Friday, October 13th, 2023, was a scary day for the citizens of Meeker, the largest town in Colorado's Rio Blanco County, nestled on the Rockies' western slope, with a population of slightly over 6,500.
It was on this day that Niki Turner and Caitlin Walker, the mother and daughter owners of the area's primary local news source, the Rio Blanco Herald Times, sent out an email with the subject line: "Crisis alert: Save your community paper." Within this ominous message, Niki and Caitlin revealed to their community the harsh realities of local news publishing and their own newspaper's critical financial status. They admitted that the operation only had enough money left to publish two more issues of the weekly newspaper and stated that they would shut down on October 26th.
Unlike most businesses (and newspapers) who would fear revealing such a poor bottom line to their customers, these publishers decided that an honest, open, truthful message was the right thing to do as a warning that Rio Blanco would soon be a “news desert,” like so many other small communities throughout the US.
Niki and Caitlin informed the public that the newspaper’s reach was at an all-time high, stating that: “Readership numbers continue to grow, with the Herald being read by more than 2,200 people every week. On top of that, 1,600 of you get our weekly email, 3,000 visit the website each week, and we have excellent social media engagement.” They went on to say that: “We will be letting our only full-time reporter go. We are cutting the number of papers we print and distribute to the bone. We are cutting every other extraneous expense we can think of, including our own paychecks. As a last resort, we’ll try cutting the print edition entirely and go digital-only.
Then came their plea for help, frankly asking that the citizens of Rio Blanco County "help to save your community newspaper.”
On October 19th, Niki penned her weekly printed editorial with the headline: "If a town loses its paper, it's less of a town," a quote borrowed from Al Cross, Director emeritus of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. She wrote, "When we became aware of a precarious financial situation last week, we went into emergency mode. As 'keepers of the flame' — stewards of a community newspaper that's one of the oldest businesses in the county — and as journalists who believe strongly in the free press and the need for independent local news, we're not willing to go down without a fight."
By the end of October, the Herald Times had an additional $33,000 in their bank account from over 200 people donating to the cause, which helped keep "the presses rolling.
The October 26th front page displayed a red headline: “This would have been the last edition of the Herald, ever.” The 1st paragraph of the article proudly stated: “The Herald is ecstatic to announce 100% funding, 100% from Community Supporters, through the end of 2023. That is a VERY long way from where we were two newspapers ago.
In this episode of "E&P Reports," we go one-on-one with Rio Blanco Herald Times Owner/Editor Niki Turner, who made the difficult choice of offering complete transparency about the newspaper's dire financial situation to the western Colorado citizens they serve. Turner truthfully revealed in an email that the company would cease operation within two weeks unless the community offered their support, which resulted in $33,000 in contributions that saved the weekly publication, which has been printed since 1885, from extinction.
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