Meet the man saving California's oldest weekly newspaper, The Mountain Messenger,
DOWNIEVILLE - The night before his first deadline, Carl Butz, California’s newest newspaper owner, was digging into a bowl of beef stew at the Two Rivers Café, the only restaurant open in town.
“Tomorrow I have to fill the paper,” he said with only mild anxiety. “The question is, will it be a four-page paper or a six-page paper?”
At 71, Butz is trim, with wire-rimmed glasses and a close-cropped silver beard. Since his retirement and his wife’s death in 2017, he considered traveling — to England or Latvia, or riding the Trans-Siberian Railway.
But here he was, a freshly minted newspaper proprietor, having stepped in at the beginning of the year to save The Mountain Messenger, California’s oldest weekly newspaper, from extinction.
The Messenger was founded in 1853. Its most famous scribe was Mark Twain, who once wrote a few stories — with a hangover, the legend goes — while hiding out here from the law.
Newspapers across America, especially in rural areas like here in Sierra County, have been dying at an alarming rate, and Downieville was about to become the latest “news desert.”
And then one night Butz was watching “Citizen Kane” on cable and thought, I can do that. He made the deal quickly, paying a price in the “four figures,” he said, plus the assumption of some debts, without even looking at the books.
Still, the previous owner, an old friend of Butz’s, was a reluctant seller. “His position was, it’s a losing proposition and someone who’d want it would be crazy,” Butz said. “He called me a romantic idealist and a nut case.”
For the residents of Downieville — and there are not many; the population is about 300 — Butz has become an unlikely local hero, a savior of a cherished institution.
“Thank God for Carl, he stepped in,” said Liz Fisher, a former editor of the paper, who lives across the street from its office and runs The Sierra County Prospect, an online news site. “It was devastating for everybody that we were going to lose The Mountain Messenger.”
On a recent Wednesday morning, facing his first deadline, Butz was staring down at a blank computer screen in the newspaper’s cramped two-room office above a beauty salon on Main Street.
Butz, a fourth-generation Californian and a former computer programmer and labor economist for the state, readily admitted that he had no idea what he had gotten himself into, and it did not help to learn that the paper’s publishing software was from the mid-1990s.
“What is the lead story?” Butz asked.
“The front page is blank,” replied Jill Tahija, the paper’s only other employee, sitting at an adjacent computer.
At his computer, Butz was putting together one of his first new features for the paper, a “poetry corner.” As Tahija worked on the front page, Butz shifted his focus to finishing his letter to readers.
The newspaper, he wrote, was “something we need in order to know ourselves.”
Making a newspaper in Downieville is strictly an analog, ink-on-paper affair; there is no website, no social media accounts. It loses a few thousand dollars a year, and relies mostly on publishing legal notices from the county and other government offices, which brings in about $50,000 a year, for the bulk of its revenue. It has about 700 subscribers and a print run of 2,400 copies, just below the county’s population.
“I’m not going to lose a million dollars but I know I’m going to have to subsidize some of it,” Butz said. “My daughter is already aware that her inheritance is shrinking.”
The story around town is how Butz saved the local newspaper.
But Butz, a still-grieving widower since his wife, Cecilia Kuhn, died in 2017, sees it another way.
“It’s saving me,” he said.