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From AJR,   August/September 2012  issue

Struggling to Stay Afloat   

The Sopris Sun, launched by residents of Carbondale, Colorado, when their local paper went out of business nearly four years ago, searches for financial stability. Tues., September 18, 2012.


By Sarah Kraut
Sarah Kraut (sekraut@gmail.com) is a student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

In December 2008, Colin Laird was sitting at his kitchen table with his family when he read that his local newspaper, the Valley Journal in Carbondale, Colorado, was going out of business. His 11-year-old daughter burst into tears as she processed the news. Realizing how deep the impact of the paper's death would be, Laird knew he wanted to help start a new newspaper to fill the void. After just two short months, the Sopris Sun was born.

Three-and-a-half years later, the community-run newspaper is still publishing every week, albeit with immense financial constraints and a frustrating lack of staff. As with most new things, the initial hype eventually began to dwindle, leaving the Sun struggling to maintain its footing.

Carbondale (population 6,000) is located in the scenic Roaring Fork Valley, which stretches from Aspen to Glenwood Springs, in the Colorado Western Slope region. The two-square-mile city fosters a close-knit, small town lifestyle, where people like to stay informed of the goings-on in their neighbors' lives. It's the perfect setting for a local weekly.

The Sun was founded as a nonprofit, run by a board of community members, so it could accept donations and grants and not be entirely dependent on advertising. At the outset, the paper had good financial support, and Carbondale's citizens expressed a lot of enthusiasm.

"It's something that the community and the local businesses supported, and because we had had a weekly paper already, it wasn't hard to tell that story to people in the community," says Laird, one of the Sun's founding board members. "I think everyone was absolutely thrilled about the idea."

Unfortunately, that enthusiasm bumped up against the realities of a rough economy. The Carbondale residents may love their homegrown newspaper, but they just aren't writing the checks. Every year, the Sun hosts a fall fundraiser which saw a decrease in attendance from its first to second year. The board is hoping to come up with a fresh idea to gain a larger turnout for this year's event.

"It's a free paper, so if you're not a business that has to take out advertising, why would you give money?" Laird says. "There's no way of forcing people to support the paper, so it's been challenging. We've managed to keep it going, but it certainly hasn't been easy."

The Sopris Sun maintains a weekly circulation of about 4,000 papers at around 50 locations throughout Carbondale and the surrounding area. It also posts an e-edition of the paper on its Web site, which features an up-to-date calendar of community events on its home page. It's hard to stay afloat, though, as it competes with three daily newspapers and another weekly in the Roaring Fork Valley.

"People view us as just another newspaper, so they expect the same from us as they get from the other newspapers," says Lynn Burton, the Sun's editor in chief. "But those papers have full-time staff reporters, and we don't."

In addition to Burton, the Sun has three other employees: a full-time ad rep, a part-time production assistant and a part-time photographer. The majority of the editorial content comes from volunteer contributors. Burton previously worked for the Valley Journal for 13 years and then moved to the Aspen Daily News. When he was laid off due to budget cuts, he began volunteering at the Sun. Eventually, he became the man in charge.

The financial constraints are a source of frustration for Burton. "We do the best that we can, but every week the list of stories that I want to do and should be doing gets longer and longer," he says. "The frustration for me is that I see all these good stories that need to be done and we don't have the capacity to do."

Local land use consultant and strategic planner Bob Schultz is a regular reader of the Sun and has been a donor since its conception. As a big believer in local media, he tries to see the positive side of things. When he looks at the Sun, he sees a struggling newspaper with a lot of potential and many redeeming qualities that make it worth his while.

"I think that graphically it's a beautiful paper, they have a really good eye for photographs and they do a good job with community events," he says.

But he agrees with Burton's sentiment that the news coverage leaves much to be desired, acknowledging that the paper needs more firepower but hasn't been able to generate enough revenue to pay for it.

"I think it's kind of struggling right now, and I hope that will mature over time into what the community needs," Schultz says. "The community needs more than just a paper. It needs a voice, and in any given month, the Sun can go from an A- to a C- on how it's doing in that regard."

Since its launch, the Sun has struggled to find a way to achieve financial stability. When board member Frank Zlogar retired in Carbondale with his wife a year after the Sun launched, he decided to bring his nonprofit organization experience to the Sun in an effort to restructure and bolster the paper. The paper has an annual budget of $200,000, with about 85 percent coming from advertisers and the remainder trickling in from a variety of grants and donations.

"I would say we're better off in many respects. We have a very stable staff, we have a strong, nine-member board and we now have office space," Zlogar says. "When I started out, we were just in the basement of a building, so there have been a lot of organizational things that have made us stronger but, financially, it will probably always be a struggle."

For now, the Sopris Sun is scraping by, relying on the generosity and support of community members like Schultz and Jeff Jackel, director of Carbondale's Parks and Recreation Department, which takes out a weekly ad about community recreational programs.

"I look forward to getting it every Thursday," Jackel says. "It's a great asset to have in the community, and it's a shame that they're struggling financially, because they don't get enough advertising."