Triple profile: A mountain town, a beloved newspaper, and an unlikely hero

A Google Street View of The Mountain Messenger in Downieville, California, taken in July 2015. The weekly newspaper still operates out of the second floor, above a beauty salon Google Images

Originally published by Chip Scanlan on Nieman Storyboard

Were it not for “Citizen Kane,” the tiny town of Downieville, Calif., would be just the latest in a long list of communities without a newspaper.

But one night late last year, Carl Butz was watching the Orson Welles drama about a newspaper magnate, and saw a new future for himself. He knew that the longtime owner of his hometown paper, The Mountain Messenger, the state’s oldest weekly paper, was set to retire and sunset the paper with him. Watching the screen, Butz thought, I can do that.

New York Times journalist Tim Arango
Tim Arango

That’s the epiphany that lies behind “Meet the Unlikely Hero Saving California’s Oldest Weekly Paper,” a captivating feature story written by Tim Arango, a New York Times national correspondent, that brings a small but life-affirming boost to a newspaper industry on the ropes.

With no journalism experience and without even looking at the books, Butz plunked down a sales price “in the four figures” early this year and  took over The Messenger, a money loser with 700 subscribers, no website or social media, a one-person editorial staff and a cluttered two-room office over a Main Street beauty salon. His snap decision has delighted residents of this Sierra mountain community.  It’s also helping him cope with the grief that’s consumed him since his wife died in 2017. “It’s saving me,” he told Arango.

Butz is not your typical newspaper owner. He’s a 71-year-old retiree, a former computer programmer and labor economist for the state, who had never faced a first-edition deadline in his life.

“But,” as Arango writes,

… 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.

The new owner spared Downieville the fate of American communities which have become “news deserts” after anemic advertising and punishing operating costs doomed thousands of papers in the last two decades. Northern California dailies like the Sacramento Bee and the San Francisco Chronicle had long since stopped sending reporters to town, making The Messenger even more important. “We would have to fall off the face of the earth to make one of those papers on a normal news day,” Lee Adams, a county supervisor, told Arango.

A triple profile

Arango trains his focus on Butz, but he also manages, in 1,700 vibrant words, to pull off a  triple-feature  profile: an adventurous man; a weekly “ink on paper” publication founded in 1853 during the Gold Rush and which once, legend holds, published a few stories by a hungover Mark Twain; and a little mountain town with an Old West feel that now thrives on fly fishing, mountain biking and tourists interested in its history.

Arango is a gifted storyteller with a flair for description, an ear for dialog and an eye for vivid, telling details. Here is how he paints Downieville:

…a remarkably well-preserved old Gold Rush town, perched at a fork in the Yuba River in remote western Sierra County …  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.

Butz tells Arango that the previous owner “called me a romantic idealist and a nut case. And that’s not a paraphrase, but a direct quote.” Arango sketches in that romance, along with some idiosyncracies that are familiar to any newsroom rat. The cigarettes on Butz’s desk are “unfiltered.” The managing editor’s dog (“Ladybug, a Boston terrier-Shih Tzu-Chihuahua mix”) roams the newsroom on production day. Desks are cluttered with dictionaries, the annals of county records, “empty beer bottles (and) packages of ramen noodles.” It’s as if Butz had spent his life among the tribe, complete with an intriguing non-newsroom life: his late wife was the drummer in a punk rock band called  “Frightwig.”

Read our Q&A with Carl Butz here

Working with his managing editor, Jill Tahija (her business cards read “she who does the work,”), Butz spends Wednesdays putting the paper to bed. The next day, he joins his distribution manager for the 90-minute drive to the printing plant, then crisscrosses the county filling vending machines with copies, dropping off bundles at shops and gas stations, and making collections.

His first edition covered a local poetry competition, the impending census, a local government meeting. and featured a poetry corner — the last an idea he brought to the paper with his ownership.

His other contribution was a letter to readers explaining his decision to leave retirement for full-time newspaper ownership that he expects will continue to lose money.  “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.”

You don’t have to have a newspaper background to be enchanted by the characters and sense of place in Arango’s story. So we reached out to ask about the origins of the story, how he navigated that triple profile, and for tips on reporting and writing.

How did you get on to the story about Carl Butz and his purchase of The Mountain Messenger?
I had followed stories at the end of last year about the imminent shuttering of The Messenger. Then I saw news stories about Carl Butz stepping in at the last minute to save it, and wanted to know more.

Why did you decide to do the story, especially for an international newspaper like the Times?
The Times has made covering the state of local news around the country a priority. Most of those stories are about newspapers closing down, and how that is affecting communities. This story is the opposite, and I just thought there would be a great tale to tell about one community where its newspaper was, in fact, saved.

While the focus is on Carl Butz, the story strikes me as a three-fold profile of the new owner, The Mountain Messenger and the town of Downieville. Was that deliberate?
Yes, I wanted to explain what makes Downieville tick, why the newspaper has been so important to the community for 166 years, and how the community felt, first, when it looked like it would lose the paper. And then how people felt when it was saved.

And Carl’s personal journey — how his grief over losing his wife is connected to him becoming a newspaper owner — is something I only understood once I got there and began talking to him.

The story shifts from Mr. Butz to the newspaper’s near demise and its rescue, its role in the community and the history of Downieville, among other topics? What was your approach to structuring the piece? Do you outline?
I don’t outline. Sometimes I list themes and scenes I want to touch on, but not a formal outline. And then I sometimes go for a walk if I am having trouble knitting it all together.

What do you think the story of The Mountain Messenger has to say to a nation of “news deserts?”
Let’s be honest — Downieville is a rare case. Nearly 2,000 communities across America have lost their newspaper over the last 15 years. Maybe this story can help people understand what has been lost in so many places, and maybe it could inspire other people like Carl to step in and own a newspaper!

You’ve been an international correspondent in war zones, most recently as the Times’ Baghdad/Istanbul bureau chief, before moving to the Los Angeles bureau in 2017. Now you are returning to the foreign desk as the Eastern European bureau chief. What do you bring from your experiences overseas to a domestic story like this one?
A story is a story no matter where it takes place, and being able to empathize with people and their personal journeys is the same whether it is in Iraq or Downieville.

How much time did you spend reporting and writing the story?
I spent two and a half days with Carl at The Messenger, and then I would say a day and a half writing.

What tips do you have for reporters writing profiles?
Spend as much time as you can with the person, and listen, listen, listen. And don’t feel like you need to include every single detail. One thing I sometimes do at the beginning is just pull out the best quotes, have them on their own on the page, and build the story around the quotes.

You give Mr. Butz and his grief over his wife’s death the last moment in the story? Why?
I touched on it high in the story, and I thought it would be a nice way to end by bringing it back to Carl and his beautiful quote. That was what I wanted the last word to be, the thing readers took away from it in the end.

2 thoughts on “Triple profile: A mountain town, a beloved newspaper, and an unlikely hero”

  1. Hello there, quite a few years back my father wrote a column for the paper about fly fishing and knowledge about what the fish were biting on. His name is Robert N Patterson. His good friends were the couple that owned the grocery store there back in the late 70’s Norm and Joyce Roehl. Might there be any archive items of the time. My father has dementia now and it would be nice to share with his family. The town is a wonderful place and the history there is awesome.

    1. I apologize for failing to maintain this site in a timely manner. There is so, so much to do when trying to keep a newspaper alive.
      Meanwhile, yes, we do have a pretty solid collection of papers from the time when your father wrote his column.
      So, we will check to see what we can do for you. OK?

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