The (Sopris) Sun Also Rises  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June/July 2009

The (Sopris) Sun Also Rises   

Small town Carbondale, Colorado, loses one newspaper only to have residents join together to launch their own.

By MacKenzie Cotters
     


Sadly, it's not an unthinkable occurrence. Already this year, newspapers have gone out of business in Denver, Seattle and Tucson. But when the weekly Carbondale Valley Journal shut down in the small Rocky Mountain town near Aspen last Christmas, local residents just weren't ready to accept a newspaper-free future. So, bucking trends and forging out onto shaky ground, they launched their own weekly. They named it the Sopris Sun, after the picturesque peak that overlooks Carbondale.

Editor Trina Ortega, a former reporter for the Valley Journal, readily admits that the new paper is an experiment, but she believes its ultra-local focus and powerful community support will be the key to the Sun's success.

"There are many factors that have made this crazy journalism venture successful so far," Ortega says. "A supportive business community that has purchased ad space, volunteers who have stepped up to write stories, as well as distribute the newspaper, and residents who have said they need a newspaper."

When the old paper closed its doors, community members felt they had lost an important voice. It was a powerful blow to the town's morale. "There was an obvious void after the Valley Journal closed," says Becky Young, one of the Sun's seven board members and one of the founders of the Valley Journal in 1975. "Something was missing. We were all lacking the connection to our community that we depend on."

Downtown Carbondale consists of only several blocks, but those blocks are full of community involvement, Young says. The town (population 5,000) has its own structures, with its own public radio station, food co-op and arts council. "Our weekly serves a different function than large city papers," she says. "It acts as a binding force, keeping our community together."

The death of the Valley Journal was just one of the cutbacks implemented by its owner, Colorado Mountain News Media, which like other media companies is reeling from the financial reversals of the newspaper business. The company also shut down the presses of the Leadville Chronicle and its Spanish-language paper, La Tribuna, and laid off workers at the Glenwood Springs Post Independent and the Aspen Times. But that didn't make the loss of the Carbondale paper any easier for the locals to swallow. As the Valley Journal said in its farewell edition, "The need for Carbondale to have a newspaper is still very real and we of course prefer to look at this as a temporary situation."

And it was. Less than two months later, more than 3,000 full-color copies of the Sopris Sun's first issue hit the town on February 12.

At a time when it seems odd to be launching a newspaper, Young and the others aren't worried. "If we could start a paper once, we could do it again," she says. "And I don't believe that newspapers are dead, and I definitely don't believe that about here."

The Sopris Sun, now in its fourth month of publication, has set its sights on the local coverage Carbondale missed when the Valley Journal was gone: community activism, upcoming functions, high school sports.

The paper aims to bind Carbondale's residents together, no matter their interests or age. And that is one of the main reasons the founders decided to stick with print at a time when everyone else seems to be rushing to the Internet.

"It's not rational to have to fire up your computer to find out who's playing at Steve's Guitars," Young says. "Being Web-based is rational for some, but it cuts off a large percentage of the over-50 group."

Community donations and volunteer labor have been crucial to getting the paper out. A private loan of $4,500 was all the Sun needed to get the first issue to waiting residents. The paper has set up shop in a building downtown and has been able to forgo paying rent in exchange for free advertising for the real estate company that owns the building.

There are currently only four paid employees who take care of the necessities: reporting, advertising, production, Ortega says. But volunteers pick up the slack when needed. "The response has been overwhelmingly positive, in terms of volunteer contributions, accolades from community members and ad sales," she adds. "It's rare to go out in the community and not heard a word of thanks for the Sun."

The paper's directors sent a message to readers in the first edition of the Sun, writing, "Like every other crazy, creative idea birthed in this delightful community, its fate rests with your support. May it live long and prosper."

Ortega thinks the creation of the Sopris Sun sends an important message about the need for local news. "Larger dailies, which are closing down and/or going to online versions, will not cover the news, community events and announcements of small towns," she says. "We have to do it ourselves. It is the only way we'll stay informed and connected. Whether it is in print or online, community journalism is still of value."

MacKenzie Cotters

Cotters (mcotters@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.

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