Getting Globalized

Column by George Sibley

Regional Media – February 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

IN THE ABSTRACT, there’s something attractive about the idea of “globalization” — all the nations and peoples of the world interconnected in a big happy “village,” everybody exchanging goods, services, and information, freely, with no concern for antiquated old borders.

But when you get past the glowing abstractions to what’s actually going on down on the ground, it’s not always so happy. Ideally, abstractly, an “exchange” is something in which all parties benefit mutually; but in reality, what gets exchanged most freely is that form of information we call money, and instead of flowing freely and generously to everyone, everywhere, money tends to coagulate and clot in clumps that try to enlarge themselves infinitely, while the wealth available for general distribution shrinks accordingly.

I’ve been watching a small example of this happen here in the Upper Gunnison, in what we call “local media.” When I came to the valley 35 years ago, all the newspapers in the valley were locally owned and operated. There were three newspapers in Gunnison, and after a few friends and I bought the Crested Butte Chronicle from a Gunnison publisher (who had inherited it in a bankruptcy), we took it home, and then there was a paper in Crested Butte. All were locally owned.

To go through the whole checkered history of those newspapers and their ownership before and since then would far exceed my space here, and probably your patience. But by the 1990s, there were two newspapers in the valley, the Gunnison Country Times (a merger of three old papers) and the Crested Butte Chronicle & Pilot (a merger of two papers). They were both owned by two Telluridians, who also had papers in Telluride and Durango.

In that situation the “newspaper chain” made a modicum of sense. The Telluridians started up another paper in Montrose and centralized the printing, and some of the business operation, for all of their newspapers there.

Expensive production and distribution costs were efficiently centralized, without any loss of autonomy for the local editorial staffs. If anything, a “regional chain” of that sort probably improves communication among adjacent communities that can otherwise get a little insular.

This kind of centralized regional ownership has been working well in the Upper Arkansas valley for some time now, with Leadville, Fairplay, Buena Vista, and Salida papers all under common regional ownership. There is a similar chain over in the Roaring Fork valley below Aspen, and another one up in Summit County.

NOW, HOWEVER, the newspaper chain in the Upper Gunnison valley has been “globalized.” The paper the Telluridians started in Montrose tanked, after considerable investment, and the Telluridians sold to a Texas-based organization which operates here under the title “Colorado Consolidated Media.” Their corporation also owns a similar chain in the New England area.

There is nothing local about the ownership anymore, and less and less that is local about the operation of the papers. CCM sent in its own man to serve as publisher for both the Crested Butte and Gunnison papers, and he laid down some pretty generic guidelines for what a Small Town Newspaper needs to be. They “reduced” the production staff and began sending the paper electronically to a facility in Florida for production.

THE FORMER EDITOR of the Gunnison Country Times, who finally quit under the pressure to do more with less, said that he went to a meeting in Montrose conducted by the CCM honchos, and “heard a lot about what the stockholders need from the paper but little about what the communities need.” The staff of the Times is now almost entirely young recent graduates from Western State College, mostly inexperienced both journalistically and in terms of “knowing the town.”

The response up in Crested Butte was (of course) more extreme: almost the entire staff of the Chronicle & Pilot walked after a few months of globalizing and then started their own newspaper, the Crested Butte News.

According to a friend who has written for the C&P for twenty-some years, the new publisher didn’t understand the town, and apparently thought it would be easier to use the paper to change the town than to try to broaden his own understanding. The Chronicle & Pilot is now edited by a journalist who is essentially commuting from Cortez.

So — the valley is getting globalized! Whoopdedoo. But it sure doesn’t look that great from down on the ground. The globalists are squeezing a few bucks out of the valley, but so far as I can see, they are bringing nothing into the valley except an increase in the generica that Wal-Mart and McDonald’s represent in the more material sphere.

The new paper in Crested Butte, by the way, is doing well.

George Sibley has retired from newspaper publishing and sawmill operating to teach and write in Gunnison.