In Arkansas Valley, online news sites challenge print stagnation

The Ark Valley Voice is one of the many new online local news operations that have been taking root in areas long dominated by print publications.

LEADVILLE — For roughly a year now, news and information websites have been slowly emerging to cater to the residents of the Arkansas Valley, the scenic stretch running along the Sawatch and Collegiate ranges, southwest of Denver. The new sites have been launched by local citizens whose expectations for media have clearly outrun the professional product available locally.

Buena Vista resident John Abdelnour said that the Chaffee County Times only arrives in his town once a week. Public conversations via traditional print edition letters to the editor can go on for weeks or months.

“Pretty soon you’ve forgotten what the original letter said,” he explained. “It’s a very antiquated way of holding a conversation.”

What’s more, he said, a newspaper with only a few writers tends to generate “a single perspective.”

Faye Hamilton said that the Park County Republican and Fairplay Flume, which serves Fairplay where she lives, technically just outside the valley, can’t provide source material, such as a court filings. Citizens, she argued, need access to that kind of information now to be informed.

Arkansas Valley Publishing currently has a monopoly in the towns it serves. The company publishes three weekly community papers including The Flume in Fairplay, The Chaffee County Times in Buena Vista, the Leadville Herald-Democrat in Leadville and the five-day-a-week Mountain Mail in Salida. It also has an online portal, but the sites lack Web basics such as external linking.

Buena Vista resident Sterling Quinton said that, while the Chaffee County Times coverage pleases a certain population in town, many residents notice all the stories it simply doesn’t report.

Quinton freelanced for the Chaffee County Times briefly. But when one story was “hacked” by editors and another was declined because the paper didn’t want to “rock the boat,” he decided to strike out on his own.

This past spring, Sterling and Lindsey Quinton founded the Ark Valley Voice. He said it was the first media outlet willing to write about the unfinished homes and unhappy customers left in the lurch when powerful local developers Dean and Heidi Hiatt declared bankruptcy.

Soon after, according to Quinton, a town official came to him and, on condition of anonymity, suggested the Ark Valley Voice raise the possibility of a moratorium of a contentious Nestlé Corp. water harvesting project.

Quinton thought the official may have hoped a less-entrenched media outlet would be willing to take a chance on a controversial story with an anonymous source.

“I think that, like everything else, when something is long established, it tends to become, not necessarily allied, but entrenched with certain perspectives or certain ideologies,” he said. “Just like everything else, the older it gets, the crustier it becomes.”

At Channel BV, a startup media site in Buena Vista, Abdelnour said citizens have been conducting real-time conversations for the past year about hot-button issues like the Cottonwood Meadows development or a trustee recall.

Eventually, according to Abdelnour, some of the trustees themselves joined the debate.

“It was fascinating how the forums became a platform for the trustees to speak to the public,” he said.

The rise of citizen media in the valley began just over a year ago when Salida resident Bill Donavan realized that the main source of information in the town for new residents was the ad-heavy Visitor’s Guide.

Donavan launched the online Salida Citizen, a broad-ranging, irregularly-updated site that publishes local grab-bag content, including analysis of the proposed Nestlé water project to fishing videos. A “hybrid” news site, it places the work of experienced, paid journalists alongside the work of unpaid citizen contributors and posts by local notables like Salida’s mayor.

This past spring, Buena Vista residents Sterling and Lindsey Quinton added their online operation to the fray.

The Quintons’ Ark Valley Voice offers an alternative weekly experience, currently offering straight news stories like “Nonprofits come together to meet, share ideas” alongside humor columns and poetry.

With the help of nine local contributors, the Quintons’ plan to follow the site with a biweekly print edition beginning Aug. 4.

The Fairplay Gold Mine Opposition website has one mission: Organize opposition and share news about a proposed gold mining operation.

Over in Fairplay, citizens Faye Hamilton, John Madsen and Darin Zaruba last month launched Fairplay Gold Mine Opposition. Less news site than community organizing vehicle, the site is dedicated solely to providing information to help residents oppose a proposed gold mine.

Hamilton said she expects the site to die as soon as gold mine question is resolved.

Channel BV posting has lately devolved into mere event announcements.

“We’ve let the site slip into a state of dormancy,” he explained. “We realize that the forums will always be there and so we know that when there are issues that come up, the site will spark to life. When it doesn’t need to be there…it will just kind of fall into a dormant state.”

But Sterling Quinton speculated that eventually at least some of the citizen-generated sites might eventually merge into one media outlet — one he expected to include both paid professionals and citizens.

He said he’s beginning to see that to really impact “the media scene,” a paid staff is probably essential.

But he also said that in Chaffee County, there are 16,000 people and that translates to 16,000 potential stories every day. To find all those stories, he argued, any media outlet must collaborate.

“Not just among the professionals. It’s also going to take a wide variety of people investigating and looking into what’s happening.”

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story indicated that many of the websites for the Arkansas Valley Publishing publications didn’t provide commenting functions on articles and has been updated to reflect that some commenting functionality is available.

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