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High Country News celebrates 40th anniversary of defying the odds

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With print publications folding at a dizzying pace these days, various pundits have suggested that newspapers, magazines and the like explore non-profit options -- a concept they often portray as new and daring.

And it was -- a few decades ago.

Indeed, the business model used by High Country News, based in tiny Paonia, Colorado, whose debut issue was published forty years ago tomorrow, is so old it's new again. According to publisher/executive director Paul Larmer, "Our budget is close to $2 million this year, and we sustain it in a kind of interesting way" -- one based on in-depth, adventurous journalism that a small but loyal group of readers is willing to pay for.

As recounted in High Times, a 2000 Message column that marked the publication's thirtieth anniversary, the publication was founded by Tom Bell, whom Larmer describes as "a rancher from Lander, Wyoming, who came back from World War II and became an environmentalist."

By 1970, Bell was frustrated by the dearth of strong environmental writing -- so he decided to purchase Camping News Weekly, a publication that mostly dealt with "where to find the best camping spots and where do you go to fish," Larmer says, and transform it into a more socially conscious offering.

This notion soon proved to be an intellectual success and a financial disaster. "He was hemorrhaging money," Larmer says -- and even after Bell remortgaged his ranch and cashed in some old uranium claims, the end seemed near. As Larmer tells it, "He published an editorial in 1973 saying, 'This is it. It's been a great run. Thank you, but we can't keep going.' And the readers responded with lots of little checks, ten- and twenty-dollar bills. He brought in about $30,000, enough to keep going. It's the loaves-and-fishes story of High Country News."

Nonetheless, Larmer says that Bell "got burnt out" after a while, turning the News over to a series of editors who ran it in Wyoming. Then, in 1983, the publication's board of directors handed over the keys to Ed and Betsy Marston. "They had run a local newspaper in Paonia and were looking for something to do," says Larmer about his predecessors. "They were originally New Yorkers. Betsy was a TV producer and Ed was a physics professor, and they really brought the keen eye of outsiders into looking at what made the West tick."

Indeed, the Marstons broadened the scope of the News, which they re-established in Paonia, looking at the West as a region --"its culture, its economy and how things work out here, but with the environment at its soul," Larmer points out.

Larmer first came to the News as an intern in 1984, then returned in 1992 as an assistant editor. Since then, the publication has told tales about immigration, exploitation of service workers, meth epidemics in the rural West, the energy industry, conservation and much, much more. In addition, the News launched the Writers on the Range syndication service, which currently provides content for approximately seventy publications around the region, including the Denver Post.

Betsy Marston still runs the Writers on the Range service, but Ed decided to step down as publisher in 2002 -- and Larmer, who by that time had advanced to the editor's chair, applied for the job and got it, navigating the publication through the downturn in print with a little help from his friendly readers.

"We have about 24,000 print subscribers" to the News's 22 issues per annum, "and they're in all fifty states and even some foreign countries," he says. "And on our website, we have about 75,000 visitors a month. We started out just putting up all our magazine stories, but now we're also including additional content in terms of multimedia and the writing of quite a few bloggers who blog on our site and keep the conversation going."

Those are pretty modest numbers, yet the News is able to employ 23 staffers, most of them in Colorado. How does Larmer pay for all of them?

"Subscriptions make up maybe 40 to 45 percent of our revenue, and another 25 to 30 percent comes from donations -- our readers, who we send a letter two or three times a year. We call it a research fund, and that provides another $400,000 or so a year for the organization. Beyond that, about 10 percent comes from ads and then foundation support adds probably another 15 percent.

"We kind of hit on that formula by accident, but it's a model that's proved sustainable for forty years, although not without its rough patches," he continues. "The key thing is that we have a very loyal reader base that understands news isn't for free. We constantly educate our readers about that -- that we, as a nonprofit, rely on them. They're part of a community."

As evidence of the close connection between reader and publication, Larmer reveals that "one of the ways we're commemorating our fortieth anniversary is by calling on our readers to throw forty parties for us throughout the West during Earth Week, both to raise a little money and to have a generally fun celebration that, we hope, will bring us even more readers."

Who'll hopefully be able to keep the News in full flower even as so many other publications are withering and dying.

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