Paul Andersen: Fair Game
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Last week, The Aspen Time filled a dozen or so pages with pet articles; there was even one on how to install a pet door. It’s not that the editors decided that everybody in Aspen needed to know about pets. They simply had to fill the paper to cover the ad base. As most newspapers do today, they relied on prepackaged content.
You may fault the Times for that, as one reader did in a letter last week, but filler has become standard when staffs and budgets are strapped. I hope my erstwhile companions at the Times won’t begrudge me a reflection on holiday newspapers when I was a staff reporter. Back then, the Times editorial staff labored heroically to fill pages with strictly local content derived from sweat, toil and imagination.
Those were halcyon days, before the advent of the insatiable Daily, when publisher Bil Dunaway mustered his staff to produce like madmen for the heralded weekly Times. As the newspaper of record, the Times was the paper everyone waited for on Thursdays when it was hawked throughout town by a team of local newspaper boys. We reporters dutifully obeyed Dunaway’s imperative and provided ample grist for the mill.
There was no mistaking Dunaway’s editorial quota system when he hired me 25 years ago. I proudly showed him my clip files from the Crested Butte Chronicle, but he passed over these, looked me in the eye as if scrutinizing my soul, and demanded, “How much can you write?”
There was no wire service then at the Times office, which had such an antiquated ambiance that computers seemed more out of place than line-o-types. On “Reporter’s Row” you expected to see copyboys dashing to and fro between cigar-chomping, whiskey-drinking hacks pecking madly away at aged Underwoods.
Dunaway’s philosophy was that The Aspen Times should represent Aspen – period. Our purview was the city limits and extensions of Pitkin County. Reporters were to be enterprising, working local sources for features and hard news. If it wasn’t strictly about Aspen, it usually didn’t get into the paper.
Here’s how it worked: Mary Hayes, our beloved, respected and bespectacled editor, assigned us our beats. My beat list included county government, music, physics, galleries, backcountry, and “far out.” The “far out” beat was the most eclectic, featuring interviews with any oddball persistent enough to occupy the front office staff for more than 10 minutes. The resulting articles were warped, weird, and always entertaining.
As the dread Christmas holidays approached, we reporters slaved long hours following thin threads of stories to obscure leads that might fill a page. We rustled the bushes for local angles on everything from belly dancers to parking ticket scofflaws.
On deadline days I rode my mountain bike to the office at 5 a.m. on ice-packed streets, unlocked the front door, tiptoed into the dark, quiet building, patted the resident dog, and turned on my computer for a 14-hour day. When it was over I pedaled home in the dark, brain dead, but ready to get up the next morning and do it again.
The other reporters came and went on their own schedules, as did the folks in the advertising office, who cranked out ads. The more ads sold, the higher the page count, until we drew the line at five 32-page sections, about the thickness of a city phone book. We nicknamed sections the “F’ing-A,” “Killer-B,” “C-Section,” etc. – all of it local.
For a writer, this was terrific exercise, the equivalent of the Tour de France for a cyclist. I became so facile that I could write in my sleep. Even years after I had left the paper my wife would wake in the night to find me asleep, but drumming my fingers, as if typing.
These mega issues provided a crash course in community as each reporter strove to bring Aspen, in all its guises, into the pages of the paper. We tapped the pulse of the town with every column inch, and the paper served a much needed function as communal glue.
Today, canned articles are only a download away. Staffs are cut for tight budgets. Community is defined mostly by crime, galas, sports, and controversy. Sadly, the “far out” beat is no longer even on the list.
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