‘We’re used to being the skunk at the picnic’
January 2, 2013
Rooted in the Wild West, Cheyenne newspaper forges on
By Teri Saylor
Special to Publishers’ Auxiliary
The Wyoming Tribune Eagle ushered in the recent economic recession with a $15.5 million Man Roland press.
The year was 2006 and the old loyal Goss press that had printed the Tribune Eagle for decades had outlived its usefulness.
“The Goss was limited in its color production, and our advertisers wanted better color,” says Publisher Mike McCraken. “Our commercial print operation was growing, too, and we knew it could benefit from a new press.”
In 2008, the bottom fell out.
“The timing was terrible for buying a new press,” McCraken admits. “But the paper looks great.”
The Wyoming Tribune Eagle is known for winning awards. This year the newspaper racked up 16 National Newspaper Association honors, including a third place for General Excellence in NNA’s Better Newspaper Contest.
But more than being a prize-winning newspaper, the Tribune Eagle is a valued institution in a tight-knit community, one of the oldest continuously running newspapers in the state, and one of the few remaining family-owned and operated daily newspapers in the country.
The year 1867 was a big year for Cheyenne.
That year, the Union Pacific Railroad came through, the city was incorporated, a hospital was built and a newspaper started.
On Sept. 19, 1867, Nathan Addison Baker published Vol. 1, No.1 of The Cheyenne Leader, the current newspaper’s earliest predecessor, in the western boomtown, according to an account of the newspaper’s history on the Tribune Eagle’s website.
During the next 60 years, the Cheyenne Leader changed hands several times, was merged with competing newspapers, and in 1921 merged with the Wyoming State Tribune, a powerful Republican newspaper.
At that time, a small, weekly Democratic-leaning newspaper in Cheyenne was struggling. Tracy McCraken borrowed $3,000 and bought it in 1926. By 1939, he and a group of partners had acquired the Wyoming State Tribune.
McCraken’s son, Robert, took over in 1957 and published both newspapers until his death in 1991, leaving his son, Mike McCraken, to take over. He continued to publish the newspapers separately until 1994, when he merged them into the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.
Cheyenne is Wyoming’s capitol city, located in the high plains of southern Wyoming, about 100 miles north of Denver, CO. The area is rich in ranching, farming and mining.
Tourism also is a top industry.
The town’s signature event is its Frontier Days, dating back to 1897. Billed as “America’s largest rodeo,” the celebration attracts thousands of visitors from all over the world.
Mike McCraken admits his greatest challenge these days is simply staying in business.
But his scrappy, independent newspaper, deeply rooted in the spirit of the Wild West, has survived it all, vigilante justice, the Great Fire of 1870 that destroyed much of the town, the Great Depression, the advent of radio and TV, and the Internet. The newspaper recorded the lives of American pioneers as they pushed across the country to forge dreams and search out new frontiers and it continues to publish stories about its citizens today.
McCraken respects the past, but looks forward to the future.
“We are still around, and we hope to be around for a long time.”
Q How many years have you been in the newspaper business?
A Personally—43 years. My sister, Cynthia M. Marek, who is our national advertising manager—25 years. The McCraken family—86 years. The newspaper—145 years, since the first edition of The Cheyenne Leader on Sept. 19, 1867.
Q What are you most proud of?
A Thanks to our outstanding staff and managers, during the past several years we’ve won more advertising, typography, news, photo and editorial awards than we have during the entire history of the newspaper. The secret to being a successful publisher is surrounding yourself with people who are smarter and more experienced than you are in their respective fields. Hire professionals, let them do their jobs and give them the tools they need to improve the product. For a market our size, we put out a great newspaper, and I’m very proud to be publisher of an award-winning publication.
Q You are active in the Wyoming Press Association, National Newspaper Association and Newspaper Association of America. Why is it important to be active in the industry trade associations?
A The WPA has played an important role in open meetings and open records issues, which we have also pursued aggressively as a newspaper. Our newspaper has won several Wyoming Supreme Court decisions regarding public access, and the WPA has participated in some of those lawsuits. Recently, WPA members have had concerns about efforts by some Wyoming legislators to seek reductions in public notice advertising and we’re following this issue closely. I value the NNA and NAA primarily for their efforts in Washington on postal matters and other issues important to our industry, dealing with advertising issues, promoting a positive image for the industry, and so on.
Q What is The Tribune Eagle’s most distinguishing characteristic?
A Long-term local ownership that gives us a vested interest in the community, the ability to make changes quickly without having to go to “headquarters” and flexibility in running our business. We’ve had a tough time over the past few years thanks to the recession, with declining revenues really putting a squeeze on us while we’re paying off a loan on a major press hall expansion that we planned during record years in 2006 and 2007. But we’ve been able to get through it with minimal layoffs, some staff attrition, and the owners being willing to take little or no return on their investment rather than taking a meat axe to the payroll. Just this month we were finally able to give employees a small raise after a couple of years of a pay freeze. We’ve got a great bunch of hard-working, loyal employees, and they’ve really been patient with us as we’ve weathered the downturn.
Q What keeps you in the newspaper business?
A At 57, I’m a little too young to retire and I need the money. Honestly, there are days when this business is incredibly frustrating, and others when it’s very rewarding. My biggest satisfaction comes from those times when we are able to influence public policy through our editorials, even though we rarely get due credit from the parties involved. We’ve taken plenty of heat on some of our editorial stands, particularly when they challenged conventional wisdom. And we’ve often been way out ahead of readers, the general public and local and state elected officials on various issues like the need for state education reform, greater public access to records and meetings, more funding for state road and highway maintenance, etc. We’re used to being the skunk at the picnic. It’s worth it if you can be a force for change that ultimately helps improve your community and your state.
Q Why is it important to continue publishing your newspaper locally?
A Frankly, if we were owned by a large chain, a newspaper our size would be a training ground for publishers and other managers. Our family has been in business here for 86 years, and we’ve got many long-time employees who are really committed to the community. And fortunately, as publisher of a family-owned newspaper, I’ve got a lot of latitude that I might not have working for a big chain.
Q What is The Tribune Eagle’s biggest challenge?
A It’s getting tougher and tougher to make a buck, as all publishers know. Our local retail advertisers held up relatively well during the recession, but classified, national and regional business has been more challenging. We really don’t feel like we’ve taken a huge hit from the Web, but these days it seems like everyone is trying to cut into the advertising pie. I guess it’s the same thing that’s happened in a lot of other industries—everyone wants to get into everyone else’s business.
Q How do you view your newspaper’s role in the communities it covers?
A The newspaper needs to be a community leader. I think locally produced editorials play a critical role in that regard. We’ve also been a big supporter of local economic development efforts to help us diversify Cheyenne’s economy, which is dominated by government. We’ve got one of the best economic development organizations in the region, and we’ve supported it not only with memberships and donations, but also with years of editorials challenging local naysayers and anti-growthers who want to see the community stay the same. We’ve made great progress and have attracted some really good businesses.
Q What do you love to hear from readers?
A When they appreciate the coverage we provide, such as our extensive editorial board interviews and recommendations on political candidates for the primary and general elections. We took some heat for endorsing and opposing candidates for the first few election cycles in which we did this, and while we still hear some complaints, I think readers are generally appreciative of the fact that they can get more information on candidates from us than they can from any other local media source. This year, at our editor’s suggestion, we streamed the interviews on the Web and kept them in our website archives. Voters who watched said they found them to be helpful.
Q What do you hate to hear from readers?
A When someone cancels his or her subscription because of a specific story or photo or editorial page item he or she didn’t like. Although this is sometimes an excuse for other concerns he or she may have, there are also reactionary readers out there who really go overboard when they see something they don’t agree with. I’m always disappointed when someone quits over something we publish on the editorial page, for instance. That person assumes that we endorse the view expressed in a guest column or an editorial cartoon just because we publish it. Some people just don’t get the notion that the op-ed pages are a marketplace of ideas, and that everyone will not agree with every view we publish. We welcome letters to the editor and have been receptive to publishing local guest commentaries from people who disagree with our staff-written editorials, so our readers definitely have avenues for venting their spleens.
Q One thing you’d never change?
A The April 1, 1994 merger of The Wyoming Eagle and the Wyoming State Tribune into a single morning edition: The Wyoming Tribune Eagle. This really set the stage for later improvements in the quality of our product thanks to better use of our resources. It just didn’t make economic sense to go on publishing a morning paper and an evening paper. At the time, we were one of the smallest markets in the country to have two papers under the same ownership, and besides the cost factors, we were sometimes sending multiple reporters and photographers to the same news event while missing other events. I’m also pleased that we accomplished the merger with no staff layoffs. Several people had to take on different jobs, but we slowly pared down areas of surplus staffing strictly through attrition and retirements.
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