Silverton’s ‘public’ newspaper survives with community support

By Mark Esper

These are challenging times in the newspaper industry. But from where I sit, as editor and publisher of the tiny Silverton Standard & the Miner, high in the San Juan Mountains, things don’t seem all that bad.

Well, at least not much worse than usual.

This is the oldest newspaper in the western part of the state and, in fact, the oldest continuously operated business in the region. It was founded in 1875, just a year after the mining town itself was platted.

Silverton is all about history. So I tend to do a lot of historical research, pouring over microfilm in the basement of the town’s Carnegie Library.

You can visit a saloon here where Wyatt Earp dealt cards (after fleeing Arizona following some sort of trouble regarding a shooting at a corral). And his pal Bat Masterson spent some time gambling here in the early 1880s. This was a time when there were actually three newspapers struggling to survive in this remote outpost.

One of the editors remarked at the time that the problem with the town’s newspaper editors is that “we are all starving and thus ill-tempered.”

This was also a time when being a newspaper editor meant being a part-time gunslinger. The “office gun” was kept at the ready and occasionally used against some of the more harsh critics of the pioneer journalists.

But the early Silverton newspaper editors seemed to spend more time sniping at each other than just about anything else. It was a dog-eat-dog world, and they weren’t about to take prisoners.

In the struggle for survival, extortion was simply a part of the business model in those days.

In 1897, this newspaper stated (probably in jest) that it would charge a fee of “one quart of Demon’s Delight whiskey to suppress news of a family fight.”

In 1899, Standard editor Oliver Klinger, writing under a pseudonym, noted that there were rumors going around town that he, while serving as justice of the peace, had fined someone $18 for not subscribing.

“If this is true, and I don’t deny it, others should take warning and be law abiding in the future,” Klinger wrote.

And in 1901 the Standard took it to another level, declaring that “death notices for delinquent subscribers will not be inserted.”

By 1920 the newspaper wars in Silverton were over. The San Juan Herald was gone, as was the Silverton Democrat and the Animas Forks Pioneer. The surviving La Plata Miner and Silverton Standard merged that year.

Since then, this little newspaper has hung on by the skin of its teeth, enduring the isolation, harsh winter weather at 9,300 feet above sea level, and the disheartening boom-and-bust cycles that invariably inflict mining towns, even to this day. The last mine here closed in the early 1990s. We now rely on tourism for our bread and butter.

It was about a year ago that we had a really close call. The newspaper was then owned by a chain, which ran into a serious financial crunch.

It looked like the Standard’s closure would be imminent and this tiny county seat (population 531) would be left without a newspaper for the first time in 134 years.

But I managed to engineer a deal whereby the newspaper was donated to our San Juan County Historical Society.

Thus we have become what I refer to as “Silverton Public Newspaper,” operating as a nonprofit, and holding a variety of fundraisers (including our infamous Pint Night at the Silverton Brewery).

Even the children at our 58-student K-12 school got into the act, donating $2,000 to the cause — money raised from bake sales and selling some very yummy tamales.

The historical society inherited a newspaper that was not exactly making money. And it didn’t even have a business office in Silverton anymore. All the bookkeeping had been transferred to Telluride a few years earlier.

We managed to fix all that and we ended up having a pretty good year — circulation is up about 25 percent, a remarkable achievement by any measure, and advertising revenue is also up, despite the very challenging economy. We actually turned a profit of $234 last year.

The Standard is demonstrating that it can be a viable business, albeit not a lucrative one.

And I’ve been getting inquiries from all over the country from small-town newspapers interested in our “public newspaper” model.

I tell them that a quality product is essential, as is community ownership and support.

And I also tell them that they may want to review their policies regarding death notices for delinquent subscribers.

Mark Esper is editor and publisher of the Silverton Standard & the Miner.


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