David O. Williams: Mourning the Vail Trail
So the e-mails have been pouring into my blog at RealVail.com (actually only two or three, and those were from past employees), wondering where my sense of outrage is over the shuttering of the venerable Vail Trail weekly newspaper by Colorado Mountain News Media.
As a former editor of both the Trail and its short-lived daily incarnation, the Daily Trail, I’m supposed to be incensed at both the Vail Daily’s parent company for shutting down Vail’s first newspaper and at the Vail Trail’s founding family, the Knoxes, for selling out to CMNM in the first place.
But in the four or so years since CMNM bought the Trail from the Knoxes, pulling the rug out from under me and a small group of employees trying to acquire the paper, I’ve gained a bit of perspective, and the only feelings I was able to muster were sadness and pride. Outrage was in short order.
Even though CMNM clearly only purchased the Trail as a trophy to demonstrate they had fully and finally won the local media war and all its various skirmishes (and also to keep even a ragtag group of local journos from maintaining a competitive foothold), they still did keep it afloat for more than four years. It’s really quite surprising they went through the motions that long, given the rather pointless exercise of robbing Peter to pay Paul.
As for the Knoxes, who can blame them for squeezing what they could from a dying enterprise (after all, my merry band and I made them a zero-cash offer)? Clearly they should have sold the paper years earlier. When I first arrived in town in 1991 it was still the dominant publication ” a weekly phone book crammed with ads ” and the Knoxes reportedly had standing offers with six zeroes after them.
Not selling then was one of their mistakes; never buying a press was another. Waiting too long to buy a building or start a daily to beat back the Vail Daily are a couple of more blunders. But I can’t muster outrage over squandered business opportunities; that’s where the sadness comes in.
The Trail was beloved by the community for the better part of four decades, as evidenced by the network of friends Allen Knox maintains to this day when he works a social event with his camera. People still smile fondly remembering the paper’s patriarch, the “Skipper,” George Knox, who has a ski run on Vail Mountain with his nickname on it. Or his wife, Ella, who wrote a gardening column and brought goodies to the volunteer poll workers on Election Day.
My sense of sadness stems from the loss of a community institution and the nationwide death of the mom-and-pop paper. I’m not happy about how my time with them ended, but the Knoxes are essentially good people whose hearts were in the right place. Their pride in what the Skipper had built led them to hang on too long, but that doesn’t change how rewarding my six or so years with them were.
And that’s where the pride comes in. When I first came to Vail in ’91 I worked for Jim Pavelich at the Vail Daily, where Andy Hood, my good friend and editor at the time, coined the catchy deadline phrase, “Let’s just spooge this (expletive) out!” That sausage-grinding mentality persists at the Daily to this day, and also is evidenced in J.P.’s new daily, the Vail Mountaineer.
When I joined the Trail in ’98, it was like walking into a library after three days at a rave, moving to Seattle from New York, or switching to herbal tea after a steady diet of Red Bull. Goateed writers sat about in a state of languor, sipping lattes and pondering the deep philosophical implications of council decisions. I was stunned but at the same time intrigued by the ability to really delve into a story, to examine its broader implications and offer some analysis.
I was also actually a bit in awe of the Trail at the time, having admired the skill of writers, editors and cartoonists like Allen Best, Tara Flanagan, Scott Willoughby, Don Sidle and Joe Donnelly while churning and burning at the Daily, and it was truly a pleasure to get to work with and learn from some of them over the next several years.
Working with Flanagan, Robert Kelly-Goss and a cast of other notables, we somehow still cranked out the weekly Trail and created the Daily Trail in ’98, launching with a series on the intense growth pressures facing the new West at the dawn of the new millennium ” a series that won a Colorado Press Award right out of the chute.
Memorable coverage of the environmental battles over Category III (now Blue Sky Basin), the Gilman Tract (now the Ginn Company’s Battle Mountain project), the Vail Mountain eco-arson attacks and the ski company’s transition to a publicly traded conglomerate followed.
We changed U.S. State Department next-of-kin notification policy in the Chuck Betcher case, influenced environmental practices in the ski industry and helped shape public thought on issues as critical as affordable housing, open space and education. And we forced the Vail Daily to begin taking much stronger editorial stances by bringing in Don Rogers to do battle.
Again, I have to give the Knoxes credit for fostering a newsroom environment where journalists were allowed to freely engage in critical thought, even if allowing the inmates to run the asylum is a sure recipe for disaster. The Knoxes always put editorial first, which ultimately may have led to the paper’s demise, but journalists around the state, even the nation (many have moved on to Philly, New York, Denver and L.A.), owe them a debt of gratitude for that.
Now I encourage CMNM to do the right thing and bequeath the Vail Trail name to RealVail.com as an early holiday gift. Allow what you thwarted in 2004, and give the journalists who ruled the roost for so many years a chance to resurrect the Trail from the corporate ashes. What do you have to lose?
David O. Williams is a former Vail Daily sports editor and city editor who went on to edit the Vail Trail and Daily Trail. He’s now a freelance writer, senior fellow at the Colorado Independent and liberal ski blogger at RealVail.com. This is his first byline in the Vail Daily since 1997.
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