Don Rogers: And so it begins
Staff writer Carolyn Sackariason wanted to get right to the elephant in the room.
“Just how stupid are you anyway?” she asked.
I blinked. “Oh, I’m pretty … stupid,” I admitted. Just the truth.
Of course, the elephant in our phone conversation a few weeks ago wasn’t my cognitive abilities or lack thereof.
The stakes for The Aspen Times dwarf mine, as do the town’s. More than most, people here seem to get what communities across the country have learned only after losing their newspapers.
Local journalism, even in all its annoyance and with all the flaws and stupidities of those of us who practice it seriously, matters a great deal.
I don’t mean this so much in high-blown philosophical abstractions, though I believe in those, too.
Mainly I mean in the thoroughly prosaic ways communities lose without their papers: the taxation that tends to increase, the lousier candidates who win office, the increase in municipal spending and the other tangible losses in cohesion and civic engagement so vital to a community.
All this has been documented by the University of North Carolina studying the consequences of America’s spreading news deserts. Around a quarter of the papers across the country have shuttered over the past 15 years or so, not from lack of interest so much as the business itself. What worked so well in print has not translated to digital even as readers swarm to us online.
Facebook, NextDoor and other social media networks haven’t filled the void. They may exacerbate it. Gossip is bad enough contained to the bar, the chairlift, the back deck. Electrifying the grapevine has only metastasized this poison, sugar for the hungry tumor.
But that’s not it, either. The sharpness of her question had nothing to do with philosophy or modern life’s trends, journalistic or otherwise.
No, this was about the defamation suit and aftermath, editors out, staff turning over, new ownership’s alarm, community in an uproar, and the shards of broken trust everywhere, bloody confetti.
How did I presume to be the janitor who would sweep all that up — you know, make it go away?
How stupid could I possibly be?
I’m thinking about other stupidities. Paddling into surf way, way too big. Dripping fire on a mountain slope while “walking” in brush three feet above ground as part of a backfiring operation to pinch off a ripping main blaze. Puking across the Molokai Channel under a bright moon in a sailboat bucking house-sized chop.
But those only capture the fright, the “what have you gotten yourself into this time” dread, that sure test for whether a challenge is big enough.
I couldn’t even type when I landed my first reporting job, fresh from my last season fighting wildfire, reasoning, How hard could this be, really?
Between upstate New York and San Diego, I found while editor that every newsroom had its own mission impossible. Then as publisher, beginning in the financial meltdown and bookending as the pandemic eased. Timing seems to be everything. It’s how opportunity works, too.
SIZING UP OWNERS
Lots of stops means lots of owners. I’ve had the owner who lived upstairs standing by my desk in his bathrobe while I stretched phone conversations to the breaking point in ebbing hopes he’d move on to the publisher.
I’ve worked under the public corporation that owned the most papers in America at the time, Thomson, filing action plans like hiccups for a central or regional office. I’ve worked in several family businesses, including Swift and Ogden.
I left my last posting in dispassionate recognition of what investor ownership like an Alden Capital, owner of The Denver Post, would look like there. And decided to come here.
The Times may have a mess now, but it will rebuild even as we and everyone else buck the headwinds of the labor shortage, inflation and especially that historic albatross of ski towns — housing, speaking of mission impossibles.
I was the editor at the Vail Daily when Swift bought The Aspen Times back at the turn of the millennium. That was no smooth ride, either, even free of litigious wrinkles. I don’t imagine it ever is for the acquired.
This work is never easy, even in easier times. That’s the wrong question anyway. Is it worthy? That’s what matters in the trenches.
SKI TOWN TUG
Deciding to come here, moth to forest fire, wasn’t entirely dispassionate, of course. There’s some sacrifice and no small amount of personal risk in doing so. No doubt a sharper investor type would evaluate carefully and pass.
But that’s not how ski towns roll, at least not in spirit, and maybe that’s the precise tug for me. OK, beyond the snowboarding, the beauty, the intellectual and cultural seasoning, the ever-present sense of possibility.
I am naturally forward-looking and now part of a phoenix, broom in hand before the flames have cooled, patient as critics dance ever so carefully on The Aspen Times’ grave. They’ll dance till they’re done. They always do.
Meantime, I’ll observe broadly — I’m not the ump here — that litigation and personnel matters don’t require billionaires for their chilling effects. Even our local governments guard their share of secrets, too.
And I know just from my work the dangers of speculation to the point of making assumptions. There’s a lesson lurking in there for all of us, I suspect, about an altogether different kind of stupid.
Editor Don Rogers can be reached at email@example.com.