When the paper is late, a reminder of its value

BUFFALO, Wyoming. — The paper was late.

Normally, the newest weekly edition of the Buffalo Bulletin hits our rack just before 1 p.m. on Wednesdays, driven 40 miles down Interstate 90 from the printer by a Bulletin employee.

Our readers know the schedule, and Wednesday afternoons in the newsroom are regularly punctuated by the jangle of a large, brass cowbell hanging off the push-bar of our glass front door. Folks offer a greeting, peel a paper off the stack and drop a dollar in the wooden bowl on the front-desk countertop. Subscription copies arrive with Thursday’s mail, but many are unwilling to wait.

People here care about the local news — according to our 2018 circulation statistics, the paper lands in more than 80% of the households in Johnson County. The county spreads across an area the size of Connecticut, but it is home to just 8,460 people. We sell 4,250 papers each week.

When a flat tire on the highway delayed a recent Wednesday delivery, one man came back three times to check on the paper’s status before our receptionist decided to post a note written in pink highlighter on the door.

“Today’s paper will be available after 2 p.m.,” it read as I headed out for an interview from the old two-story building, one block off Main Street.

On my return, the time had been scratched out and amended to 4 p.m.

You want the news, you buy print

Report for America corps member Mara Abbott working in the Buffalo Bulletin’s newsroom. The maps of federal and state lands in Johnson County hang behind her. (Photo by Jen Sieve-Hicks/Buffalo Bulletin/GroundTruth)

The Bulletin is owned by the third generation of a local family, a model increasingly rare at local papers these days. From my desk in the 10-employee office, I sit close enough to the current owner to hit him with the balled-up paper wad of a discarded draft, and he often takes the time to call me — the newbie — into his office to ask whether I have what I need or to offer me tips on sources.

We are also unique for our minimalistic digital approach, posting just three, maybe four, stories online each week. If you want the news, you buy print.

This means that to share an article online, I have to grab scissors and a stamp, or at the very least, my phone’s camera — though I’ve found that clearly capturing full newsprint pages with a single digital image is thus far not in my skill set.

At the same time, I am not responsible for generating clicks or rejiggering my headline to bolster its search engine optimization. My only job is to report the news that matters to my town. This is a modern privilege.

Our print-only practices are humbling. I can’t tweet out my stories for likes or validation from the external world. My stories are for the people who pay their cash-or-coin dollars each week. The faces I see in the grocery store are the only ones who matter. Presence and attentiveness are paramount.

Devoted readers, devoted newspaper

On my first day as the Bulletin’s new energy reporter, my editor, Jen Sieve-Hicks, asked me to go to a landowner meeting in Kaycee, which is both a 45-minute drive away on the highway and the only other incorporated town in our county.

“Be sure to check your fuel level before you leave,” she warned. “There are no gas stations on the way.”

Actually, there’s not a single visible dwelling between the two.

When you leave town, you enter a land of nothing-but-everything. The interstate spools out over endless hilltops, sometimes without another car in sight. Buildings are rare, but ridges and valleys extend to infinity in shifting-green-brown-gold shades of grass and sagebrush, dotted with cattle or antelope. Always, to the west, rise the mountains.

As a native Coloradan, I feel a bit like an invader. The Wyomingites tend to agree with this assessment, though usually not unkindly. They told me early on that it could be worse: Just tell people, I was warned, “At least I’m not from California.”

One new friend said she has lived here since she was 7 years old and still isn’t considered a local. Still, the entire newsroom and even my landlords all showed up unasked to help unload my U-Haul when I first rolled into town.

That’s Buffalo. Our readers are devoted because they care about this town and the people in it. Accordingly, I’m not allowed to write about anything that doesn’t have a direct, specific impact on Johnson County. Each paper is packed with stories about local government, schools, new businesses and events. We cover developments in agriculture and energy, two of the county’s major economic drivers. In the winter, our sports writer covers the high school teams. In the summer, it’s rodeo.

When the delayed paper finally showed up that afternoon, it was 3:45. We all — publisher, editor, reporters and ad sales representatives — rushed outside to greet our wounded company sedan. Our crime reporter crouched down to analyze the vehicle’s health. The rest of us grabbed the heavy stacks of papers, bundled together with string, and ran them into our office where some were placed on the rack and others sorted into piles and rushed to their assigned points of sale.

Our readers were waiting. It was time to deliver the news.

Mara Abbott is a Report for America corps member with the Buffalo Bulletin, covering the local energy industry in Johnson, Wyoming. This piece appeared in USA Today.