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STILL WRITING NEWSPAPER COLUMNS AFTER ALL THESE YEARS 
By Steve Wintermute

All I know is what I read in the papers.” Will Rogers

Long ago – 40 years – in a land far away – Southeast Colorado - I serendipitously discovered my calling. But it took a while before I experienced kismet.

My first job was with a non-profit that weatherized homes of people whose income was near or below the federal poverty level and so could not afford to insulate their home. Our program covered the six counties of southeast Colorado, an area the size of Massachusetts but with only about 50,000 population. We had one employee in each of the other five counties with offices in the local senior citizens centers. I had to drive to each county office once a month to pick up completed applications and share news with the local representatives. I put about 300 miles a month on my VW bug, considered very fuel efficient in those days and with its rear engine great in snow, a not infrequent event September thru April.

That position ended when President Reagan did as he promised and in 1981 ended funding of many non-profits serving low-income people across the country.

 

My next job was at what was colloquially called “The Pickle Plant,” in nearby La Junta. (Pronounce the J as H, in the Spanish manner.) It provided a reliable outlet for area farmers’ cucumber and tomato crops. Some growers also sold produce they grew, at their roadside markets located on their U.S. highway 50 frontage. (50 runs the length of southeast Colorado.) Usually open June through October they are referred to locally by the family that owns it: Hirakata’s, Knapp’s, Holder’s, Van Dyke’s, etc..

It was at the Pickle Plant that I discovered the only real difference between many brand names and many store brands, at least in pickle and tomato products, are the labels. We would run x number of, say,  relish jars with a brand name label through the line, then, without changing the recipe, run an x number with a store label. 

But that job was not for me. I got my first ever sales job soon after at the local radio station selling time (ads) and hosting a Friday morning call-in show, a surreal experience. To my amazement, I discovered I enjoyed sales. But radio did not pay very well so I looked around for another job.

It was another sales position. This time it was produce.  I sold onions the year around, and others in season, famous Rocky Ford Cantaloupe, noted for their sweetness, watermelon, and now and then the odd lot of radishes, carrots, and asparagus. I sold it all by the truckload nationwide, except watermelon, nearly all went to the Front Range, that ten percent of Colorado’s land area where ninety percent of Colorado’s population lives. And except for cantaloupe which, because it was picked near-ripe, could not be shipped over 500 miles and still be saleable in grocery stores. Except one year when the boss decided to find out just how far we could ship cantaloupe and have any of it arrive in good condition. He contacted a long-time North Carolina onion customer with a proposition: we would ship him a load of cantaloupe and pay for the truck. He would tell us how many arrived in saleable condition, and pay us only for those.  He agreed. He later told us half were ok. We were excited but never tried it again because we would lose money on half a load.

The pay was good straight salary, no commission, with a bonus based on year-end profits. I liked everything about the job. I did not mind staying late waiting for a truck to arrive but I did mind being in the office by 6 am to talk to East Coast buyers by eight am their time.

All the while I was involved in local community theater. As it happened, the son of the owners of the Rocky Ford Daily Gazette and his wife were also involved in local theater. We were usually in the same shows. When I was selling produce, I told them I liked the selling part but not the early hours part, During another show, JR, the Gazette’s managing editor, and Laura, his wife, the paper’s sales manager, told me they had an ad sales position open and might I be interested? As there were no 6 ams involved, I told them absolutely. 

The Gazette is a Monday through Friday daily, circulation around 5,000. At the time Ross and Anne Thompson, JR’s parents, owned the Gazette and had since the late 1940s. The story around town was that Ross, a World War Two Navy veteran, had won the paper’s purchase price playing poker with shipmates. He never denied the yarn.

On my first day, Laura gave me a list of businesses, mainly in Rocky Ford and nearby La Junta. Some were established Gazette advertisers, some were not. My remuneration (I love that word) in 1985 dollars, was $200 a month salary, plus mileage, plus the real money: twenty percent of every ad I sold. I also had to spend “free” time creating the ads, which turned out to be no small feat. 

Old timers in the business, like me, will remember the large tomes filled with every illustration imaginable. The Gazette had over 10. I had to go through them to find images to fit the copy (words) the advertiser and I had agreed on. Then I would type the copy on a manual typewriter, cut it up, make the illustration(s) larger or smaller on the copy machine and then paste it all onto paper the size of the ad I had sold. It was tedious and time consuming but it was state-of-the-art then.

I had read somewhere that the national successful sales average was about 25 percent, meaning the more businesses you call on the more you will sell and the more money you will make. It worked for me. After a year of contacting established customers and cold calling others, meaning walking into a non-customer business and pitching the advantages of advertising, especially in the Gazette, I had a sizable client list. During that time I discovered that there are many things I cannot sell, but I can sell produce and newspaper ads. I also discovered that now and then there would be a personality clash between a customer and me. I would tell Laura. She had the same clash with a few of hers, so we would swap. That often solved the problem.

 

My customers were mostly businesses in towns. However, several were farmers, ranchers and feed lots. They usually advertized only on special occasions. Contacting ranchers often meant driving out on the range, which necessitated selling my venerable VW and purchasing my first pickup because of the higher clearance. Naturally I bought it, and its successor, from a good customer, the local Ford dealer.

One day a couple years later, JR showed up with new Apple Macintosh computers with tiny screens. They were state of the art at the time. Computers revolutionized the newspaper world almost overnight. Every job became easier and faster, including mine. Making ads went from an hour to ten minutes. (I still have my Mac.) JR bought his parents computers, of course. Anne took to it easily. Ross tried it but after week he told JR to give it to someone else and went back to his trusty old Underwood typewriter.

Frequently there were more activities, especially high school sports, needing to be covered than the three reporters could cover. JR would draft me. I remember one late September Friday night prowling the football field sidelines in snow with my trusty cameras. Our film was black and white. JR ran the paper’s darkroom developing the photos and choosing which photos to put in the Gazette. He also rolled the film in ten shot canisters. I usually carried half a dozen. The reporters carried more. This was before digital cameras made taking photographs much easier so the general rule was at least three shots of everything, on the theory at least one would be printable.

 

The owners and staff of small town newspapers like the Rocky Ford Daily Gazette are highly visible in the community and are expected to contribute to its well being. Anne was a long-time member of the local Toastmasters. JR, Laura and I were active in local theater. JR and Laura also were Rotary Club members. And the Gazette sponsored trike races on Kids Day for years at the week long, three-county Arkansas Valley Fair which has been held at Rocky Ford’s fairgrounds every August since 1878, making it the oldest continuous fair in Colorado. It is also the last “free gate” (no admission charge) fair in the state. I was on the AV Fair’s Board of Directors and volunteered at the horse races, the demolition derby, watermelon seed spitting contest and, of course, the trike races with JR and Laura. It was hot, dusty and fun. The Gazette gave the fair plenty of publicity with articles and photos before and during, as it did for all civic events.

Back to the title of this essay. I wrote my first newspaper column in January, 1991, when the first Gulf War began. I showed it to Ross. To my astonishment, the most conservative man I have ever known agreed with my anti-war view and ran it. He told me that whenever I wrote a column to show it to him. Thanks, Ross, for helping me discover my calling. Forty years later I am still writing newspaper columns.

I learned more working for a small town newspaper than I did at any other job. Perhaps the most important lesson was how vital a local newspaper, large or small, is to a large or small community. No other news source so completely informs people what is going on in their town from soup to nuts and everything in between. No national or regional news sources, nor any social media does it. Few realize that until they wake up one morning and discover their local newspaper has folded.

After I left Rocky Ford, the Daily Gazette, now run by JR and Laura after his parents retired, saved two weekly newspapers when the owners wanted to retire, the next generation did not want to take over and no buyer could be found. The Gazette bought the Ordway New Era and the Fowler Tribune preserving both small communities’ local source of information.

La Junta’s Monday through Friday daily, the Tribune Democrat, was also family owned. It, too, saved two weeklies, the Bent County Democrat and the Arkansas Valley Journal. But when the owner generation wanted to retire, the younger generation did not want to take over so it was sold to a distant corporation specializing in profitable small town newspapers. The T-D still covers local news but under an editor sent in by the corporation. 

Many small and large local newspapers are not as fortunate as the Gazette is – so far. Read these alarming current statistics: Average number of U.S. newspapers that fold each week: 2.5. Estimated portion of U.S. newspapers that will no longer exist by 2025: 1/3. Percentage of U.S. counties at risk of losing their only remaining news outlet:7.

I end with two quotes: “Strong journalism is indispensable for a healthy democracy and an accountable government,” - Janeese Lewis George. “Every time a newspaper dies, even a bad one, the country moves a little closer to authoritarianism.” - Richard Kluger. 

And with an admonition:  save your local newspaper so you will always know what is going on in your community: buy a subscription.

Steve Wintermute is a journalist and history student. Contact him at stevewintermute1@gmail com.

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