It’s hard for me to believe that Boulder Weekly has gone to press a thousand times. It’s also hard for me to believe that I was here for the very first issue nearly 20 years ago. Granted I did take a 14-year hiatus away from the paper between 1997 and 2011, but I was never that far away. I was always in touch with the people putting out the paper, and I was always an avid reader. But I still can’t believe it’s been 1,000 issues.
Leland Rucker was the Weekly’s first editor and, aside from publisher, Stewart Sallo, Leland’s the guy that I most blame for causing such a large chunk of my life to be forever subdivided into 52 identically sized pieces every year, all of them dated on a Thursday.
He convinced me that I should work full-time as the Weekly’s first photographer while being paid something like $125 a week as a freelancer. His sales pitch? “Come on Joel, it’s a start-up. Who knows how long it’ll last? We might as well have some fun and get paid for a little while.” I bit and the rest is history.
I had a beer with Leland this week and we laughed about those long-gone days and marveled about that 1,000 number. It really is an amazing accomplishment in this industry. But then again, Boulder Weekly had never really been a part of “the industry.”
I’ve been a journalist for 30 years, and I’ve had the privilege of working with some of the finest journalists at many of the best news organizations in the world, places like The New York Times, Mother Jones, U.S. News & World Report, World Affairs Television, Vanity Fair and others. And yet, a good deal of the best journalism I have ever produced has been at this relatively small weekly paper in Boulder, Colo.
Such a revelation surprises most people, even most of the news folk I know. It surprises them until I explain to them how the Weekly operates. It’s really pretty simple. We pull together a staff of ambitious, talented journalists and then tell them to change Boulder County, the nation and the world with their stories.
So what topics can Boulder Weekly staff write about? Anything that they believe our readers need or would want to know, and in this unique place where our readers are curious, well-educated and well-traveled, that means we can write about almost anything so long as it’s of interest to smart people and we do it well.
How much time and how much space can the editorial department have for a story? However much they think it will take to do it right. Weekly reporters and editors have done countless three-part, six-part, even 10-part series on important issues over the last 1,000 weeks. Just last year we did a 10-part, 37,000-word, 800-hours-of-research investigation into a series we called the “Ghosts of Valmont Butte.” It was an exposť on the contamination at the site and the city’s questionable purchase and cleanup of the historic landmark. A piece like that is not a normal thing for a paper in “the industry” to do. I don’t even know what that series cost us, but it had to be north of $100,000 with three people working on it for most of the year. And it’s still not finished. Like I said, I’ve produced some really good work for some great news organizations, but not one of them would ever have allowed its staff journalists to do that story. It wouldn’t make economic sense.
I am truly thankful for the chance to lead an independent newsroom where I never have to ask if a story makes economic sense, and no one ever tells me to go do a puff piece on some local venue so they’ll give us their ads. But the freedom to do good work (you won’t believe what we have planned for this year) is only half the reason that being the editor at Boulder Weekly is so gratifying. The other half of the equation is you, our readers.
I’ve never worked any place like Boulder County. When I write for the Weekly, it’s more like having a conversation with our readers than telling a story. Sure, you let us know when you don’t agree with us, as you should. But you also take action to solve the problems we point out, and that is a very rare quality. I can’t remember a time when we reported on someone in need that our readers didn’t come forward to help. Even when we reported from far away, for instance from the front lines of the Bosnian War, you came through and sent money to those in need and even adopted a Bosnian child that we had written about.
This type of reader interaction also isn’t normal for “the industry.” So thank you all, every one of you in Boulder County who have helped make our two decade-long journalistic experiment that breaks an awful lot of “the industry” norms, a wild success.
Please help us celebrate our 1,000th issue by reading through this special edition that highlights some of our favorite and most important work from over the years.
And finally, please accept my sincere and humble thanks for your making the last 1,000 weeks feel more like a conversation than a job. You really are the reason we do what we do.