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The Nevada Independent

For rural papers as old as Nevada itself, a fight for survival in digital age

News outlets that connect some of the state’s most isolated communities are going online-only after printing copies since their towns' mining camp days.
Carly Sauvageau
Carly Sauvageau
Rural Nevada

Nathan Robertson arrives at Ely City Hall looking much like one would expect of the mayor of a remote town near the Great Basin National Park — sandy blond hair, dressed in a hiking vest and carrying a sporty backpack. 

Though he’s busy with city government work, the fifth-generation resident makes time to talk on a recent Thursday about the local news scene in his community, which is a four- or five-hour drive from either of the state’s major population centers.

“Media is really critical in that it serves that role of keeping people informed and keeping a cohesive bond in the community,” Robertson said.

He said that even as mayor, it’s difficult for him to keep up with all the happenings of Ely, and he expects that others feel the same.

“Most of the people who are serving in governmental roles are part-time servants. I have five other day jobs, as do most of the other people in a small town,” Robertson said. “So it's not like there's a vast majority of people who can just show up and sit in city council meetings and keep their finger on the pulse of what's going on.”

People living in Ely and the nearby town of Eureka have seen a major change in their local news in the past few months. In January, The Ely Times and The Eureka Sentinel, Eastern Nevada’s legacy papers and among the oldest surviving papers in Nevada, announced a verbal deal to transfer the papers to a new owner, who is moving the publications from print to a fully digital platform to help cut costs and keep the two papers afloat.

“We’re older now, and believe we need to find a ‘fresh horse’ to carry on in Ely,” Battle Born Media co-owner Sherman Frederick — a longtime publisher of the Las Vegas Review-Journal — said in a March 2023 announcement that he and his business partner, Tim Dahlberg, wanted to move on from the venture. 

That “fresh horse” is Ben Rowley, an Alamo-raised, UNLV journalism school graduate with wire-framed glasses who drives a large pickup truck and owns Nevada Central Media LLC — the new owner of the Times and Sentinel

This is not Rowley’s first deal with Battle Born Media. He has managed the Lincoln County Record since 2013 and then became owner in 2020, when the paper was on the verge of failing during the COVID-19 lockdown. 

“The newspaper business is changing, and it's no different in rural communities,” Rowley said.

Mural depicting the Bell System and its contribution to communications in Ely on Feb. 29, 2024. (Carly Sauvageau / The Nevada Independent)

Though Rowley decided to transition from print to digital only to help the two legacy papers survive, the switch is a significant concern for many Ely residents.

“There's a little bit of disappointment, obviously, that we're not printing the paper anymore,” Rowley said. “Which is understandable. These papers have been around for over a century — both of them — and so it's a change.”

Rowley thinks he may have been able to save the print editions if he acquired the papers earlier, but by the time he became the owner of the Ely and Eureka papers, the costs were too great to fund printing. 

Robertson said that though some people in Ely get their news from Facebook or other social media, a large population still gets most of their information from a newspaper, radio or television. And he worries that web algorithms put local media at a disadvantage.

“Everything you get shown is principally what they think is going to keep you on [the site] and if that doesn't happen to be the local politics or a local story or something like that, you’re never going to see it. Which is unfortunate,” he said.

But technology isn’t the only disruptor in Nevada media. According to UNLV’s newspaper archive, the boom and bust of Nevada newspapers follows the extremes of the Silver State’s economy with a majority of papers closing with mines. In recent years, rural papers have been bought by larger companies such as Battle Born Media LLC which owns The Mineral County Independent News and The Mesquite Local News

Multiple startups from former reporters of The Ely Times and The Eureka Sentinel are also contributing to the Eastern Nevada news ecosystem.  The Bristlecone Tribune — a weekly print product of laid-off Ely Times reporter Teresa Stewart that was being sold at various local businesses around Ely — and Trina Machacek’s The Eureka County Star are both less than five years old but have gained significant community support.

But Rowley and his team of four part-time journalists are still covering local news and community events.

Stories featured in The Ely Times in late March covered topics such as a 1,000-megawatt energy storage project in the town and the White Pine School District robotics team winning a state championship, in addition to rundowns of police activity and city council meetings. The Eureka Sentinel covers similar stories that typically publish twice a week.

“My main thing is to just provide good local journalism for people and to re-establish trust with the community that we're going to continue the legacy that these papers have had for all these many years,” Rowley said.

House that was the location for The Ely Times, which is now for sale. March 1, 2024. (Carly Sauvageau/The Nevada Independent)

The Ely Times and The Eureka Sentinel history

History is woven within the fabric of Ely and Eureka. 

In Ely, a mural commemorating the town’s history as a Pony Express stop is painted on the side of an AT&T building. In Eureka, a Chevron station is across the street to an opera house that hosted the 1880s’ hottest entertainers, the two separated by a century and a few feet of asphalt.

The town was founded in 1886 as a stagecoach stop for the Pony Express and the Overland Route but didn’t boom until the early 1900s, when copper was found in the nearby towns of Ruth and McGill. 

Today, Ely is a town of a little more than 4,000 people, making up about half of the population of White Pine County. The Robinson Mine — which extracts gold, silver and molybdenum — and the nearby Ely State Prison are the town’s two major employers

A little more than an hour's drive away is Eureka.

The unincorporated town of 400 people was established in 1864 — the same year Nevada gained statehood — as a mining camp when silver ore was discovered in the area and a new smelter design kicked off a mining boom in 1869. 

The legacy papers serving these communities since their mining camp days have similarly long histories. 

The Eureka Sentinel has served the Eureka community since 1870, making the paper only six years younger than the state and the oldest surviving paper in Nevada.

According to the Library of Congress, The Ely Times has been publishing since 1961, evolving from other papers that date back to the town’s mining camp days.

Lori Romero, the director of the White Pine County Library, which has archived in microfilm every edition of The Ely Times since its inception, said some library visitors come in to research old copies for family genealogy. 

She’s concerned that a digital paywall would be a barrier for people with lower incomes and for older people, who have an easier time reading a physical product and may prefer the printed paper.

“But that’s change,” Romero acknowledged.

White Pine County Library as seen on March 1, 2024. (Carly Sauvageau/The Nevada Independent)

Print to digital, symptom of larger transformation in news

A rural daily newspaper changing from print to digital-only is old news to the modern journalism industry.

Though some peg the beginning of the newspaper business’ decline to the ‘80s with the emergence of 24-hour cable news, there is a significant correlation between the rise of the internet and the downturn of print media

Traditional print outlets that thrived on revenue from advertisers during the height of newspapers' success were met with a significant challenge as the internet offered advertisers a free, wide-ranging platform and readers could get information online at no cost.

Changes in the supply chain, particularly in paper, also increased the cost of printing.

“The biggest expense to newspapers right now is newsprint,” said Nevada Press Association Executive Director Brian Allfrey. “Print costs have continued to go up. They've gone up ever since the pandemic and I don't see them coming back down … When the pandemic hit, several of the newsprint mills closed. They were refurbished to become packaging plants.”

Aside from the costs of materials and production, the journalism ecosystem itself is going through a transformation.

Technology has made it simpler than ever to create journalistic products in audio, visual and print. But the first three months of 2024 alone have been marked by significant newsroom layoffs nationwide

Brian Duggan, the general manager of KUNR Public Radio and a former president of the Nevada Press Association, said local news is feeling the burden of this change in the news landscape, particularly in rural areas. 

“Print dollars transfer to digital dimes,” said Duggan, previously the executive editor at the Reno Gazette-Journal. “Digital media scales [economically] at the national level or international level ... What's not scaling is the local journalism.”

The price of less local news is higher public costs when there’s no one watching local governments, according to one study. Other research has shown rural areas have seen significant negative effects of the change in the new journalism ecosystems. 

Duggan said the newsmakers’ response to that has been investment in nonprofit newsrooms and collaboration with philanthropic organizations, but there’s work to be done everywhere.

“I think we're still in the early days of figuring out how to make this new media ecosystem work,” he said.

Eureka mainstreet as seen on March 1, 2024. (Carly Sauvageau / The Nevada Independent)

Local start-ups emerging

Rowley’s team of reporters are the first regular reporters the papers have had since the pandemic, when the staff was laid off.

As a former reporter for The Ely Times, Shadrach Robertson — who is married to the mayor and CEO of the White Pine Chamber of Commerce — said the change in ownership is “disheartening and disappointing.”

“Although I don't know Ben, I wish him the best and hope that he can carry this historic institution into a successful new future,” Robertson said. “The direction to eliminate paper publication and focus on a pay subscription online — I personally as a reporter think information should be free and I wish that the previous owners had looked … for options to keep The Ely Times local, as well as the Eureka Sentinel.” 

Though Rowley does not live in Ely or Eureka, the reporters do.

One of those reporters is Cheyenne Morigeau, a former public affairs specialist for the United State Air Force before she was medically retired. 

Her husband, whom she met while in the military, is from Ely and they moved into town after leaving the service. Morigeau covers everything from high school sports to state government and law enforcement. 

“I absolutely love it,” Morigeau said about working for The Ely Times. “It’s very much at your own pace, but there’s always stuff going on.”

Meanwhile, Robertson said others in Ely and Eureka were willing to “pick up the mantle and carry the weight of being a public record,” since the pandemic citing Stewart’s Bristlecone Tribune and Machacek’s The Eureka County Star. 

“They have a lot going for them and they have a lot of community support,” Robertson said.

The Eureka County Star owner Machacek, who was a columnist for The Ely Times, started the paper less than two years ago and currently has a goal to make it to 200 print subscribers by July 4, 2024. 

Machacek said in an interview with The Nevada Independent that she was inspired to start the paper after becoming unsatisfied with the Eureka Sentinel, which she said had been whittled down to a one- to two-page insert in The Ely Times rather than a content-filled paper as it had been in the ‘80s.

Eureka landmark on March 1, 2024. (Carly Sauvageau/The Nevada Independent)

She said she wanted to buy the Eureka Sentinel for $2,000, knowing there was no overhead and the paper had become more of an insert into The Ely Times, but said Battle Born Media came back with an offer of $10,000. 

After some negotiations, the price was still too high, and Machacek decided to start her own paper instead. 

She has recruited some young reporters from the local high school about topics that matter to White Pine County youth and a column by a gynecologist who lives locally about common questions locals have for their doctors.

The print-only newspaper costs $95 for a yearly subscription. Machacek said not only locals subscribe to the paper but people from across the country as well. All printed copies are sent out by Machacek from her home on a ranch, about 15 minutes away from Eureka.

Machacek is also continuing “Is This You?” — a column she wrote for The Ely Times about everyday life. These days, it appears in the Bristlecone Tribune and The Eureka County Star.

The Bristlecone Tribune — whose tagline is “White Pine County’s Locally Owned Paper” — receives advertising funding from local businesses and legal notice publications.

Stewart did not respond to an interview request from The Nevada Independent.

It is required by state law to publish legal notices in a weekly printed newspaper. During the last legislative session, SB22 allowed notices to also be published on a newspaper website but maintains that the notices still need to be published in print.

Rowley told The Nevada Independent that legal ads provided The Lincoln County Record with 35 percent of its annual revenue last year. However, Rowley said the revenue stream could vary from county to county, and he noted that legal ads also come with extra print overhead and administrative work and cannot solely support a paper.

Ward Charcoal Oven outside Ely on March 1, 2024. (Carly Sauvageau/The Nevada Independent)

Keeping legacy papers alive in the new media landscape

As of March 28, Rowley said The Ely Times has 50 subscribers. A yearly subscription costs $35, a quarterly subscription costs $16 and a monthly subscription costs $4.50. The Eureka Sentinel hasn’t yet activated subscriptions or a paywall. 

Through potential ads, some subscriptions and strategic budgeting, Rowley hopes to keep the two legacy papers alive and thrive through quality reporting.

“There's a history here, we’re taking that baton and trying to try to move it forward,” said Rowley, who is now the owner of three rural papers that are continuing to produce news. 

“What an awesome history that we need to preserve too,” he added. “A lot of times people think these communities just stay the same, but they don't. You look back and how things were 50 years ago, 100 years ago, there's a lot of history there and a lot of changes … It's important.”


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