The Silverton Standard: the Newspaper That Refused to Die
by Samantha Wright
Mar 15, 2012 | 1758 views | 1 1 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
<b>TODAY STAR</b> Silverton Standard editor Mark Esper in his office. (Photo by Samantha Wright)
TODAY STAR Silverton Standard editor Mark Esper in his office. (Photo by Samantha Wright)
SILVERTON – It’s been quite a week for Silverton Standard editor Mark Esper. A crew from NBC’s Today Show is in town to film a segment on the tiny paper he’s helmed for the past five years, and its unique relationship to the San Juan County Historical Society, which now owns it. The segment, which is scheduled to air in about two weeks, casts the town of Silverton as “the town that refused to die.”

The TV crew has taken a lot of Esper’s time this week, and somehow he still has to get a paper out the door. There’s no cub reporter or office lackey to whom he can delegate the task. Aside from selling and building ads, he does everything to put the Standard together, except, as one pal put it, “cut down the trees to make the paper.”

Right now, Esper’s exhausted. One word comes to his mind: “Yikes.”

But putting aside the pesky weekly deadlines, and the fact that he hasn’t had a proper vacation since 2010 (and even that one wasn’t proper – he took his computer with him and built the paper from Michigan), Esper’s taking his newfound recognition from the national journalism community in stride.

Here are some of the kudos Esper’s won over the past year: The Silverton Standard, which dates back to 1875, has been deemed a National Historic Site in Journalism – one of only two in the entire state of Colorado (the other is the Denver Press Club).

The paper won a slew of awards in the Colorado Press Association’s 2011 Better Newspaper Contest (as it has ever since Esper came along five years ago) including a First Place for best deadline news reporting and best news photograph for its coverage of the Pride of the West fire last April, and came within a whisker of winning the coveted General Excellence award.

Colorado Public Radio’s on-air news magazine Colorado Matters profiled Esper and the Standard earlier this month.

The cable television station HD Net did a 22-minute show on the Standard in its World Report. (It’s downloadable on iTunes.)

The HD Net profile seemed to trigger a whole avalanche of recognition for Esper and his work. Shortly after that segment aired, he did a doubletake when the phone rang and his caller-ID feature displayed “NBC Universal.”

“I picked up the phone and it was a producer from Good Morning America,” Esper laughed, leaning comfortably back in his editor’s chair. The Standard office is located in the old surgery room in the Miner’s Union Hospital on Reece Street. It has huge floor to ceiling windows, facing east toward the aspen-clad flank of Boulder Mountain.

Esper loves the space, and the fact that this is where quite a few of the local characters he writes about were born.

“They’re looking for local characters,” he said of the Today Show crew. “Freddie Canfield will steal the show.” Canfield is the wise bearded hippie philosopher who writes the Standard’s weather column, and runs a team of sled dogs on the side.

“Then there’s Sue Kurtz; they’ll probably love her.” San Juan County Sheriff Sue Kurtz is the only female sheriff in all of Colorado.

“And of course Zeke Zanoni.” One of Silverton’s many born-and-breds, who made his first appearance in the world right in this very room.

It doesn’t occur to Esper that he, himself, is now part of Silverton’s constellation of quirkiness. He’s been here for five years now, hardly long enough to count as a local, but even the born-and-breds acknowledge that they are pretty darn lucky to have Esper, a native of Michigan, at the helm of their local rag.

He’s worked at papers large and small across the country throughout his career, from the copy desk at the Billings Gazette to the newsroom at the Farmington Daily Times, yet was thrilled to win a gig at the Standard five years ago. At that time, the paper was going through a difficult period. It was owned by the same publishing company that ran the Telluride Daily Planet, and was treated by that paper’s headquarters at best as a pesky younger sibling, at worst as an unwanted orphan.

As the economy and welfare of newspapers around the country started to unravel in 2008 and 2009, Esper saw the writing on the wall for his job, and possibly, the Standard itself.

“I was sitting here in a panic, thinking, what can we do?”

The publishing company had asked Esper if he wanted to buy the Standard outright, but he didn’t have the means to do so.

Desperation bred an out-of-the-box solution to the problem.

Esper approached Bev Rich, the president of the San Juan County Historical Society, about purchasing the paper in his stead. When the Standard’s parent company caught wind of the concept, it upped the ante, offering to donate the paper to the SJCHS as a tax write-off.

The rest, as they say, is history. Literally.

Now, among its many other kudos, the Standard is one of the only nonprofit papers Esper knows of in the country, and the only one to be owned by a historical society.

It’s a good partnership, for SJCHS and the Standard, which since Esper came along has run a full page of local history on the back page of the paper each week. (The feature is cleverly called “The Caboose.”) It’s one of his favorite parts of the work week, heading down to the basement of the local library to sift through the old stacks and the microfiche.

The community has rallied around the unique arrangement between its paper and its historical society, and has done what it can to support the paper through the transition from for-profit to nonprofit. Locals subscribe to the paper and read it eagerly and carefully. Businesses advertise. Lots of folks buy the annual calendar that the Standard puts out as a fundraiser.

And, Esper’s happy to report, the paper is holding its own, and does not need to be subsidized. “In fact we cleared $2,300 in profits last year,” he says, with a grin.

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March 17, 2012
Thanks, Samantha, nice story.