From deep roots,

a nonprofit publication branches out

By: Brea Gaudioso
J494: Critical Thinking about Design and Disruption
University of Montana School of Journalism

For adventurers of the West, environment is everything. High Country News has taken this into account and created an organization that thrives on coverage of the people and the issues in this region. HCN, a 45-year-old publication, found their niche in longform journalism that covers the intersect of human and nature and the policy, problems and triumphs that come with it. Today, they are going strong with more subscribers than ever. But their work is not done. HCN is looking at how to expand their reach to a wider audience, experiment with different kinds of social outreach and to better understand the changing trends of the internet through exploration of new ideas.

High Country News is a 501(c)3 nonprofit media organization that covers the important issues and stories that define the American West. Our mission is to inform and inspire people — through in-depth journalism — to act on behalf of the West’s diverse natural and human communities. (Mission statement)


High Country News was first published as a bi-weekly in 1970. It took the place of Camping News Weekly. In 1969 Wyoming native Tom Bell purchased Camping News Weekly and saw a need for an outdoor publication that would cover more than just camping and fishing. Bell, a war veteran, wildlife biologist and teacher, wanted to report on the environmental degradation of the west that he was seeing first hand, which he felt that the region’s mainstream newspapers neglected. So he rebranded as High Country News and converted to bi-weekly. With a small readership, HCN quickly discovered that it could not survive on advertising and subscriptions, so Bell made his publication a nonprofit. Still, the publication struggled, and in 1973 Bell announced that High Country News would cease. But somehow that was only the beginning.

Tom Bell, Founder of HCN knew from the start that the people of the West needed more than another camping magazine.

After Bell announced the closure, dozens of readers sent in money for many days and weeks. The readers weren’t ready to let High Country News go under. The next issue contained this note from Bell:

“Each day the letters come pouring in and, as you read them, you alternate between humbly crying and joyfully cheering. People whom we have never met except through the pages of a little paper write us as they would a long-lost friend. Somehow we have created another bond between people across a far-flung land.”

Bell’s dedication went much further. He sold his ranch and spent his entire savings to keep it afloat. He did not make much from the newspaper and survived almost solely off of a uranium stock.

Eventually, High Country News began to stabilize, and Bell was tiring of the stress of publishing, so he turned the control over to two staff writers: Bruce Hamilton, 23, and Joan Nice Hamilton, 24. The paper seemed to flourish under their watch as they covered a wide variety of environmental and natural resource issues. Then hard times struck, when a car accident took the life of a staff member and injured three others. But once again, readers showed their loyalty, donating $32,000 to keep the publication alive.

In 1983 the four editors, Hamiltons included, were ready to leave their positions. So, the board of directors voted 5–4 to hire Ed and Betsy Marston. The pair had just moved from New York to Paonia, Colo., and the paper relocated from Lander, Wyo. to Paonia, where High Country News expanded its audience to include a wider range of Westerners and lawmakers. It became the leading independent publication of the west. Ed Marston decided to step down in 2001, after 19 years, while his wife still works as an editor for the paper’s syndicated opinion service, Writers on the Range. Under the Marstons’ watch, circulation grew by more than 15,000 subscribers. HCN launched their website in 1995.

“We struggled for 25 years, but we found a model,” Paul Larmer, executive director and publisher, said about the publications history. “There was a niche for environmental news in the west that wasn’t being produced in the dailies.”

In 2002, the board of directors promoted Paul Larmer, a longtime editorial staffer, to executive director and publisher. Under his watch, High Country News transformed into a magazine. Since then, they have been innovating constantly: their latest and greatest achievement, a website redesign. Today, circulation is at a high of 25,100 print subscribers. The digital edition has over 2,000 subscribers, and the weekly newsletter has almost 59,000 subscribers. The magazine is published 22 times a year, and news on the web is published daily.“We struggled for 25 years, but we found a model,” Paul Larmer, executive director and publisher, said about the publications history. “There was a niche for environmental news in the west that wasn’t being produced in the dailies.”


“High Country News is a magazine, so our new website helps us integrate our content so magazine stories continue to look like magazine stories online,” Brian Calvert, Associate Editor at HCN

The website was originally launched in 1995, and has gone through a few redesigns since.

In January 2014, High Country News began working on a website redesign, using an outside firm, and launched it in August.

Web Editor Tay Wiles, who started at High Country News in July 2013, lead much of the redesign. She describes the many goals of the project:

Tay Wiles Web Editor at HCN said she is working to create a more multimedia and visual web pieces.

“Our goals were to provide a better reader experience, make the site more navigable so people could find the topics and stories they are were looking for, be better formatted for multimedia stories, be more visual to draw readers in to click on and read our text stories in addition to photo stories, accommodate interactive graphics, better display graphics from the print magazine, encourage more engagement through commenting and sharing our content in their social networks, and encourage more visitors to the site to subscribe to the print magazine.”

Text dominated HCN’s home page prior to redesign. This screenshot of the environmental publication’s website, showed a weak visual connection to the topics they covered.

Associate Editor Brian Calvert said the idea behind the relaunch was to have a website that had the same style as a magazine. He said that though High Country News is very much magazine first, there is room for growth in their online outreach.

“I think the online component is very much growing into a second prong of High Country News,” he said.

Brian Calvert Associate Editor at HCN strives to maintain the long -standing repuation and traditions of the magazine, while keeping things fresh enough to keep readers coming back

Calvert added that the print magazine will stay the same because it has settled pretty well into a niche that lacks competition and caters to its readers’ needs very well. “I think that’s one of the keys to High Country News’ longevity. It is eclectic but it does stay in its niche and we deliver to our readers.”

Wiles said they target a slightly different audience on the web, but have a lot of overlap. “More people under 40 visit our site, and there are more people over 50 who exclusively subscribe to the print magazine,” she said.

Both subscribers and non-subscribers can view the site, but some stories are reserved for subscribers only. These subscribers are either print subscribers that get the service for free, or online only subscribers that pay 15 dollars to have full access to the digital magazine, websites and apps for 6 months. Non-subscribers cannot see three stories of each print issue for the first 30 days after it is released. One of those stories is the feature story.

As far as web-exclusive content goes, Wiles said the process is very different. “The web-exclusive content is reported, edited and fact-checked more quickly. The stories are generally between 500 and 800 words. The tone is generally a bit more informal and conversational than print, by choice. The topics are newsier because they are published within two to five days of being assigned, rather than several weeks, or months, as is the schedule for print stories.”

“Web-exclusive stories can also be more turn-of-the-screw-type stories that update readers on a developing story or move a previous story forward just a small bit. Whereas print stories we will only assign if they are entirely fresh to us and our readers, or highlight a major change to a previous narrative.”

Wiles said it all hasn’t been easy. Putting out more content online, and making sure it is all held to the highest accuracy standard is challenging. To alleviate the risk of error, Wiles said she has a strict fact-checking procedure for the in-house reporting interns. She said the policy seems to be working well so far. The back-end programming platform they use isn’t a common one and without a full-time programmer on staff, changes can take some time, Wiles said.

Aside from trying to up multimedia, High Country News has started to experiment with new interactive graphics, such as with Defuse the West, a High Country News investigative reporting project that ran from 2010–2014. With the project they looked at assaults, threats and other discrepancies against public land employees.

Here is a screenshot of the interactive map. When you hover over the dots you are able to click and read different reports.

She said they have since been working on getting more content out on the web and finding different mediums to produce their work in. Wiles said she has seen the visuals bringing more readers to the site, as well as getting people to click on other stories once they are on the site. Also, the “today’s featured stories” section on the right side of all story pages helps “keep the site sticky.”

Another challenge for the decades-old publication: innovation. With a small staff that is very busy it can be hard, Wiles said. “But having brainstorm session on the fly with other editors keeps each of us excited about the possibility to try new things, which is essential to a healthy work environment.”


In addition to the website, High Country News uses a multitude of online platforms including Facebook, Twitter, and a weekly newsletter email. The in-house staff is small at High Country news with a handful of editors, two interns and a fellow on the production side at all times, but the magazine hires freelancers for most of the stories and photographs seen.

“We tripled our FB fans and doubled the Twitter following in the year before the redesign, and during that time we did see a dramatic increase in traffic,” Wiles said.

Digitally High Country news is covering many platforms. In addition to their website, they have a newsletter, iPhone and iPad apps, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Linkdin, Googleplus and a YouTube channel.

Gretchen King, audience engagement manager, said she is continually finding new ways to engage a wider readership, and one that she has specifically found to be more receptive to image heavy posts.

Gretchen King manages HCN’s social media accounts and looks for ways to expand the magazines demographic on different platforms.

“I do believe that the web audience is often different than print,” she said. “Generally the magazine is a little older of a demographic. Things like Instagram and Tumblr, especially, seem to be reaching out to a younger audience.”

High Country News has a wide reach, connecting with readers on six different social media platforms.

Facebook: The High Country News facebook page has 37,543 likes as of February 28th 2015. They posted 50 times in the month of February, averaging 1.8 posts per day. High Country News spends money on Facebook to boost posts to people, based off of interests.

Twitter: The High Country News Twitter has 15 thousand followers and more than 13 thousand tweets. They tweeted 70 times in February 2015 averaging 2.5 tweets per day. High Country News also spends money on Twitter to boost posts to people, based on interests.

YouTube/Video: “We’re going to be doing a series that highlights science and wildlife science in western states,” Wiles said. “We really only have one video so far and we are waiting to get a few more before we start releasing them.” Wiles said the idea behind the videos is to get people to start to understand how science in being done in the field. In this project the videographers and getting up close and personal with the researchers and their research. She hopes to have about ten videos ranging from 3–6 minutes. “Our first video is with mule deer in Colorado where population has been declining,” she said. “He went out with Colorado Fish and Wildlife to look at habitat changes.”

Tumblr: High Country News also publishes on Tumblr, which Audience Engagement Manager, Gretchen King, said may be their youngest audience. “I’ve been managing Tumblr for over the year now. It’s a different platform than some of the others. I am trying to be creative about visual things or funny things,” she said.

Newsletter redesign: King is currently working on a redesign of the Week in the West, High Country News’ weekly email newsletter. Once that is finished, she said her next big project is “niche” newsletters. “These will allow for folks to subscribe, not only to our weekly ‘Week in the West’ newsletter, but also to opt-in to a variety of topical and regional newsletters. These would not go out weekly, and would depend on number of articles before being sent.” The project is still in early planning stages, but the different newsletters planned are broken down into two categories. Regional, and topical.

Regional — Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming and Idaho

Topical — water, energy & industry, wildlife, climate, tribes, politics, recreation, communities, and, perhaps, multimedia


High Country News publishes 22 print editions a year. The magazine has more than 25,000 print subscribers. The subscription costs $37.00 a year and the subscription comes with complete access to, the digital editions of each magazine and iPhone and iPad application. To reach more viewers in print, High Country news offers two free magazines to any first time readers who are interested. Out of the 22 print editions a year, High Country news publishes 5 special edition issues.

“The special issues aren’t really targeted to new or different readers, but are rather our attempt to stretch our legs a little beyond our comfort zone,” Calvert said. “So they’re good for readers, writers and editors, alike.”

High Country News currently will publish 5 special edition issues this year. Last year they published four and the year before they published three. This Associate Editor, Brian Calvert said the special issues are both a way to cover more ground in terms of content subject , and make more money. They are trying to continue to grow this sector of their magazine.

“The special issues are our attempt to produce story collections we don’t typically delve into, like ideas about the future, which are aimed at educators and students, as well as travel and books & essays.”

“In general, the special issues aren’t really targeted to network different readers, but are rather our attempt to stretch our legs a little beyond our comfort zone. So they’re good for readers, writers and editors, alike.”

Along with diversifying coverage, the editions attract Calvert said that they bring in a lot of revenue. “These special issues help us make targeted pushes for advertising revenue as well.”

Below are the 2015 Special Editions

January 2015 This edition focuses on the future of environmental issues. It talks about the environmental movement and is very forward looking and thinking. Next year the issue is set to run in September rather than in January. “The Future issue used to run in January, but it’s a very large issue and very hard to put out, particularly just after Christmas, when the whole nation kind of shuts down. So the schedule change on that issue was more logistical than anything,” Calvert said.

April 2015 The travel issue talks about different places and experiences in the West. “We’ll reveal the unfamiliar, open up new ways to see the familiar and take you to the ‘backwater fringe’ of the West. The High Country News reader is not your average tourist. They are affluent, highly-educated, environmentally and socially conscious outdoor enthusiasts looking for adventure, education and ecologically responsible and sustainable options for their travel and recreation.”-Website

July 20, 2015 This issue is all about different outdoor recreation opportunities and challenges in the west.

September 2015 The Annual Hot Off the Press Issue is all about essays, books, authors, music, videos and other literary artists and pieces.

November 23, 2015 This is a holiday edition with reviews and lots of advertising.

In 2010 High Country News did a Community Demographic and Lifestyle survey. The survey showed that the median reader age was 55.6. People under 40 are more likely to visit the website of HCN, while more people over 50 subscribe exclusively to print. Although the age demographic seems to affect the preferred viewer medium, editors at HCN say they see a lot of overlap.


Though they continue to innovate and grow, High Country News has a business model that has seemed to stay constant. Calvert said they have gotten their business model down to something that is very sustainable, although as a non-profit they could always use more capital.

“I think the assumption here is if we keep delivering good stories with important information and taking hard looks at important issues our audience will grow naturally,” he said. “We are entering a time of a different type of environmental consciousness so I think there is room to grow.

This report was produced for the final thesis in “J494: Critical Thinking About Design and Disruption,” the Spring 2015 Pollner Seminar at the University of Montana. To review the rest of the reports from our class, link here. To review our syllabus for the course, link here.

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