Adventures in small-town newspapering: Post-Dispatch retiree makes his mark in the mountains of Colorado.
The headline above may be mildly fictitious, but regular subscribers to The Jackson County Star, of Walden, Colo., (including this writer) do occasionally encounter such bizarre headlines, especially during slow news weeks.
The Star's headlines, stories, editorials, photos, cutlines, pretty much the whole shebang, springs from the fertile mind of Jim Dustin, 61, ex-Post-Dispatch reporter, former chief of both the West County and St. Charles bureaus, former copy editor and journalistic curmudgeon, who left the Post-Dispatch about 12 years ago.
In 1998, after putting in two decades at 900 North Tucker, Dustin informed his friends (there are scads of us) that he was headed west, Horace Greeley-like, for a small town in Colorado: Walden (elevation, 8,100 feet; population, 600; Jackson County population 1,500, ZIP code, 80480) about 30 miles south of the Wyoming border.
Dustin, no longer married, had decided to actually do what battalions of veteran newspaper types often say they dream of doing: running their own newspaper. His decision may not seem as cockamamie, now, as it did then. His weekly tabloid has a healthy list of subscribers, the earned confidence of its readers and little to no competition from the Internet or nearby mass media (there is no nearby).
The Jackson County Star is dedicated to covering the town's and the area's news, and Dustin has a staff small enough to make metropolitan readers smile: himself, Abby--one of his two lummox-like dogs (Wrecks having shuffled off this canine coil)and part-timers Debbie Wilson, the ad manager, and Helen Williams, the everything-else manager, whom Dustin refers to as the paper's token Democrat. Except for a gaggle of occasional contributors, that's it. The Star's focus is clear: local schools, local kids, local politics, local weather and local economy.
So, in the midst of contemporary media upheaval and the online revolution, one might wonder: What's life like in bucolic journalism land? What follows is a brief Q&A, a smattering of Dustin's musings and misgivings about his life and times as a small-town newspaper editor-owner--a mix of the scalawag in Studs Terkel, the gruffness of Red Smith and the gravitas of Editor
SJR: Any regrets?
A. It's been tough doing this alone. And I wish I'd checked the building closer. Building inspectors hereabouts range from nonexistent to diligent. My building was constructed pre-diligent, and it's soaked up a lot of work and money.
Q: And the rewards?
A: Well, folks don't call it the County Butt Wipe anymore. And this may sound hokey, but the kinship between the paper and the local people has become pretty special. This paper is a 100-percent homegrown product. Its fate rises and falls with the ranchers, farmers, loggers and hard-working townsfolk who read it. And we all know it. Example: A few years back my old pickup gave up the generator ghost at Granby, 65 miles and a Continental Divide south of Walden. The local wrecker hauled my crippled truck back to town. And there, an entourage of folks was waiting for me to open the office--to get their Jackson County Star.
I now have more subscribers outside of the county than in. Plus, I get to wear Levi's, plaid shirts and skuzzy boots everyday without feeling like Pecos Bill at high tea. The plaques on my woefully thin office wall tell me that we've won 49 journalism awards from the Colorado Press Association, including the Editorial Sweepstakes Award in 2006, making The Jackson County Star the best small newspaper in the state, for news coverage. (Pretty cool, huh?) And I hope to actually make money someday.
Q: What do you miss.., most, or least?
A: Most? The regular working stiffs at the Post. They were, as a group, as imaginative, well-informed, creative and open-minded a bunch as you could hope to work with--despite the creative sump they had to slog through everyday. It was always a hoot just gabbing with Harry Jackson, Tom Pettit, George Richardson, Andre Jackson, Joe Holleman and Mary ... damn ... what's her last name? She moved to Pennsylvania. And lots of other folks on the fourth and fifth floors, too numerous to list here.
And I miss working for a paper with statewide clout--especially on nights when big news is breaking. Only newspaper people will really understand that high.
Least? The boring commute, the oppressive bureaucracy, the downtown parking fees, the guy on the roof who threw a brick at me when I drove my motorcycle to work. And the St. Louis heat. (I have an air conditioner at my house that I have never turned on.)
Q: Any advice to those still at the P-D?
A: Try to get to the future before it gets to you. And hang on. Only people can create; only we can write, edit, photograph, compose headlines and cut copy with care.
And local papers, even big ones like the Post, can still do two things that the "other media" (whatever or whoever they may be) cannot do or choose to ignore: investigative pieces and local coverage.
Hell, most TV folks wouldn't even leave their building to do what I do: cover high school sports; interview farmers and ranchers; attend retirement parties and high school scholarship awards; photograph highway mishaps between animals and vehicles and write the headline (see above).
But everything else, these days-national, international, Wall Street, Washington, ad infinitum--most people have already read, or seen, or heard, or all three. And I think that the days of "think pieces" are over, too. The upcoming audience, largely weaned on texting, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, electronics a-go-go, et al. seem to have developed the attention span of parakeets. And even Uncle Walter would have said, "That's the way it is," about that.
Q: Any words of wisdom for journalists considering following your madcap example?
A: Yeah. Rely a lot on blind luck. And maybe three other things.
First: Open an account with the reliable Mom and Dad National Bank--or have someone leave you about $300,000.
Second: Learn to enjoy wrestling, daily, with pesky advertising and subscription rates; and learn to adapt, quickly, to changing technology. And don't be surprised if a helpful reader sends you a crusty cowpie in a shoebox, to illustrate the richness of North Park hay (in its unadulterated form).
And about retirement plans: If insurance rates keep climbing, plan to just keep working until you slump over your old wooden desk. (And remember that alcohol always helps, regardless.)
Third: Don't be arrogant and assume that since you're a bodacious, metropolitan hotshot, you know more than the locals. Like this big-city-type lady who bought a paper a couple of mountain ranges over and commenced to lecturing the locals on the proper way to think, vote, operate their businesses, raise their kids, pick up dog poop and recycle their beer cans. She lasted about eight months. She reminded me of a new word I read somewhere; she was an ignoranus: a person who's both stupid and an asshole.
Q: Finally: Your biggest surprise or revelation?
A: The first few weeks of the putting out the paper, I kept fussing over layout, fitting heads, getting persnickety with copy editing ... and constantly looking over my shoulder, to see if anyone thought maybe the headlines needed a bump, or the leads needed some pruning. But there was no anyone; there was only me--and the paper.
It hit me, gradually, and still does, occasionally: I was, I am, the reporter, copy editor, layout and photo chief and boss. I also shovel the front walk, weed the flower beds (if we had flower beds), change the light bulbs and chase squirrels off the roof.
And there's always a moose out there somewhere that needs photographing.
Avis Meyer, a professor at St. Louis University, worked as a copy editor at the Post Dispatch with Jim Dustin.
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|Title Annotation:||Jim Dustin|
|Publication:||St. Louis Journalism Review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2010|
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