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NY Times report on rescue of local newspaper in Downieville, CA

Meet the Unlikely Hero Saving California’s Oldest Weekly Paper

High in the Sierra, Downieville, Calif., was about to become the latest American community to lose its newspaper. In stepped Carl Butz, a 71-year-old retiree.

Carl Butz, the new owner of The Mountain Messenger, in the paper’s office in Downieville, Calif.
deser Carl Butz, the new owner of The Mountain Messenger, in the paper’s office in Downieville, Calif. Credit…Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times
New York Times, By Tim Arango, Feb. 10, 2020

DOWNIEVILLE, Calif. — The night before his first deadline, Carl Butz, California’s newest newspaper owner, was digging into a bowl of beef stew at the Two Rivers Café, the only restaurant open in town.

“Tomorrow I have to fill the paper,” he said with only mild anxiety. “The question is, will it be a four-page paper or a six-page paper?”

At 71, Mr. Butz is trim, with wire-rimmed glasses and a close-cropped silver beard, and he dresses in flannel shirts and cargo pants. Since his retirement and his wife’s death in 2017, he considered traveling — to England or Latvia, or riding the Trans-Siberian Railway. But here he was, a freshly minted newspaper proprietor, having stepped in at the beginning of the year to save The Mountain Messenger, California’s oldest weekly newspaper, from extinction.

The Messenger was founded in 1853. Its most famous scribe was Mark Twain, who once wrote a few stories — with a hangover, the legend goes — while hiding out here from the law.

Newspapers across America, especially in rural areas like here in Sierra County, have been dying at an alarming rate, and Downieville was about to become the latest “news desert.” The obituaries for the paper had already been written. Don Russell, the hard-drinking, chain-smoking editor with a blunt writing style who had owned and run the paper for nearly three decades, was retiring, and he seemed happy enough for the paper to die with his retirement.

And then one night Mr. Butz was watching “Citizen Kane” on cable and thought, I can do that. He made the deal quickly, paying a price in the “four figures,” he said, plus the assumption of some debts, without even looking at the books.

Still, Mr. Russell, an old friend of Mr. Butz’s, was a reluctant seller. “His position was, it’s a losing proposition and someone who’d want it would be crazy,” Mr. Butz said. “He called me a romantic idealist and a nut case. And that’s not a paraphrase, but a direct quote.”

For the residents of Downieville — and there are not many; the population is about 300 — who for generations counted on The Messenger to arrive every Thursday, through wildfires and power outages and economic booms and busts, Mr. Butz has become an unlikely local hero, a savior of a cherished institution.

“Thank God for Carl, he stepped in,” said Liz Fisher, a former editor of the paper who lives across the street from its office and runs The Sierra County Prospect, an online news site. “It was devastating for everybody that we were going to lose The Mountain Messenger.”

A cluttered, smoke-filled newsroom

On a recent Wednesday morning, facing his first deadline, Mr. Butz was staring down a blank computer screen in the newspaper’s cramped two-room office above a beauty salon on Main Street. Mr. Butz, a fourth-generation Californian and a former computer programmer and labor economist for the state, readily admitted that he had no idea what he had gotten himself into, and it did not help to learn that the paper’s publishing software was from the mid-1990s.

One of the first things he said he would do after buying the paper was ban smoking in the office, but next to his keyboard was a package of unfiltered cigarettes and an ashtray.

“What is the lead story?” Mr. Butz asked.

“The front page is blank,” replied Jill Tahija, the paper’s only other employee, sitting at an adjacent computer.

Mr. Butz and Jill Tahija, The Messenger’s only other employee, working on an edition of the paper.
Mr. Butz and Jill Tahija, The Messenger’s only other employee, working on an edition of the paper. Credit…Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

Ms. Tahija, who has worked at The Messenger for 11 years, might properly be called the managing editor, but on her business cards it says, “she who does the work.”

Her small black-and-white dog, Ladybug, a Boston terrier-Shih Tzu-Chihuahua mix, bounded around the cluttered newsroom. On every surface were books and trinkets and junk — Civil War histories, annals of the county, dictionaries, empty beer bottles, packages of ramen noodles.

In the archives section are old papers dating to the 1850s, and on the walls are pictures of Mark Twain and some slogans — old saws of newspapering, like “If it bleeds, it leads.”

Mr. Russell, who was on vacation, driving his R.V. up the coast with his wife, when Mr. Butz took over the paper, once told The Los Angeles Times that Twain had written a few unremarkable stories for The Messenger. Mr. Russell had read them on microfilm at a library. “They were awful,” he said. “They were just local stories, as I recall, written by a guy with a hangover.”

At his computer, Mr. Butz was putting together one of his first new features for the paper, a “poetry corner.” (He selected “Thoughts,” by Myra Viola Wilds, an African-American poet from Kentucky who wrote in the early 20th century.) As Ms. Tahija worked on the front page — the next day it would be filled with stories about a local poetry competition, the upcoming census, wildfire prevention and a local supervisors meeting — Mr. Butz shifted his focus to finishing his letter to readers.

In it, he explained why he bought the paper. “Simply put,” he wrote, “the horrible thought of this venerable institution folding up and vanishing after 166 years of continuous operation was simply more than I could bear.”

The newspaper, he wrote, was “something we need in order to know ourselves.”

‘Like losing a friend’

Making a newspaper in Downieville is strictly an analog, ink-on-paper affair; there is no website, no social media accounts. It loses a few thousand dollars a year, and relies mostly on publishing legal notices from the county and other government offices, which brings in about $50,000 a year, for the bulk of its revenue. It has about 700 subscribers and a print run of 2,400 copies, just below the county’s population.

“I’m not going to lose a million dollars but I know I’m going to have to subsidize some of it,” Mr. Butz said. “My daughter is already aware that her inheritance is shrinking.”

Downtown Downieville.
Downtown Downieville. Credit…Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

Downieville is a remarkably well-preserved old Gold Rush town, perched at a fork in the Yuba River in remote western Sierra County. History is its pitch to tourists, and it has the feel of a backlot for an Old West movie — in its corner saloon, in the one-lane bridges over the Yuba, and in the second-story offices of The Messenger, next to the Fire Department. (A painted message on the door says it is the “oldest volunteer fire department west of the Mississippi.”)

With the demise of gold mining and the shuttering of the sawmills that were once an economic engine for the region, Downieville reinvented itself as a destination for mountain biking and fly fishing, with an abundance of Old West charm.

Residents reacted to Mr. Butz’s last-minute purchase of the paper with a mixture of relief and gratitude.

“A real sense of relief,” said Lee Adams, a former Sierra County sheriff and a current member of the county’s Board of Supervisors.

The paper was always an important institution, but it had become more so in recent years as Northern California dailies like The Sacramento Bee and The San Francisco Chronicle stopped distributing in the region, and rarely sent reporters to cover Sierra County.

“We would have to fall off the face of the earth to make one of those papers on a normal news day,” Mr. Adams said.

An edition of the weekly paper was distributed in Sierra County, Calif., on a recent Thursday.
An edition of the weekly paper was distributed in Sierra County, Calif., on a recent Thursday. Credit…Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

The Messenger is more than just a chronicle of weekly happenings — government meetings, births and deaths, the police blotter, the weather — but also a repository of the county’s history. The paper is just a year younger than Sierra County, which was founded in 1852, the year Wells Fargo was established to serve the Gold Rush and the riches being dredged from the river.

When Bill Copren, 76, a local historian and a former county assessor, wrote his master’s thesis on the political history of Sierra County in the mid-19th century, he relied on The Messenger’s archives.

More recently, when officials secured a spot on the National Register of Historic Places for a local school built in the Art Deco style in 1931, they used the paper’s archives to confirm the details of how it was built and who paid for it.

The paper’s closure, Mr. Copren said, would have been “like losing a friend.”

Under Mr. Russell, The Messenger had a distinctive attitude and a brusque, straightforward style. He was averse to political correctness and not immune from using curse words in print.

Mr. Butz said he did not plan to own the paper for long, and wanted to find a younger person who could take over. He said he was thinking about bringing the paper into the digital age, with a website, and was thinking about turning it into a nonprofit publication, accepting donations and grants to keep it running.

But on a recent Thursday morning, the day after deadline, he was just happy to have his first issue under his belt.

His Thursday routine is now established: He gets up early and drives about an hour and a half to a printing plant in Quincy, Calif., to pick up the bundles of freshly printed newspapers. On the way, he and Scott McDermid, the paper’s longtime distribution manager, stop at the Express Coffee Shop for waffles and eggs.

Mr. Butz putting copies of The Messenger in a distribution box outside the Golden West Saloon in Loyalton, Calif.
Mr. Butz putting copies of The Messenger in a distribution box outside the Golden West Saloon in Loyalton, Calif. Credit…Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

And then, with a truck full of papers, they crisscross the county, past the tall cedars and Douglas firs of the mountains, and across the Sierra Valley, dotted with junipers and cottonwoods, stopping at every shop and gas station, emptying newspaper machines of last week’s edition, collecting money and dropping off fresh bundles of The Messenger.

The story around town is how Mr. Butz saved the local newspaper.

But Mr. Butz, a still-grieving widower — his wife, Cecilia Kuhn, the drummer in an all-female punk band, Frightwig, died in 2017 — sees it another way.

“It’s saving me,” he said.

Publishing The Messenger is an analog, ink-on-paper affair. There are no social media accounts, though Mr. Butz said he was thinking about creating a website for the paper.
Publishing The Messenger is an analog, ink-on-paper affair. There are no social media accounts, though Mr. Butz said he was thinking about creating a website for the paper. Credit…Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times
Tim Arango is a Los Angeles correspondent. Before moving to California, he spent seven years as Baghdad bureau chief and also reported on Turkey. He joined The Times in 2007 as a media reporter.
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    UPDATE: Martinez News-Gazette publishing one print edition weekly

    By Roger Straw, February 4, 2020
    Announcement from p. 3 of the January 12, 2020 edition of the Martinez News-Gazette

    The news is still a bit sketchy, but today I heard from Nick Sestanovich, former editor of the Benicia Herald, commenting on my story yesterday, “News of the death of Martinez News-Gazette was premature…”

    Nick pointed out that the editor of the Martinez News-Gazette “was able to find another company to continue publishing the paper as a weekly.”

    P. 1 of the January 12, 2020 edition of the Martinez News-Gazette

    The print edition is a full color Sunday paper, and it looks great!  Here’s an online pictorial copy of the Sunday, January 12 edition.  The announcement on page 3 goes like this: “Martinez News-Gazette Continues!  PCM Publishing LLC, owner of  The Hemet & San Jacinto Chronicle along with Rick Jones, editor of the Martinez News-Gazette for the past six years announce the continuation of the Martinez News-Gazette.  In the upcoming weeks look for a new, full-color edition of the Gazette to be published weekly.  We will continue to provide the best hyper-local news coverage in Martinez.”

    P. 1 of the January 19, 2020 edition of the Martinez News-Gazette

    It’s something of a sleuth job to discover other online versions of the print publication.  I was able to locate the January 19 edition at martinezgazette.com/martinez-news-gazette-jan-19-2020, but subsequent editions either didn’t get posted online, or they are following some other URL protocol.

    The new owner (or co-owner along with Rick Jones?) is PCM Publishing.  I’m not sure, but pcm.com might be the company in question.

    HERE IN BENICIA… we are hopeful that if and when Benicia Herald owner (and former owner of the Martinez News-Gazette) David Payne realizes that his 121-year-old Benicia treasure has – for several years now – hit rock bottom, he is able to find a backer and sell, so that Benicia continues to have a local newspaper, and a more vibrant one at that.

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      News of the death of Martinez News-Gazette was premature…

      Martinez not entirely a “news desert”

      By Roger Straw, February 2, 2020
      [See update: Martinez News-Gazette publishing one print edition weekly]

      There’s no reporting on this out there, but I stumbled on a fresh reference to the Martinez News-Gazette while googling for something, can’t remember exactly what.

      Hmmmm… wasn’t it the 161-year old Martinez News-Gazette that announced its last issue and published a final edition in December of 2019?  Yep – see my Dec 28 repost of the San Francisco Chronicle article, “The latest “news desert” – Martinez News-Gazette closes“.

      But it lives!  At least the online edition, which seems vigorous and healthy at  martinezgazette.com.  Check it out.

      I can’t find anything that confirms yes or no as to a print edition.  Guess I’ll have to venture over the Benicia-Martinez bridge to find out.

      This is good news for those of us in Benicia, where our ancient local news outlet, the Benicia Herald, is owned by the same guy who owns the Martinez News-Gazette.  I hope our fears of becoming more of a “news desert” are somewhat diminished, if not banished.  (The Herald publishes a print edition only 3 times per week and occasionally online.)

      Here’s weekly opinion writer Bill Sharkey’s delightfully rambling account of the surprise resuscitation of his old friend, the Martinez News-Gazette:

      Column One: What Happened?

      By Bill Sharkey III, Martinez News-Gazette, January 12, 2020 

      WHAT HAPPENED? You tell me! Whatever it was, it was mighty fast. And, here we are again. No longer an unemployed volunteer columnist. Hardly a day off to consider my future. Perhaps, just as well! Reflecting on my past keeps me well occupied; it’s been such a long past. Maybe good for a cheap autobiography?

      It seems there was an ‘obituary’ notice in the old Morning News-Gazette on Page One announcing in advance the pending demise of the 161-year-old newspaper which had its founding in September 1858, and continued under a variety of names until the planned death on December 29, 2019. Strange, stating a specific date of a death of something in advance? Oh, well!

      So, after the Page One shocker announcement hit the streets (newspaper talk), people were definitely shocked. What would we do for local news? How would we keep apprised of upcoming events? How would Martinez P.D. tell us if there were bad guys lurking in our neighborhoods? What music groups would be playing at Armando’s next week? Where are the beavers? Who is planning to run for political office? What is the legal profession doing if we don’t have Barbara Cetko’s legal advertising to keep us current? When is the next crab feed fund-raiser which we certainly can’t afford to miss?

      No wonder there was distress, concern, mourning in the community. It would be like losing a dear friend, or favorite aunt, or worse. Wow!!

      Then, talk began to filter through the gloom. There might be something cooking to continue the Gazette or, as Harriette Burt has always fondly called it, “The Gazoo”. However, the publisher, known for a lack of communication technique, any conversation regarding speculations of things to come was not coming forth. So, plans moved ahead for the final day’s publication. Many news writers, civic leaders, readers, business folks gathered their forces and provided an historic final edition of the Morning News-Gazette, the 161-year-old purveyor of news and advertising (never fake news!!), maybe a rumor or tad of gossip along the way. As a famous newspaper has stated, “All the news fit to print”.

      THEN, as the old story line which has been used in plays, etc., a strange thing happened on the way to the funeral for the beloved publication.

      The grave diggers had completed their grave digging chores, and were standing by for the procession. Their grave site was prepared according to specifications. A large crowd of mourners had gathered to be part of the services. Anything reaching the venerable age of 161 years deserved proper mourning and respect. They were ready with hankies, tissues and dark glasses. It was a beautiful day in Martinez, a place be happy and safe. But, now a place without a newspaper. How could it be true?

      As the gathering of friends, mourners and longtime subscribers waited for the procession to arrive, some began to be restless, began to fiigit. Has something happened, they wondered? What could possibly delay a funeral for such an important member of the community?

      Than, ‘the word’ came down from out there some place…there would be no funeral today. What?? Why not?? Answer: The reported demise of The Gazette (for Harriett, the Gazoo) had been apparently premature (not fake news) but, certainly official sounding on Page One the day it appeared. Was it a ‘played closed to the vest’ move, or was it a case of saved by the bell? Hopefully, we will hear the story one day soon. All of us are most anxious to know what is ahead. Meanwhile, how about a cup of coffee and a print newspaper to read? I will buy!

      WE ALL KNEW 2020 was going to be an exciting (?) year, right?!? What we did not know was that our unfit Oval Office Person was going to get us into another potential war in the Middle East. As of my deadline, we are still just (just!?!) in the back and forth threatening stage. “If you do this, we’ll do worse”. How did we get here? We got here by ‘hiring’ a know-it-all real estate tycoon from NYC who has no integrity, and no idea of how a president of the United States behaves, or how to lead a nation of good people with ethics and rules of law and order. He also does not know how a leader of this “best nation of all time” should behave when out on the international scene.

      When we hear explanations of why we had to assassinate a very popular Iranian general from the Oval Officed Occupant, knowing that has lied or made mistaken facts over 15,000 times since January 20, 2017, how confident can we be that what he and Mike Pompeo are now saying is the truth? Scary? You bet, Mr. and Ms America!!

      As we citizens at home are waiting for the BIG BOOM, or whatever the Iranians and their supporters around the world might do, we have our thoughts on the upcoming 2020 national election next November.

      OH, YES, THAT!! How do you feel about candidates chasing around the landscape trying to be presidential wannabees? Anyone stand out for whom you would like to plunk down $$ to help? Anyone know the details of the proposals for health care? Have you heard that drug costs are going to increase about five-plus percent in 2020? Make a difference? Or, are you more concerned about the international situation? How about the immigration problems? How about crime in your neighborhood? Then, of course, there are the homeless.

      So much of which to be concerned. Or, are you concerned?

      CHEERS to those who stepped up to save our local newspaper. As of this columnist’s deadline, we are, fortunately, not in a new Middle East war, the SF 49ers made it to the NFL playoffs, and it looks like we are not headed for another California drought. And, so long to the former Oakland Raiders. If the Warriors can just get it all together!

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        News desert avoided: California’s oldest weekly newspaper saved from closure

        Restart the presses: California’s oldest weekly newspaper saved

        The Los Angeles Times, by Brittny Mejia, January 7, 2020
        Don Russell
        Don Russell works in the Mountain Messenger newsroom in Downieville, Calif.(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

        The state’s oldest weekly newspaper, which once published Mark Twain, will keep printing after a California retiree stepped in to save the day.

        Carl Butz, a fourth-generation native Californian, is taking over the Mountain Messenger, which is based out of his hometown of Downieville.

        The 71-year-old has been friends with Don Russell, the editor-publisher of the paper, since moving to the town in the 1990s and was aware of his troubles trying to sell the paper over the last year.

        Russell planned to retire by the middle of January. On Thursday, he told the printer the paper would soon cease publication. Russell ran the numbers and told Butz, “It’s hopeless … don’t do this.”

        The next day, Butz came in with a check.

        “I said, ‘OK, it’s not going to cost that much — I’m going to save it,’” Butz said. “I’m going to try and make sure the thing survives.”

        Butz is aiming for a nonprofit model and wants to rely on more volunteers to help fill the paper, which for a long time has fallen on the paper’s two full-time employees, Russell and Jill Tahija.

        He’s already found a woman in Sierra City who wants to cover the Board of Supervisors meetings, he said, and staff will send out subscription renewal cards once more.

        Mountain Messenger newspaper
        Copies of the Mountain Messenger. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

        As newspapers shut down nationwide, Butz is happy to keep the Mountain Messenger going.

         The Martinez News-Gazette  printed its final edition last week, after 161 years of publishing. The paper, which covered the city of Martinez, the seat of Contra Costa County, had been losing money.

        “There’s just been this rash of these things across the country; you lose the community,” Butz said. “I think we need to have newspapers.”

        The Mountain Messenger, which publishes on Thursdays, has a circulation of about 2,400. The paper dates to 1853, when it was started as a twice-monthly publication.

        It became the Mountain Messenger in 1854 or 1855 and moved to La Porte, and then to Downieville, a Gold Rush community about 110 miles northeast of Sacramento.

        The paper’s claim to fame is that Twain once wrote there while hiding out from the law. He was only there for a couple of weeks, writing under his real name, Sam Clemens, according to Russell, who read some of his articles on microfilm.

        “They were awful,” Russell said in a previous interview with The Times. “They were just local stories, as I recall, written by a guy with a hangover.”

        Russell became co-owner of the paper, known around the area as the “Mountain Mess,” in the early 1990s. The Jan. 16 edition will be his last in his current role.

        “I don’t have to clean out the office. That’s a huge relief,” Russell said. He is planning to take a vacation with his wife on the 20th, but his association with the paper “will continue for the foreseeable future.”

        “It’s the absolute best thing I could have hoped for,” he said. “I get to do the stuff I like to do and not have to do the stuff I don’t like to do.”


        Also… as appearing in the Vallejo Times-Herald:

        Man saves California’s oldest weekly newspaper from closure

        Associated Press, January 8, 2020

        In this Dec. 13, 2018, photo, press operators check the freshly printed issue of The Mountain Messenger, California’s oldest weekly newspaper, at the pressroom of Feather Publishing Co., in Quincy, Calif. The paper began in 1853 as a twice-per-month publication; its claim to fame is that Mark Twain once wrote there under his real name, Sam Clemens. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via AP)

        DOWNIEVILLE, Calif. (AP) — A retiree has canceled an around-the-world trip to save California’s oldest weekly newspaper, which was set to shut down when its editor retires this month.

        The paper began in 1853 as a twice-per-month publication; its claim to fame is that Mark Twain once wrote there under his real name, Sam Clemens. He was there hiding out from authorities in Nevada, where he had accepted a challenge to a duel after dueling had been outlawed, Don Russell, 70, the current publisher who is retiring told SFGate.

        Carl Butz, 71, says he is taking over the Mountain Messenger, which is based out of his hometown of Downieville and covers two rural counties northeast of Sacramento. Terms of the deal were not immediately disclosed.

        “I’ve been a widower for three years and this is a new chapter in my life,” Butz, who lives in an off-the-grid cabin, told SFGate. “What am I going to do? Go on another trip around the world? Instead, I’m doing something good for the community, and I feel good about it.”

        Known around the area as the “Mountain Mess,” the paper covers school board meetings, federal land use and other issues.

        Russell, the Mountain Messenger’s editor-publisher, told The Los Angeles Times he is planning to retire soon and had spent the past year trying to sell the paper but hadn’t received any offers.

        Russell became co-owner of the paper in the early 1990s. The Jan. 16 edition will be his last in his current role but he said he plans to continue his association with the paper after he takes a vacation with his wife.

        “It’s the absolute best thing I could have hoped for,” he said. “I get to do the stuff I like to do and not have to do the stuff I don’t like to do.”

        A retired independent software consultant, Butz plans to run the weekly as a nonprofit and do some writing and editing. He will rely on volunteers to help fill the paper. He’s already found a woman who wants to cover the Board of Supervisors meetings, he said.

        As newspapers shut down nationwide, Butz says he is happy to keep the Mountain Messenger going.

        “There’s just been this rash of these things across the country; you lose the community,” Butz said.

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