‘I wanted a newspaper that would reflect the area’s rough and tumble history…’
February 4, 2014
Surviving and thriving in the Wild West
By Teri Saylor
Special to Publishers’ Auxiliary
The Weather Channel has proclaimed 2013 the driest year on record in California. In some areas, the wine vineyards are drying up, and in other areas, wildfires are raging.
And out at Lake Tahoe, they’re performing snow dances, trying to conjure up enough frosty precipitation to save the winter ski season.
Not only is it dry out west, the temperature is downright balmy, and while most of the country was in a deep freeze during the frigid, January polar vortex events, California stayed warm and sunny, even in the mountains.
Over in Truckee, the staff of the Moonshine Ink is not letting the lack of snow get them down, even though a popular cross-country ski resort has closed its slopes, and many others are fretting, and working to make enough snow to keep winter white.
“It’s looking like summer here—no polar vortex,” said Moonshine Ink Publisher Mayumi Elegado in a telephone interview.
Indeed, a variety of news outlets reported that summer activities have been in full force. In areas where skiers should have been hitting the slopes, lovers of the great outdoors resorted to summertime activities such as mountain biking, hiking and even nude sunbathing.
Despite all of this, it’s business as usual for the Moonshine Ink, a vibrant monthly newspaper that combines its print edition, its online publication, and social media to keep Truckee residents in the know. The newspaper distributes most of its 11,000-issue print run through about 250 outlets throughout Truckee, the north shore of Lake Tahoe, and in some locations in Reno, NV, said Elegado. The newspaper also offers subscriptions, and Elegado is intent on increasing the paid subscription base.
“My biggest challenge is to develop a sustainable revenue stream,” she said. “In this day and age, readers want to get their news for free, and that is very challenging.”
Elegado speaks often of passion. The passion Truckee residents have for outdoor activities and for quality of life, and her own passion for the written word and her work.
Most of all, Elegado is passionate about her community.
“People who live here love the outdoors,” she said. “Our readership is similar to other newspapers across the country—older, well-educated, and 80 percent local.”
Many residents are leftover ski bums who migrated to the Lake Tahoe area in the ’60s and ’70s and decided to stay to raise families. Some residents are part of multi-generational families who have made their homes in the area for more than a century, and some have second homes in Truckee and don’t live there all year round.
The Town of Truckee, which recently celebrated its 150th anniversary, started in 1863 as a stopover for settlers making their way to California, according to an online account by the Truckee Historical Society.
Early on, the town was called Coburn’s Station, named after Samuel Coburn who established a stagecoach station and public house to serve travelers heading west. When the Central Pacific Railroad came through, the railroad workers were stationed there, and the town grew around that settlement.
The Central Pacific Train enabled a burgeoning logging and lumber business to thrive, and brought people to the area—rugged men and women seeking their fortune, as well as tourists.
In 1869, Coburn’s Station was renamed Truckee for a Paiute Indian chief who served as a guide for westward-bound settlers.
Over the years, Truckee amassed a colorful Wild West history, complete with shootouts, duels and gunfights.
Today, Truckee is still a railroad town, and Amtrak’s California Zephyr makes regular stops there on its way to San Francisco.
The town is tucked into the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, 40 miles west of Reno, and 12 miles north of Lake Tahoe.
Elegado has a degree in anthropology, which gives her a keen sense of her community’s dynamics. She moved to the area in 1999 to take a job at a local weekly newspaper. As time went on, she developed a vision for a newspaper that would cover the community in a different way.
That vision became a reality in 2002.
“I wanted a newspaper that would reflect the area’s rough and tumble history, and the passions of the community,” she said. “I bugged a co-worker to help me start the paper, and we incubated the idea for a year before we decided to take the plunge and do it.”
At first, she wanted to completely break the mold and start an underground rag of a newspaper, published on standard multi-purpose paper and stapled together, but in the end, she decided to take the traditional route and go with a tabloid-size newspaper printed on newsprint.
The area around Lake Tahoe is known for unusually bright moonlight, especially when it reflects off of snow. So Elegado named the newspaper “Moonshine Ink,” because just as journalists push for sunshine in government, she puts her faith in a bright moon.
A dozen years and a lot of bumps and bruises later, she has an award-winning newspaper she is proud of.
“It has been a wild ride,” she admits.
A core crew of seven employees, including Elegado, produces the Moonshine Ink. Instead of an editor in chief, a team of three associate editors are in charge of the content: news and opinions; mountain life and sports, and arts, culture and food. In addition to managing their individual beats, they contribute to each other’s sections.
The newspaper also has a graphic designer, a photographer, and an office administrator.
All but one of the employees is part time.
“The way we operate is unique for a small newspaper, but it works,” Elegado said. “People who live here are passionate about the outdoors and quality of life. Few want to work nine to five in an office, and they appreciate flexible schedules.”
Although publishing monthly provides opportunities for that flexibility and some breathing room, there is always work to do, whether it is publishing the weekly E-newsletter, keeping the website current, or posting updates on the newspaper’s Facebook and Twitter sites.
The business model
Like most publishers, Elegado spends a significant amount of time developing and maintaining a consistent revenue stream.
Working in a resort community that is largely dependent on commerce during winter and summer seasons is challenging. Truckee is an affluent community, and the cost of living is expensive.
“It is important to me to pay our staff enough to live on,” Elegado said.
And she recognizes the amount of time, energy, and expense that go into producing the Moonshine Ink and maintaining its online presence.
“This is the biggest challenge for us and for the newspaper industry as a whole,” she said. “Our community values good journalism and sees our newspaper as a vital force, but we can’t afford to give it away for free.”
One award-winning advertising program she designed is paying off.
Her “Keep Business Rolling” promotion runs in her community’s shoulder seasons—spring and fall, when activity and tourism ebb.
During these shoulder seasons, she offers clients a three-for-three contract to help them maintain a presence in the newspapers that come out in the offseason. The program offers clients ads in three sizes, at three prices, for three months in the spring and in the fall.
The program pays off for the newspaper and for advertisers.
“Our clients get a great deal during the seasons in which they don’t see as much traffic, and the newspaper gets three-month contracts during seasons in which we might struggle to fill ad space,” Elegado said.
She’s proud of what the Moonshine Ink has become over the years.
“The changes from the beginning to now have been tremendous, and it has been a huge team effort,” she said. “We are serious about news, and investigative journalism is important to us. We write profiles, cover health, sports and the outdoors as well as food, arts and culture. All of it comes from original reporting, and we continue to work as a team.”
The Moonshine Ink won five Awards in the 2013 National Newspaper Association’s Better Newspaper Contest and Better Newspaper Advertising Contest. Among them was a first place award for Investigative Reporting for “Tahoe Forest Hospital Under a Microscope: Where Does the Money Go?”
Reporter David Bunker examined hospital salaries, fundraising activities, cost of care and hiring practices, and he found that the hospital foundation has operating costs much higher than other hospitals of a similar size. He also found that high level positions are held by family members of hospital executives, and health care costs run so high, patients struggle to afford to use the facility or its doctors.
Elegado praised the reporter for his diligence.
“The hospital was protective of its privacy, and was bulldoggish with us. The story was lengthy, and we didn’t know people would read it in depth, but the response was tremendous. I’m really proud of the piece,” she said.
The newspaper is not letting up, continuing to file Freedom of Information requests, reporting and writing stories that serve the community.
For the future, Elegado will focus on growing the Moonshine Ink in print and online, and she hopes to have a dedicated staff for the digital version of the newspaper someday. She believes mixed media will become part of the landscape, combining the written word with audio and video presentations and slideshows. She predicts the new online frontier will be monetized with micropayments, like smart phone apps today.
And through it all, Elegado believes newspapers will survive.
“After all,” she said. “They are the keystones of democracy. © Teri Saylor 2014
Name of Newspaper: Moonshine Ink, Truckee, CA.
Owner: Mayumi Elegado.
Publication frequency: Monthly print edition, monthly e-newsletter, up-to-date website.
How many years have you been in the newspaper business? Eleven years.
How many people do you have on your staff? Seven core crew members; many contributors from the community.
What are you most proud of? To have survived and grown during the last 12 years, providing readers with original reporting on news, healthy living, sports, the outdoors, food, arts and culture. I’m also proud of our crew that works together as a team.
What is your newspaper’s most distinguishing characteristic? Locally owned and operated, in-depth quality stories, fearlessness in asking the hard questions.
What are your newspaper’s biggest challenges? To maintain a sustainable revenue stream.
How do you view your newspaper’s role in your community? We challenged the status quo of existing media, adding much-needed competition to the mix. Moonshine Ink is known as the paper providing true journalism to our community.
What do you love to hear from readers? I want to subscribe!
What do you hate to hear from readers? Why don’t you print more often?
What is one thing you will never change? Focus on being genuine.
What are your top goals for the next 12 months? Fine tune our digital presence, establish a rock-solid sustainable business model, and have our online TAP calendar be the resource for events in the Tahoe/Truckee region.
Look in your crystal ball and describe the future of newspapers. Newspapers will survive because they are a keystone of democracy. Likely it will be mostly digital, but I do think there will be a push to make the digital presentation more like print, where the reader is led effortlessly through a story. Mixed media will become the norm, with videos, slideshows, and audio interspersed with the written word. The revenue stream from readership will be based on micropayments, much like the app stores are today. Now, we just have to get young readers on the wagon of appreciating good journalism.