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California

Mark Twain once wrote for California’s oldest newspaper. Now it nears its final days

Don Russell works in the Mountain Messenger newsroom.
Don Russell works in the Mountain Messenger newsroom.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Mark Twain was once published in this Northern California newspaper.

More than a century later, the Mountain Messenger appears to be nearing its final days.

Editor-publisher Don Russell had spent the past year trying to sell the state’s oldest weekly newspaper with no luck. He is planning to retire by the middle of January, at which point publication will end.

“It does feel like a death in the family,” Russell said. “The flip side is, it’ll be quite liberating for me.”

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The news first appeared in the paper’s Dec. 12 edition, with a call for someone to take over the paper.

“At this writing, it appears the alternative will be to simply close up shop, scrub the ink off the floors, and make some other banner claim to be California’s Oldest Weekly Newspaper,” Russell wrote.

Mountain Messenger
California’s oldest weekly newspaper could soon close up shop

Word spread quickly through Downieville, a town of about 200 where the Mountain Messenger office is located.

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“I can’t stop crying,” said Jill Tahija, who began at the paper as a typesetter 11 years ago. “There’s a lot of historical value here, as well as sentimental.”

The paper dates to 1853, when it was started as a twice-monthly publication.

It became the Mountain Messenger in 1854 or 1855 and moved to La Porte and then to Downieville, a Gold Rush community about 110 miles northeast of Sacramento.

The paper’s claim to fame is that Twain once wrote there while hiding out from the law. He was only there for a couple of weeks, writing under his real name, Sam Clemens, according to Russell, who read some of his articles on microfilm.

“They were awful,” Russell said. “They were just local stories, as I recall, written by a guy with a hangover.”

Russell became co-owner of the paper, known around the area as the “Mountain Mess,” in the early 1990s. Before that, he had written stories for the Detroit News and sold feature stories to the Seattle Times.

Scott McDermid loads freshly printed copies of the Mountain Messenger.
Scott McDermid loads freshly printed copies of the Mountain Messenger, the oldest weekly newspaper in Sierra County, into a vehicle.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

The Mountain Messenger, which publishes on Thursdays, has a circulation of about 2,400 on its best day. For the last two years, Russell said, “I haven’t taken a salary to speak of.”

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Russell has run local ads, as well as an ad in the Newspaper Publishers Association, trying to get someone to take over.

“Nobody in their right mind would buy this paper,” Russell said, with a laugh.

He’s tried to give it away, he said, but locally the demographics are against it.

“People who read and are still in Sierra County are my age, and they have better things to do than run a newspaper,” the 70-year-old said.

Meanwhile, in another city and after 161 years of publishing, the Martinez News-Gazette is printing its final edition on Sunday. That paper, which covered the city of Martinez, the seat of Contra Costa County, had been losing money.

The Mountain Messenger has been able to hang on because of income generated from running legal notices. As the only adjudicated newspaper in Sierra County, it is the county’s sole qualifier to publish them under state law. If the paper stops printing, there would be no such outlet.

“Everybody says, ‘You can’t let the Mess die,’ ” Russell said. “Well, yes, I can. I’ve been trying to get rid of it for two years.”

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He added that he didn’t want to be a jerk about it, “but I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I’m tired of it.”

Russell covers school board meetings, federal land use and everything else in Sierra and Plumas counties — some of the most rural areas of California. Last week’s edition included a story on the county board of supervisors’ stance on the concept of a customer-owned PG&E, as well reports in the sheriff’s blotter of a “damn dog that wouldn’t stop barking.”

It also featured a call to subscribe, with the slogan “Mark Twain wrote here” next to a drawing of the writer’s head. But the paper is no longer cashing checks from subscribers, Tahija said. The renewal cards she usually sends out the second week of the month are still sitting on her desk.

At the paper, Tahija does “just about everything except for write the front page.” The 54-year-old handles subscriptions, invoices, typesetting and proofreading.

“It’s more than a job to me,” Tahija said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. This is what I know, this is what I love.”

Every week, Lee Adams, a Sierra County supervisor, reads the Mountain Messenger. If the Downieville resident is in Nevada City on a Thursday, he picks up a 50-cent copy from a news rack there.

Adams’ family has subscribed to the paper since the 1970s.

“It has chronicled our history for 166 years, and to see it disappear now is just quite sad,” Adams said. “This is more than a newspaper, it really is an institution.”


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