Can This Newspaper be Saved?
Updated: Jun 30, 2020
Carl Butz, 71, a retired labor economist, finds himself in the news business
Yes, Butz believes that California’s oldest weekly newspaper can be resuscitated.
“I just couldn’t stand by and let the paper go,” Butz told me during a phone chat about his recent purchase. Sirens blared in the background – ambulances on their way to help an injured mountain biker – a popular hobby in the rural Sierra Nevada town of Downieville.
At the end of last year, The Mountain Messenger’s former owner and editor, Don Russell, a man with a reputation as a brusque writer, had been running the paper for several years. But, the romance was over and Russell wanted out. Until Butz stepped in, Downieville, population 300, was going to be just another news desert – a community without a local newspaper. Thousands of local papers across the country have shuttered in the last decade amid declining advertising revenue and readership.
“I am just delighted that I found someone stupid enough to buy it,” Russell, told CBS news.
But, Butz, a self-described news junkie, knew what he was getting into. He had been helping Russell, who he described as a close friend, run the paper that published its first edition in 1853 when Downieville was a thriving gold rush town.
“I covered the county board of supervisors and wrote a 10 part travel piece that people seemed to really like,” said Butz, who can be found sitting at his computer at all hours of the day and night, an unfiltered American Spirit cigarette hanging from his mouth, as he works to put out the paper.
(Yes, he allows smoking in the newsroom. “I try not to smoke in the newsroom, but smoking and writing, it just goes together so well,” he says laughing.)
It was while watching the movie Citizen Kane at his daughter’s house one night last year that he had an epiphany: “Oh, I can do that!”
He bought the paper for some amount in the four figures and acquired its debt – he did not even see the books. He knew it wasn’t a moneymaker.
Despite the precarious financial situation, Butz says he loves the job and is learning interesting and not so interesting things about journalism and publishing.
“Some woman called and complained that she did not like where the address label was put on her paper and would I please fix that and then there are the corrections that have to be written and I have learned all about USPS system for second-class mail,” he told me.
Butz relies on volunteers for help – a developer built the paper’s website and locals contribute writing and perform other duties needed to put the paper out.
For the first time, the Messenger has a Facebook page where it has garnered 96 followers and almost as many ‘likes’. On Twitter, the Messenger has 401 followers.
And while some have asked Butz if the romance of writing and running a newspaper is what motivated him to buy the paper, he insists “there is nothing romantic about it; it’s drudgery at times.”
He is planning on putting out a call for some real help – someone to handle the website for starters.
“This job is killing me. I no sooner put the paper to bed for one week and I am working on the next edition.”
Butz’s schedule is grueling – after writing and editing his copy and anything else that comes in by the Wednesday night deadline – he has to handle all the “nitty-gritty” technicalities of the almost ancient computer system that the paper is produced on.
Late Wednesday night, the paper is sent to a printer in Quincy. On Thursday morning, Butz makes the 90-minute drive to pick up hundreds of copies and then drives around Sierra County dropping it off at newspaper boxes, stores and gas stations.
He dreams about “some kid getting out of journalism school showing up here and thinking this is a great place to learn the job. But so far there hasn’t been anyone,” he says.
The paper survives on subscriptions -- $35 a year for locals and $45 for out of state -- and legal notices, which have surged since the local paper covering a nearby town has shuttered.
But the Messenger has made progress since Butz took over. Circulation was 650 when he bought it but it has leapt to about 850. Stories about the paper in national media outlets have helped.
“It is interesting that we have gotten many out of state subscribers,” Butz said. “The paper gets mailed out to 36 states.”
He calls the type of journalism the paper does “refrigerator magnet journalism”. He believes he is doing a community service by publishing the paper and showing the community that they exist and are relevant in the world.
“People like to see their name in the paper and the names or pictures of the people they know in the paper.”
He told me the story of a woman whose mother had died leaving behind 20 scrapbooks of the newspaper’s clippings -- stories dating back to the 1940s.
“She brought them in to show me something and to prove that something I had written was wrong,” Butz said.
His initial plan was to turn the paper into a non-profit organization. The only hitch with that set up is he would have to answer to a board of directors.
“I have talked with other editors and that situation usually doesn’t work out,” he said. “You end up beholden to the board and what if the son of someone on the board got arrested for drunk driving -- I want to be able to write about it.”
Meanwhile Butz said he is encouraged by the number of subscriptions that have been renewed for more than a year. He is so busy putting out the paper that he hasn’t had a chance to come up with a long-term plan yet to keep it going.
“I am getting more (subscriptions) both locally and nationally and I have some money in the bank,” he said. “Ultimately I want to come up with something that will allow the paper to be published indefinitely.”