Today’s news in centuries-old style
Holding back time is a big job. But out here in the high mountain desert, where rattlesnakes and sagebrush outnumber people, it is a task Dean Coombs shoulders each week with a certain glee.
Tuesday is press day at the Saguache Crescent, now in its 134th year. Coombs is the disheveled guy hunkered down amid the dust and dilapidation of the newspaper’s office, hunting and pecking at the keyboard of the same Linotype machine his grandparents used when Warren G. Harding was in the White House.
With nary a computer in sight, the four-page weekly is thought to be the last newspaper in America still being put out with 19th century technology.
“I’m not much interested in change,” Coombs says, eyes twinkling from behind smudged, wire-rimmed glasses. “If it works, we just keep doing it.”
Just inside the door of the Crescent’s office sits the massive Linotype. Something of a cross between a pipe organ and a wheat thrasher, the noisy contraption spits out one-inch lines of type (hence the name) forged from a pot of 530-degree molten lead.
Coombs’ grandparents bought the machine, once considered revolutionary technology, nearly a century ago and it hasn’t budged since.
After the lines of type are arranged into columns and placed into page form, Coombs feeds it all into the 1915 printing press at the back of the building. With a hypnotic whir, the press lifts the pages one at a time like a giant pancake flipper.
Now 61, Coombs runs the paper alone. He has no more interest in retirement than in modernization. He started at age 12, helping to run the presses.
He did leave town once, in 1970, trying college for a couple years and then “hippie-ing” around the country, trying to figure out what he wanted to be. When his father became ill in 1976, Coombs came back for good. He became publisher at age 27.
He worked side by side with his mother, who served as editor, until she died in 2002.
“I’m not a journalist,” he says with a note of horror in his voice. “I’m just the guy who puts out the paper.”
He doesn’t go to City Hall or drop by the courthouse to gather news. News comes to him. The squeaky screen door opens and someone plops down a note about an upcoming anniversary or retirement. There are also reports on the happenings at the quilt club, or a summary of church sermons (there are four churches in town) or an announcement of a new queen bee in the hive of a local beekeeper. He dutifully records it all.
It’s the way newspapers in this country used to operate, long before reporters worked a beat, says Michael S. Sweeney, a professor at Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism and a leading authority on newspaper history.
Sweeney knows of no other newspaper still using a Linotype.
“It’s like being told pterodactyls are still roaming the Earth,” he jokes. “It’s a lost art.”
Saguache (pronounced Se-WATCH) is like countless other rural towns, teetering between hopeful reinvention and extinction. The name comes from the Ute Indians who once roamed the arid San Luis Valley; it means “water at blue earth.”
Once a prosperous trading outpost, Saguache’s population shriveled to 500.
Revitalization money was pumped in along with the efforts of a handful of optimists who have opened art galleries and an organic grocery store in the hope tourists will find them.
The one constant throughout is the Crescent.
Today circulation hovers around 450. The paper sells a few ads but most of its operating revenue comes from printing legal notices for the county.
“I always read the Crescent. Everybody does,” says JoAnn Ortega, who works at the motel out by the highway.
Her parents did; so did their parents. Even her aunt and uncle who moved away still get it by mail.
“It’s got everybody’s birthday and all the events that are going on.”
Folks here admit Coombs is a bit of a character. He never married, has no children and lives in a tiny apartment behind the newspaper office. He is mostly a loner. He always liked the book “Robinson Crusoe.”
He has a computer at home, but no Internet. He also passed on getting a cellphone. It’s not that he is against technology; he just has no interest.
He prefers to putter around the office — an obstacle course of machine bits, yellowing photos, assorted office supplies, old phone books and piles of papers nearly waist-high.
One calendar on the wall is from 1983, another is from 1958. He is unapologetic.
“If I were ever to clean up I would never find anything,” he said.
There is also practicality to his clutter.
Over the years he has bought pieces for his ancient machinery as other newspapers have abandoned them. If something breaks, he has the part.
“If I mess around long enough I can usually fix things,” he says. But he says the old stuff doesn’t break much.
Coombs sees nothing extraordinary in what he does or how he does it: “It’s not a nostalgia-driven thing. It’s not a history-driven thing. It’s just the way we’ve always done things.”
“The newspaper is like a circle,” he said. “If you could finish you would finish. But you never really finish.”
There’s always next week.
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