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Ranching in the New Media Economy

Column by Hal Walter

Media – March 2003 – Colorado Central Magazine

I GET MOST of my unbiased news these days from a regional weekly newspaper called Thrifty Nickel. From this decidedly alternative newspaper, which is emblazed with the motto “Want Ads That Do What You Want Them To Do,” the analytical and creative mind can learn much more about the state of the immediate world than it can from the mainstream press. (Trust me. I have a bachelor of science degree from the state’s finest journalism school, the University of Colorado, hanging right here on my wall. And this, technically, makes me a scientist.)

The first clue was the word “Free!” on the cover. For instance, here’s an honest assessment of the current state of the economy and job market:

WE SCOOP YOUR doggie poop. No job too big or small.

Need a long-term weather forecast?

WATER. Will buy or lease.

Wonder what the health-care system is doing for you?

BREAST ENLARGEMENT without surgery.

And of course there’s the stock market report:

ALFALFA HAY for sale. Quality green alfalfa hay delivered to you (From Aberdeen Idaho!). $130 a ton by the truckload.

To me this is so much richer than the gruel being spoon-fed by the mainstream media which I have all but eliminated from my mental diet.

My cynicism for the media was formed not too long after graduating from CU. It didn’t take me long to realize how truly ludicrous the business is, but I should have known from the number of people studying it versus the number who actually went into practice. I was one of the few in my class who actually had a job lined up in the newspaper business after graduation — even though I had been working in the business during my schooling and should have already known better.

When it became apparent that all my education and experience could only be taken in vain by my employers, I began casting around for something else to do. Dishwashing seemed more honest, but then these are the hands of an artist and I didn’t want them to be raw and cracked the same way the journalism profession had left my mind. It occurred to me that I did have a way with words and should try to do something with that skill.

Moving to the mountains and being a “writer” sounded like a good idea and I had some modest success. I first tried writing for magazines but the experience left me feeling as if I’d been, as writer Ivan Doig so perfectly describes, “nibbled to death by ducks.” Then I dabbled in technical writing, and that left me feeling a bit impaired, though it paid rather well. Through most of it I’ve written a monthly column for Colorado Central and sometimes I think I should pay Ed and Martha for this therapy though I am thankful for the check that says at least somebody appreciates my words and wonder. On the other hand, I sometimes wonder if they’ve thought of changing the name of their publication to Thrifty Nickel since that’s exactly what they pay per word.

REGARDLESS OF THE RATE, these days I am at a loss for words when people ask me what I do. It’s almost a relief if they don’t. If you tell them you are a writer or editor they only think you are unemployed, which technically is true — though last year I made about double the average income in Custer County. I’ve considered telling people I am a consultant, which is not exactly untrue, or a scientist, which despite the degree may be stretching it a bit though I do own a microscope. Better to just avoid the subject altogether. Sometimes to be a smart-ass I tell them I’m a “rancher” which honestly explains the raw and cracked hands I didn’t get from dishwashing.

Lately what pays most of the bills around this ranch has involved crafting e-mail of the type you might receive regularly from people trying to sell you something. Relax, my Christian friends, it’s not porn. The clients I do this for call it a “Direct E-Mail Marketing Campaign.” I’ve been corrected when calling it “spam” with the admonition that they are only sending this to people who have indicated they wish to receive such e-mail. The term for such people is “opt-ad.”

Writing an e-mail marketing campaign pays much better than journalism ever did, and it’s more honest, too, as the e-mail makes it clear that you are selling a bill of goods. Actually you would not believe the amount of thought and effort that goes into a plan that banks on the idea that 1 percent of readers will actually open an e-mail, read it and then actually decide to buy something.

My most recent job has required that I spend many hours in conference calls with people all over the country in order to devise such a marketing campaign. They often use phrases like “leveraging the strategy” but in plain terms what we’re doing is trying to sell people a weight-loss plan, including a booklet that I helped write and edit.

THE MOST DIFFICULT PART are these phone meetings, or teleconferences. I am given a number to call. Then I type in a code. Shortly a recorded voice says “You have been placed into conference. There is beeping and then sure enough there are people talking on the other end and it sounds just like a boardroom. I am required to spend hours on the phone talking with these executives in big-city offices. They have no idea where Westcliffe is. Most of them have heard of Denver. Some of them Colorado Springs. I pay fairly close attention to what is said during the teleconferences so that I can fulfill the task.

However, it’s also true that I walk around my house, drink coffee, check my e-mail, and flip through my wife’s Victoria’s Secret catalog, while I occasionally say things like, “OK,” “That sounds good,” or, when an actual idea strikes, “How about ?” That sort of thing. This lets them know I’m still on the line. Sometimes during these meetings my burros strike up a chorus of braying out in the corral and I resist the urge to walk out there and give my friends a dose of more-plain language. What keeps me from doing this is the notion that the hay from Idaho might have to be paid for with the money from New Jersey.

I know that when I’m done listening to them I will be exhausted. But it won’t take me very long to write the copy they need and I can go out and take in the scenery, maybe see some wildlife. Afterwards I’ll be rewarded with e-mail responses that would make you think I’d written and won a Pulitzer.

For this I’m paid handsome rates, and I don’t even have to actually see anybody. However, this does not take away from the fact that this banality has taken up several hours of my life, and the older I get the more I notice these hours are non-refundable. Plus, the loss of psychic energy is profound.

I don’t know how long I’ll do this sort of “writing.” Lately I’ve thought that maybe I should change careers. But that would require work and probably a move. And judging from what I read in the Thrifty Nickel, what’s passing for a job these days isn’t all that exciting.

Hal Walter ranches the unmapped territory of his brain as well as 35 acres of marginal grazing in the Wet Mountains near Westcliffe.