The future of print is in print

Gonzo Meets the Press #9 June 2, 2011

The Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance, journos and supporters are
protesting against the sacking of subeditors by Fairfax to cut costs. The
downsizing has been going on in the US for years. Here’s how one journalist
found a way to stay in newspapers.

It was the famous Washington Post political columnist, E.J. Dionne, who helped me meet M.E. Sprengelmeyer, and I never wrote
to thank him until now.
As the new executive producer of Sky News’ Sunday Agenda program in 2008, I decided we should have E.J. as one of our guests
on our first program. After all, it was a presidential election year, and he was
one of the best political columnists in the US. And I had met Dionne in 2004 as
a Channel Nine Sunday producer when Laurie Oakes interviewed him in Washington three days after George W. Bush’s
election victory (here’s a transcript of the interview: http://bit.ly/jAE0pl).
But it meant a 5.15pm live two way in Washington on Saturday with Helen Dalley in Sydney at
9.15am on Sunday, and after many emails and phone calls, E.J. declined our kind
invitation. I tried a few others, but it was getting late in the week when I
found this bloke on Facebook with the rather unusual name of M.E. Sprengelmeyer,
the Washington correspondent for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver,
Colorado. He was a good reporter, could write well, was witty, quirky and
knowledgeable about US politics, and he mentioned on his page he was being
interviewed on American television that week. And the Rocky Mountain
News
looked good on paper, if you’ll excuse the pun.
I phoned M.E. (Michael Sprengelmeyer started calling himself M.E. when his full byline
wouldn’t fit into a newspaper column) to assess his talent as a guest: Did he
sound all right? Would he freeze on air in a live interview? Did he look okay?
He had long hair in his Facebook photo, but that didn’t bother me. I figured it
best to wait until after the two way to ask the CEO what he thought. Helen was a
bit concerned, but knew we needed a guest, and agreed to the long-haired
Rocky Mountain News correspondent with a distinctive moniker.
Yes, you guessed it: M.E. proved a treat. He was witty, knowledgeable and
did not freeze on air. And after the interview, the CEO, Angelos Frangopoulos,
said: “He was great. Where did you get him?” I replied: “Off Facebook.” “Off
Facebook? That’s wonderful,” said a surprised Frangopoulos, always a man for
innovations. Sprengelmeyer was not only a good guest, but a nice bloke. He
stepped into the breach left by E.J. at the last minute, and a political star
was born on Australian subscription television. (Okay, you never heard of him.
You have now!)
Sprengelmeyer planted himself in the midwestern state of Iowa from April 2007 to January 2008, and wrote a wonderful blog, called
Back Roads to the White House, visiting dozens of cities and towns in
Iowa to cover the important January caucuses there — the first statewide test
of the campaign — that helped launch the Obama presidential bandwagon. (You can
see some of the photos here on Sprengelmeyer’s Facebook page, including the one
at the top of this blog – M.E. with former US Secretary of State Madeleine
Albright — but hurry, as Facebook is archiving the “Back Roads” group: http://bit.ly/jEmDSI)
Later in 2008 he combined with a team that included videographer Judy DeHaas, photographer Chris
Schneider, and web producer Amy Burke, and put together what I thought was a
Pulitzer Prize-winning multi-media series, Unconventional Wisdom (http://bit.ly/mz6gQb). Sprengelmeyer interviewed
the most compelling person from each of the ten previous Democratic National
Conventions from 1968 to 2004, who could offer lessons to Barack Obama and
Denver, the venue for the August 2008 convention. The interviewees ranged from
former political activist Tom Hayden to Democratic presidential candidates
George McGovern, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis.
When I suggested to M.E. that he submit it for a Pulitzer, he wrote back: “I don’t believe in awards
for journalism.” M.E. Sprengelmeyer, a man of principle.
Now to the bad news.
The Rocky Mountain News was an award-winning (sorry M.E.) newspaper
with a great staff, but it couldn’t overcome falling revenues and circulation
and a complacent management that enabled its competitor, The Denver
Post
, to wind up as the only daily newspaper in the city. Sprengelmeyer had
a plan even before the paper failed. He wanted to buy his own publication, and
had his eye on a local paper in a small town in New Mexico.
The Guadalupe County Communicator (Facebook page: http://on.fb.me/k2zWzR) circulates in and
around the picturesque hamlet of Santa Rosa (pop. 2750), halfway between
Albuquerque, where M.E. grew up, and Amarillo, Texas, on the historic and much
filmed Route 66. Oldies will remember the song and the TV series (“Get your
kicks on Route 66.”)
M.E. Sprengelmeyer is now the proud owner, publisher, reporter, writer, salesman, photographer and deliverer of the local rag, ranging
from 12 to 16 pages (I subscribe for $50 a year, which is too cheap, given the
postage, but ME sends them to me anyway). He has hired a few of his Rocky
Mountain
colleagues, including a world-class cartoonist, Drew Litton, and
photographer, Mark Holm, as well as some talented locals, like senior reporter,
Davey Delgado, and clothes store manager-turned-layout editor, Michael Gallegos.
The publisher has transformed what was a parish-pump journal with pictures
of the county fair into a paper with hard-hitting journalism, covering scandals
in City Hall and taking a sardonic look at what passes for politics in the
Guadalupe County government (usually written by M.E. Sprengelmeyer).
But the GCC also entreats the community to attend the County Commission
meetings to keep elected officials on their toes, and stomp on them, if
necessary. And it encourages the community to take up issues like improving
recreation for the kids of Santa Rosa, with M.E. Spregelmeyer leading the way,
offering his newsroom as a place to volunteer, including his own areas of
expertise: “basic juggling, writing, and bad accordion playing.”
And the Communicator does hard news. When escaped Arizona fugitives killed a
holidaying Oklahoma couple last August and left their remains on a remote ranch
in the area, the paper did a series on the victims’ loved ones who came to Santa
Rosa to mourn. It was good journalism on a story of national significance.
I think Fairfax could learn a lot by studying the evolution of The Guadalupe
County Communicator
from a local rag to a community paper with credentials.
As far as I know, ME Sprengelmeyer has no plans to make any staff redundant. On
the contrary, circulation is up and the finances are okay.
The Guadalupe County Communicator is listening to its readers, and making the town a
better place to live. I asked ME this week if he was still as enthusiastic as
he was when he took over the paper in August 2009. His reply is the most
optimistic I’ve heard from a newspaperman in years: “This gig is tiring, but
it’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life — and I’ve done a lot. It’s the
most satisfying brand of journalism that I know, because there’s nothing
abstract about the stories I write. I get in-person feedback on virtually every
story in the newspaper … Meanwhile, we’ve managed to keep our heads above water
financially, and each day, I can make 100 small decisions without ever having to
convene a staff meeting. Of course, being my own boss has ruined me forever
working for anyone else, but what a life. It’s a constant roller-coaster, with
my adrenalin level rising and rising up until the moment we hit “send” on our
pages on Wednesday night. I sleep very little. But, wow, what a life. For the
first time in a 25-year career, I’m an actual newspaperman. The future of print
is in print. Blessed be the tree-killers.” *
Tom Krause is the supervising producer of Ten’s Meet the Press program. His views are his own;
always have been.

* If you are interested in buying a GCC organic T-shirt, emblazoned Tree Killer (they do care about the environment.
It’s an ironic title!), here’s a link: http://bit.ly/k7NX3X  Entirely up to you, but I
promised M.E. I’d buy one for sending me copies of the paper!

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