The opinion service to publications all over the West began with foundation help in Montana in 1994, but the two founders, Karl Hess and John Baden, threw up their hands after four years and offered it to High Country News, in 1998 — for free. The paper, then led by Ed and Betsy Marston, thought twice about adding something new that would require money and person-power to restart.
But HCN contributor John McBride contributed $34,000 to give the opinion service liftoff, and staffer Paul Larmer, who would go on to become executive director at HCN, was picked in 1998 to cultivate grassroots Westerners to write about Western issues.
Within a year Larmer had 12 subscribing newspapers. He says it was a bootstrap effort, and that convincing newspapers to sign on wasn’t easy, even though the syndication cost was tiny.
Writers on the Range caught a break late that first year when Steve Mandell took over as development director. Mandell was relentless, combing mastheads to see when a new editor was in or when an old one was out, learning what editors needed and what might provoke letters to the editor. Then he’d send a sample opinion he thought would pique an editor’s interest, following that up with a phone call. He also read as many local papers in the West as he could to give him a sense of what was hot on their home ground.
A pivotal time came when my father, Ed Marston, then publisher of HCN, retired in 2002 after 19 years on the job. Then some internal changes as Betsy Marston stopped as editor to take on Writers on the Range from Paul Larmer, who became publisher, and Greg Hanscom, now executive director of HCN, took over Betsy’s job as editor.
When Ed Marston died suddenly in 2018, Betsy stepped back, fully expecting to segue with a replacement. But in a surprise to many, Brian Calvert, editor of HCN at the time, shuttered the service. There was no notice or story in HCN; it was as if Writers on the Range had quietly slipped out the back door. But though the service ceased, like most weeds this one refused to die.
It sprouted again during a fall hike in 2019. Betsy, Steve Mandell, his wife, Terri, and I, agreed that Writers on the Range deserved to live again, though this time as an independent nonprofit. That was our goal; we wondered if we could make it happen.
Yet only a few months later, when I told Mandell, a determined workaholic, that I’d gotten High Country News to lease the Writers on the Range name to us, and we were in business, he said, “Oh, no, we’re really doing this?” Still, he was game, and though he agreed to help only for free and for only one year, Betsy and I were thrilled. All of us were in it with sweat equity.
We are now a stand-alone nonprofit. Mandell worked the first year as development director, growing the one-column weekly service so that over 140 subscribing publications can print our opinions. And Mandell is not completely gone; he serves is on our advisory board, along with Paul Larmer and writers Florence Williams and Elizabeth Hightower Allen.
The service is in demand. We support writers by paying them and we support newspapers by providing columns for free. By focusing on one column (occasionally two) every Monday, we focus on solid editing and sourcing facts. We average 25 newspapers printing our columns each week with an average of 500,000 print subscribers reached on a weekly basis. From January 2021-June 2021, our columns had appeared over 600 times throughout the West. We also send out a newsletter and eventually we’ll figure out how to do a fundraising drive. Meanwhile, we think we are succeeding in our mission of providing lively conversation about important issues facing the West. We’re also having the times of our lives.
Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash