Rogers: A saga just begun
Election Night closed phase one of my tenure at The Aspen Times, three months in. Bookish, I call it the first chapter.
“How’s it going?” I’m asked, the questioner curious, concerned, eyes wary, expecting to respond with some expression between empathy and pity, I suspect.
The truth? I’m super excited. I almost always raise a bright smile. There is hope.
Little dailies are tippy canoes at best. The future is fragile for all community news media, especially newspapers. And that’s just the business side. Challenges with journalism across the country spring directly from the difficulty in funding it, whatever the means.
But Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley are blessed with two dailies in Aspen, a newspaper in Carbondale, another in Glenwood Springs, an NPR radio station in Aspen, and the nonprofit Aspen Journalism in, um, Aspen.
This while nationwide 20% of newspapers across the country have closed in the past 15 years, about 25% of the newsroom jobs have evaporated, and maybe only one or two other small towns in America still have two dailies going head to head. I only know of Crawfordsville, Indiana, anymore. Surely there’s another.
So far, the transformation to more online viewing of “papers” has been great for adding readers but doesn’t translate well to supporting the cost of the work. It’s not so different from states relying on gas taxes to keep the roads in shape while ever more cars and trucks go electric.
Pile on the cascade of mistakes at The Times that culminated in a defamation suit and pausing of coverage of the 1A development and developer, and there’s a real toll, not to mention a flaming ball of …, as one of our peers at Aspen Public Radio put it fairly politely, I thought.
The Atlantic illustrated their take with a steak knife piercing one of our editions. I found it as accurate as The New York Times in their story running a picture of the speakeasy at the Jerome and calling that our office, emblematic as anything about the reporting.
For me, this was all the more striking moving here from a similar-sized daily in California that really did eviscerate the news staff by design — their plan to make the business work, nothing personal. The Aspen Times never ran that low even in the depths of its crisis, and no one in sales or circ jumped ship.
I arrived later. The aftermath is very much my problem, and one of my first and ongoing challenges, of course, is to learn the gameboard, I’ll call it. Calamities come as opportunities for people like me. Yes, I’ve done this before, twice in Vail. Specific circumstances have their own fingerprints, but the emotional toll and need to replenish staff are familiar.
That toll will play through. There’s no hurrying along hard feelings among those who lived through the mess, any of the messes I’ve stepped in. I know by hard experience that reasoning tends to bounce off armor, though I slip, too, being a mansplaining ol’ male fool no doubt by upbringing and lifelong habit. I’m going to have opinions, ill-formed and dead wrong as they so often are. Best to remember the implied lesson in having two ears and just one mouth.
But it did help by my third week to run the Voldemort of stories that critics had declared we could not or would not publish. A hot-air balloon deflated swiftly then. We became guilty of a two-month pause in coverage rather than a permanent quashing. Ironically to me, we still beat the rest of the local press to the story, and I still puzzle at why we’d catch crap when no one else covered this. But there I go applying logic, see?
The more prosaic problem was hiring newsroom positions in the teeth of the worst housing crisis in memory and in the worst place of all to endure it. Lots of takers for job offers, but lack of a place to live slowed the process as it has for other employers. We’re hardly alone there.
To my astonishment, though, we eventually did get to full up, or very close, just in time for Election Night. This was huge! And better, the blend of energetic and enthusiastic newcomers and insightful veterans was exciting for me. Fun even.
So my first chapter closed with a good bang. Looking over my gameboard around midnight, I was thrilled.
Let’s see: Take care of the immediate Voldemort. Check. Get the staff. Check. These were the biggies for chapter one. Learn the system well enough to take on budgeting and editing. More basic, but still crucial. Check.
Also, focus on making damned sure opinion as well as news goes no further in assertions of fact than what the evidence supports. No less, either. This is what rigorous journalism is really about, the ever-present priority for which perfection always will remain elusive.
People make mistakes. That’s only human. But we can work to get things right when we recognize them, that higher-self stuff. A provisional check, then. This one won’t go away.
Now winter is coming. Will we be ready? Can we meet the next, surely greater challenges? The stakes only rise in sagas, and chapter two has begun, sure enough.