EDITOR’S NOTE: The New York Times found the story of the savior of The Mountain Messenger worth exploring. Read our Q&A with veteran foreign correspondent Tim Arango, who says a good story is where you find it.
Fantasies die hard, or so it is said. And perhaps they are more stubborn in the hard-knocks, real-life world of newspapering. Every reporter is rumored to have a novel tucked in some hidden file in their desk or on their computer. Every publisher dreams of becoming the visionary voice of the community. Every everyone (reporter, photographer, editor, publisher) dreams of winning the Big P. (aka Pulitzer Prize, which, by the way, have now been announced for 2020.)
Enter the gutting of the traditional newspaper industry since the rise of the digital age (and Great Recession). The corrosion of public trust that is exacerbated by the constant fake drumbeat of “fake news.” And then the never-before-seen-in-our-lifetimes chaos of coronavirus. Probably not the time to indulge in a fantasy, if your fantasy is to own a tiny weekly newspaper in a tiny mountain town, and especially if you’ve never had anything to do with producing journalism — or making a living off of it — in your 71 tours around the sun.
Carl Butz couldn’t have foreseen the coronavirus pandemic, but the rest was more than evident when, this past January, he took a leap of valiant faith and bought The Mountain Messenger, the weekly newspaper that has been serving Downieville, California, population 300, since the 1850s. Rather than see it die when the then owner-publisher-editor was ready to walk away, Butz jumped in, becoming some of a hero to the community, a terrified new editor every week on deadline, and a definite anomaly in the news biz.
Tim Arango profiled Butz, the newspaper and the town in a piece for the New York Times in early February. Storyboard contributor Chip Scanlan (a fellow dreamer who does have fiction tucked in his files and has managed to publish some of it) interviewed Arango about how he found the story, and braided the three strands into a captivating profile.
But we were still curious about what Butz, himself, had to say after four months at the helm of a whimsical fantasy that now includes deadlines and bottom lines. So we asked. Here’s what Butz has to say about his adventure so far:
Tim Arango’s profile in the New York times said you were watching “Citizen Kane” (Rosebud!), about newspaper magnate Randolph Hearst, and suddenly think “I can do that.” What exactly was it, in the movie, that sparked that thought?
I suspect the movie was showing while I was feeling inordinately flush shortly after have seen my checking account had topped $100K.
The outgoing Mountain Messenger owner and editor accused you of being a romantic idealist, not to mention “a nut case.” And many journalists will find this a romantic adventure: Hey, why not buy a sweet little newspaper in a beautiful place and be my own boss?! Even non-journalists often dream about the kind of small-town life and mission-driven work you have taken on. But … have you found that it is romantic?
He was spot-on about me being crazy, but this is necessary when one takes on “a mission — not a job,” as I was told by the editor of the Independent Coastal Observer recently. Anyway, I got myself into far, far more than i could ever imagine. The job is all-consuming, I fear every upcoming deadline, and I am thoroughly addicted to proving crazy to be a good thing.
So you buy the dream and live the reality. And according to the New York Times profile, you had never done newspaper work before — you were a computer programmer and a state labor economist. Four months in, what have you found about actually doing journalism or running the newspaper that has been a surprise. A delight? A drag? A who-knew?
Learning about the USPS’s byzantine system for second-class mail and responding to readers who fail to receive their newspapers has been much more intriguing and educational than I ever could have imagined. A who-knew, I guess. As for a drag, the continued appearance of items we need to correct rates high on the list, right up there with failing to print items on a timely basis and not getting the paper to the printer until late in the night before it is published. Quality Control simply has to improve.
You bought the paper early this year, knowing it wasn’t a money maker. Then boom! a month later you’re slammed by the pandemic and its economic stranglehold. How are you surviving
New subscriptions coming in from across the country have helped (we now mail issues to people in 36 different states). Weirdly enough, an unusual number of legal ads, due largely to the closure of six papers based in an adjoining county, has also helped. We’ve also seen renewals holding up well and the return of some “lapsed” subscribers due to the way we’ve increased content in the paper.
You say in the New York Times piece that you don’t plan to do this for long. What are your hopes for The Messenger going forward?
I’m still planning to form a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and to spread the burden of producing the paper as widely as possible with locals and people who are free to help out. As for the future, I believe the digitalization of the old papers will be a long-term source of revenue. Survival, by whatever means necessary, continues to be my hope..
What legacy do you hope to leave behind during your tenure, both in terms of changes in coverage and relationship with the community?
- “Everybody knows everything” about putting the paper together, this would be a good legacy.
- As RevealNews.org says, “There’s always more to the story” is another credo I like for the paper’s future.
- More book reviews and poetry highlighted each week would be great.
- Promoting bioregionalism is a temptation.
What was your relationship with the news before The Messenger? Ie: Where did you get your news?
I’ve been a “news junkie” since my youth. When moving to Downieville in the 1990s from San Francisco, I quickly subscribed to the Sunday New York Times. NPR has been a constant source of news for me since the 1970s.