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A Media Fight for Leadville

Article by Allen Best

Journalism – March 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

LEADVILLE, once a parent to Summit County in the news business, has become its child. The Summit Daily News is issuing a Leadville edition on Fridays, turning the tables from 30 years ago.

The flip-flop illustrates the gravitational shift of money and influence in the region. Interstate 70 has supplanted the Denver & Rio Grande as the defining transportation corridor. Payrolls now come from recreation instead of mining. Ski slopes instead of mining stopes define this new world.

In 1962, the year that both Breckenridge and Vail ski areas opened, the area’s news originated in Leadville. What commuting that existed was to the seemingly invincible Climax Mine. Vail Associates, in contrast, struggled every month to meet payroll.

Fran Bochatey’s Leadville Herald-Democrat published five times a week. In contrast, Eagle and Summit counties each had one weekly, and Bochatey owned one of them, the Summit County Journal, which he largely filled with news out of Leadville. Did anybody in Breckenridge or Frisco care? Maybe, but there wasn’t enough advertising revenue in those places to justify a competing newspaper.

In the mid 1960s, though, Bochatey sold the Summit County Journal to an owner who restored the Summit County focus and promoted skiing. In 1981 the Climax Mine sank, and Bochatey’s daily hobbled along until he retired in 1987. The Herald-Democrat became a bi-weekly, and then a slim weekly. Unemployment-plagued Leadville increasingly became a bedroom community for the resorts of Eagle and Summit counties.

In the I-70 corridor, weeklies were getting thicker and dailies arrived.

The Vail Daily came first, in 1981, and a sibling daily was established in Summit County in 1989. Both began distributing in Leadville. Avon’s KZYR-FM also began broadcasting across the Continental Divide in about 1986.

If the lone weekly newspaper in Leadville isn’t exactly thick with ads, why all the interest from the I-70 corridor?

Tony Mauro, a long-time radio personality in the Vail Valley, says it cost little to broadcast into Lake County via translator, but Lake County seems to greatly appreciate the service. “I love going up there to do promotions,” he says. “People will stop you on the street and thank you for coming. It’s too small a town still to support its own radio station, so people really appreciate us being there.”

Cliff Gardner, owner of KZYR-FM and a companion station in Breckenridge, KSMT-FM, says he considers Leadville part of the broader Vail Valley region, as important as Minturn or Eagle.

Advertising revenue is slim, he concedes, but that could change. “That town has a lot of potential, and I think it will grow. We’re paying attention to it.” Also paying attention has been Ron Crider, owner of a string of AM stations, including KSKE in Minturn, KDMN in Buena Vista, and KVLE in Gunnison. He believes Leadville already has enough people to support a radio station. “Obviously, it’s not a get-rich-quick scheme,” he said.

“It would have to be a mom-and-pop type operation.” Alas, while he could probably scrounge up mom and pop, he would also need a license for Leadville from the Federal Communications Commission.

T. Alex Miller, editor of the Summit Daily News, cites three reasons for his paper’s new Leadville edition: an affinity of interests, an opportunity to make a little money, and a desire to keep somebody else out.

To be called the Leadville Chronicle (the name of one of the early Leadville newspapers), it will be distributed every Friday along with 2,000 to 3,000 copies of the regular edition of the Summit Daily News. Both a reporter and an ad representative have been hired to work out of their Leadville homes, commuting weekly to Frisco to package the 8- to 16-page newspaper.

Every morning buses pull out of Leadville filled with employees skimming the Vail and Summit dailies, Miller noted. Being both daily and free, and containing wire service copy and sports as well as local news, the Vail and Summit publications have largely replaced the Denver metros. “There is a lot of interesting news coming out of Summit and Eagle counties now,” he said. Lake County also has more going on, although not enough to sustain a daily, he added.

BUT NEWSPAPERS are essentially business propositions, and Miller said his bosses must see potential to make a little money in Leadville, although “you’ll never make much money on an 8- to 16-page newspaper.” Obviously, too, the Leadville Herald-Democrat is perceived as vulnerable, particularly when there are so many people in Leadville now who never grew up reading it. The Herald-Democrat, perhaps symbolically, is owned by the Salida-based Arkansas Valley Publishing Co.

This media play poses the question whether Leadville is more aligned with the Arkansas Valley, where it shares the 719 area code as well as a river, or with the I-70 corridor economy.

One barometer might be where people spend their free days.

“I would hazard a guess that a lot of them (people riding the buses to jobs on the I-70 corridor) have ski passes,” responded Miller.

Chris McGinnis, former editor of the Herald-Democrat, agrees but sees a more complex reality. Summit County people, in turn, have been turning to the Leadville region for less industrial-strength recreational opportunities, she notes. Others see Leadville as a stopping point in search of genuine bare earth in Salida during winter. At the same time Leadville entrepreneurs such as snowshoe promoter Tom Sobal have helped redefine the I-70 corridor.

Nor does McGinnis see a dim future for the Herald-Democrat. Leadville has plenty of complex issues such as water and Superfund that demand a steady focus, and the Herald-Democrat has been there for more than a century to provide that focus, she points out.

This isn’t the first time the Herald-Democrat has faced competition. In the late 1970s a now-defunct Summit County newspaper bankrolled a weekly called the Leadville Legend. The Legend is now but a weak memory.

Allen Best has edited the Middle Park Times in Kremmling, the Winter Park Manifest, the Vail Trail, and the Vail Valley Times. Based in Avon, he is currently in a 12-step program for recovering weekly newspaper editors.