed there some six years before transferring to Grand Junction to cover politics upon the retirement of longtime political reporter Mary Louise Giblin Henderson.
He covered city, county, state and national politics and pulled a stint as city editor before being promoted to editorial editor 15 years ago. We took the occasion of his anniversary to ask him about the past 30 years of news and commentary in western Colorado.
Q: What are some of your favorite stories from your Montrose bureau days?
A: There was a teacher strike in Cortez; I spent a week down there covering that. I interviewed Louis L’Amour, who was living part-time in Durango at the time. I went on cattle drives. My son tells stories how I dropped him with strangers because I took him with me someplace and they said, “Do you want to go up in a helicopter and feed elk?” So it was, “Here, rancher, hold my kid for a couple hours.”
Q: What differences have you seen in newspaper readers in the past 30 years?
A: Not that the Internet is all bad by any means, but it has created this opportunity for newspaper readers and those who read other material on the Internet to comment immediately, and people lose their inhibitions. And that has translated into letters to the editor as well. People have become more vehement and occasionally more vitriolic in expressing their opinions.
Q: Do you see the same volume of letters to the editor? Do you think people are as engaged?
A: More so. A couple of times I went to seminars involving editorial page editors and talking with editorial page editors at papers roughly this size, and most of them were amazed at how many letters we got. I think that’s been one thing great about this community. People are engaged. They may often be angry with The Daily Sentinel, but they want to state their opinion; they want their opinion heard. It’s not just an afterthought, it’s like central to the community. And that sounds a little bit self-serving on the part of the whole paper, but I think it’s true. It’s good to be part of a community that values its newspaper even if it is a love-hate relationship.
Q: If people who weren’t even familiar with our community were to pick up The Sentinel and read the editorials, what do you think they would take away from them?
A: I hope they’ll think that we’re supporters of some important institutions here, whether that’s business, or Mesa State College or the school district, the city and county, but we’re not mindless boosters of them. We’re watchdogs and critics, as well. And that we’re fiscally conservative, but perhaps more libertarian on other issues — libertarian with a small “l.”
Q: What is something you’ve written about in an editorial that you’re particularly proud of or that may have effected change?
A: We’ve been consistent in support for things like the Colorado Roadless Rule, and taken some criticism for our support of it, but I think it was the right position. Some of the oil and gas rules that we supported, obviously a lot of people around here didn’t, but in the long run it will be beneficial to the state when the natural gas business comes back, and I think it will.
Q: Some newspapers no longer endorse candidates in their editorial section. What’s your opinion of that?
A: That really bothers me, not endorsing candidates. I understand you can anger readers and sometimes lose subscribers when taking a position like that, but I mean the history of newspapers in this country is about taking political stances, even before the Revolutionary War, with Ben Franklin. If we’re not going to take positions because we might upset somebody by doing so, then we probably don’t need editorial departments.
Q: We’re talking about history, but your job has changed over time, particularly with your weekly video “Over the Top.” You probably wouldn’t have thought, even five years ago, that you’d be doing something like that. Describe what “Over the Top” is.
A: It’s meant to be about editorial comment, but it’s mostly my own comment as opposed to the editorials that are in the newspaper, about issues that are so ridiculous or so unusual that they strike me as over the top. I want it to be humorous and fun — something short, a little bit humorous and that takes on a real issue. So, that’s what I try to do.
Q: And frequently involves props.
A: Yes, food props, you might have noticed.
Q: How do you think the Grand Valley itself has changed?
A: It’s ongoing, but I think in the ‘90s, when we really promoted retirees, and retirees moved here, a lot of them really became involved in the community and involved in the newspaper in terms of writing letters. And they are not of a universal ideological mix. It’s still a very conservative community, but there is a voice that’s more on the liberal side. And I think that, combined with the growth of Mesa State, has brought a lot of people here. You know, it’s a change, but that’s probably the way it’s been since 1892. There’s always new people moving in and revitalizing it. And I think there’s always some part of the community that’s resistant to change. They just want things to be the same; it’s a comfort zone. “If it would just be the same it would be fine — we don’t have to have, you know, gas workers moving in from Texas or Oklahoma or retirees moving in from California.” I hope I don’t become that way, that I just want things to stay the same, because staying the same doesn’t get you anywhere.