The newsroom’s throwback vibe is a siren song to a very different time in the world of print journalism. Writers and editors and photographers click and clack on digital keypads in a manner not dissimilar to the way they feverishly keyed their typewriters in the 1970s. Offices have been painted and renovated, but there’s no doubt that rich mahogany once adorned these walls. The leviathanic press looks like a relic of the soviet industrial complex. The iron beast Gutenbergs endless reams of paper, regurgitating local bulletins for the people of Sheridan County one copy at a time. Styles have changed; fedoras are few and far between, while the cigars and sherry bottles associated with the Newsmen of the Mind are nowhere to be seen. But ink and paper still whirl, ideas fly, stories unfold in real time, and reporters report. The news is still the news, and it bears reporting.
What is not as it once was is the makeup of the newsroom – there are women in senior leadership roles, some for the first time; Kristen Czaban is the first female publisher in the history of The Sheridan Press, a history that dates to 1887. She is not the stoic, staid, elbow-patched publisher of yore; she is genial, gracious, approachable. She is a confident storyteller and a tenacious journalist. She is willing to take a stand but careful not to take sides. The Sheridan Press continues to publish daily newspapers, but under Kristen’s leadership, the press has become an omnichannel multi-media company with its pen in many vials of ink. While national print outlets wane and fade, Kristen’s focus on Wyoming’s stories has centered the company’s standing in the community.
Occasionally, Kristen is the news about town. Her annual FAB Conference – For, About, and By Women – “celebrates the achievements of the women in our community,” and a celebration it is. Hundreds of participants come from across the Mountain West for a series of workshops, networking events and lectures hosted by businesswomen, musicians, artists, entrepreneurs, leaders and legends, including 2019 keynote, Elizabeth Gilbert. FAB is evidence that Kristen is proud of her community, and a sign that her community is proud of her.
For these reasons and more, journalist and publisher Kristen Czaban is one of our Women of Sheridan, Wyo. for 2019.
Sheridan Travel & Tourism’s Shawn Parker sat down with Kristen to discuss her work, her career, and what life is like for a journalist in Wyoming.
SHAWN: Tell me about your background; who is Kristen Czaban, where does she comes from. How long have you lived in Sheridan?
I was born in Racine, Wisconsin, but moved to Ohio when I was 7 years old. My family lived in Stow, then moved one town over to Kent, Ohio, a beautiful college town in northeast Ohio. After high school, I went to Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. As graduation neared, I started applying to newspapers all over the place. Shortly after I sent my resume and info to The Press, I got a call and was essentially offered the job. That was in 2008. I moved here in June of that year and I’ve been here since.
SHAWN: Do you have family here?
My husband, of course and some of his family is in Casper, but none of my side of the family is in Wyoming. I have several friends that I would consider my Wyoming family.
SHAWN: Who inspires you? Do you now, or have you ever, modeled your work after another journalist?
One of my favorite writers is Philip Caputo. He’s written several books and worked for some time as a journalist. He’s from Chicago… which I love. But he was also a foreign correspondent for many years, which is what I thought I wanted to do for a long time. He is witty, concise and I just really admire his writing style. I wouldn’t say I model my work after one particular writer, but he’s certainly one I admire.
SHAWN: How long has a career in journalism been a goal? Did you ever consider work in a different industry?
Oh geez. I don’t know if as a kid I ever wanted to be anything else. Maybe. But, for as long as I can remember, I knew this is what I wanted to do. I grew up watching the evening news with my parents nearly every night. My dad is also still a regular reader of newspapers. But, I also knew I didn’t really want to be on TV, so I opted for writing instead. Of course there were times when more lucrative careers seemed appealing, but I never considered any of them seriously.
SHAWN: You studied at a prestigious university. How did your experiences at Northwestern prepare you for life in Wyoming?
I think the primary way my time at NU prepared me for Wyoming was to encourage a sense of curiosity. I’m a naturally curious person, but Northwestern certainly helped push that and turn it into a talent of sorts. I love asking questions that make the people I talk to think. Often I think interview subjects get asked the same questions over and over again. Curiosity helps me dig a little deeper to understand people, which in turn helps me better understand the world around me and the issues that inform that world.
SHAWN: You are the first female publisher in Sheridan Press history. What does that mean to you?
It’s funny, I don’t ever really think of that as being a “thing.” I mean, yes, it’s cool, but I don’t want that to be why people know me. I want people to enjoy the paper and what we do — to celebrate our mission. My focus isn’t on celebrating the “first” aspect. If anything, I only hope any young girl considering a career in journalism sees me and thinks, “If she can do it, so can I.”
SHAWN: The Wyoming Office of Tourism (WOT) is calling 2019 the “Year of Wyoming Women,” as the state celebrates the 150th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage. On December 10, 1869, Wyoming Territory passed the first law in United States history granting women the right to vote and hold public office – more than 50 years prior to the U.S. ratification of the 19th amendment. What does it mean to be a woman in Wyoming in 2019?
Oh man. I think it means different things to different people. I mean Wyoming has that history of being ahead of the curve, but since then has really kind of fallen behind. I mean Nellie Tayloe Ross served as governor starting in the 1920s, but we haven’t had a female governor since. We still have one of the largest wage gaps in the country, too. I think being a woman in Wyoming is great, because we have ranchers and politicians and publishers and artists and women that pursue all kinds of passions that help make Wyoming the state that it is. I think it also means that we have some work to do.
SHAWN: Why Wyoming? How does Wyoming feature in your life – not only from a professional standpoint, but as a place to live and play?
I stumbled into Wyoming, and it was the best accident of my life. I moved here wanting to get experience right out of college rather than fetch coffee at a big city internship. Within the first year, I went on my first pheasant hunt, deer hunt, branding, and so many other ‘firsts’ that I couldn’t imagine leaving that soon. Since then, there have been many more firsts and I’ve enjoyed pretty much all of them. I have a list of other things I’d like to try, and I can’t imagine having that many opportunities anywhere else.
SHAWN: What is a local newspaper’s role in the community in 2019?
I think it depends on the community. One thing that I’ve learned from visiting other communities and talking to publishers and editors in other states is that no two towns are alike. With that in mind, when a paper’s role is to serve as the sort of ‘town square’ for a community, how could the paper’s role be the same in any community? In one, maybe the paper’s role is to shine light on corruption or injustice, in others, maybe it’s to serve as a melting pot of ideas. In areas of growth, maybe a newspaper needs to look back at where we’ve been and help leaders and the public where we could be going by sharing various scenarios people see playing out.
For us, at The Press, we recently developed a mission statement that guides a lot of what we do. Our mission is to inform and engage our community by creating, producing and distributing exceptional content and trusted journalism. For us, information and engagement are key. We’ve worked really hard to stop being this “castle on a hill” looking down at the community we write about. We are more engaged and tuned in then I think we’ve ever been before, because this is our community too.
SHAWN: The media landscape is ever-changing. National print media has struggled to stay relevant for more than a decade, but some local newspapers are thriving. What is your strategy for keeping a traditional print newspaper vital in the digital age?
Again, our strategy and mission are to be a public square of sorts where people can engage with community. So that starts with the information shared in our print and online content, but it also extends to the events we organize, magazines we publish, partnerships we have — like PressPass, a new program we started to partner with local businesses to send our customers more directly to their doors. We’ll also be launching a new digital product later this spring that we hope will further engage community members.
SHAWN: Take us through your process – how do you determine whether a story is worthy of making it into the paper?
This is really up to individual reporters and the editor on a day-to-day basis more than it is to me. But, I can tell you, we kind of follow the process you would think we would — primarily, is we ask things like — is the topic timely? Does it involve a public figure? Does it affect our community? Does it affect a lot of people? Is it interesting? Then we go from there. One thing I preach over and over to my staff is that every good reporter needs to have a natural sense of curiosity. This is something I was taught early on and try to foster in my staff. So, if my reporters have questions about something, it’s likely others in the community would too. That’s where a lot of story ideas come from.
SHAWN: The Sheridan Press seems to focus its coverage of the community on the positive – events, economic development, local success stories. Is this a concerted editorial focus, or something that has evolved over time?
I think it has evolved over time. We know there are a lot of good things happening in Sheridan, so why not highlight those? When we get news tips that indicate something more negative, we try to run them up the flagpole to see if they are real issues or personal grievances, we do some data mining and talk to sources. We know Sheridan has challenges, and we don’t shy away from those. We’ve been involved in multiple lawsuits fighting for information we thought should be public but officials didn’t. We’ve written editorials and news stories that have certainly ruffled feathers. And, honestly, even the positive stories we write get negative feedback. But, we write what needs to be written (and we keep working).
SHAWN: Can you identify any stories that you’ve been part of that you are particularly proud of? Likewise, are there any stories you’ve covered that you wish you had not?
Most recently, I’ve been working on some stories that focus on our neighbors in Lodge Grass. They have so really serious challenges to overcome, but they have a new mayor who is working really hard. So, after I was introduced to him a month or two ago, I’ve been chatting with him, went up to Lodge Grass for a tour and have been compiling information and interviews about what all is going on up there. That’s one story I’m particularly proud of. If anything I write can help move the needle there, that is one of the best rewards of journalism. And what I’m doing is tiny in comparison to what he’s doing.
Otherwise, I got a contributing writer credit on a story for The New York Times a couple years ago covering the democratic caucuses in Wyoming. That was a pretty big deal for me.
I can’t think of any stories I wish I hadn’t been a part of off the top of my head. Most of the time you believe in the story, but maybe a source said something inaccurate that you quoted, or you included more detail than you should have about a court case, revictimizing somebody.
SHAWN: Have you faced any push back related to being a woman in a leadership role in a traditionally male-dominated industry? Conversely, what has your support been like?
I’m not sure I’d call it pushback, but I’ve certainly encountered some people who were less than polite. I remember when I was working on the government beat for The Press, I was interviewing a state legislator about a bill that was working its way through the session. When I asked for clarification on why he was voting a certain way, his response was, “Honey, it’s complicated” as though I didn’t have the intelligence to understand what was happening. So mostly it’s been things like that, small slights rather than outright discrimination. Mostly, the pushback is internal — that sense of imposter syndrome, like I don’t really belong at the table with the others. Or when you walk in the room of newspaper execs and you’re the only female and younger by an average of 20 years, you just kind of think — hmm, is this where I’m supposed to be? Did somebody make a mistake putting me in this position?
I was interviewing Elizabeth Gilbert recently as a preview to her keynote at FAB, and she said something along the lines of: If you’re at the table it’s because somebody believed you should be, so own it. I had multiple people supporting me as I moved up the ranks, both at The Press and externally. All were fantastic mentors and teachers and friends. They believed I should be at the table, so mostly I try each day not to disappoint them and to just do what I think is best for the newspaper, the community and more generally for my staff.
SHAWN: The Press is read by both locals and visitors. What is the impression you want them to come away with after they’re finished reading?
I want them to know we have a community that cares. Like I’ve said, our mission is to be a public square of ideas. So, in reading the paper, I hope they get a broad sense of the people who live here — not just the elected officials and top CEOs, but the shop owner on Main Street and the kids working hard at school. All those folks have voices that matter here, and we give them (as much as we can) a platform to be heard and to share ideas. By showing that community engagement, and encouraging it, we hope people look at the community and say, “If they can have those kinds of difficult conversations and get things accomplished, so can we.”
SHAWN: You’ve been here a number of years. Is the Sheridan Press a stepping-stone to loftier goals at a larger outlet, or part of your long-term plan?
Ha! I get asked this a lot. I guess the basic answer is that I’m only 32, so who knows? I can say, I still have a lot of things I want to accomplish here at The Press. I have a stellar group of people on my team right now, and I want to see what we can do. Until I run out of ideas and projects here, I can’t imagine going anywhere else.
SHAWN: What’s on the horizon for you in 2019?
Well, FAB is April 12, so that’s the biggest thing. Then we’ll host our sports awards ceremony May 1 and participate in a slew of other events in Sheridan throughout the rest of the year. We are launching a new digital project and have some other fun things in the works. I’ll also continue advocating for transparency as a member of the governor’s transparency committee, which is just sort of starting to dive into its work. I’m also chair of the Wyoming Press Association board right now, so that keeps my busy. I’m hoping to help start a travel softball program here in Sheridan. And… I’ve applied for Leadership Wyoming, so that may be on the horizon if they let me in.
Personally, I hope to go on a backpacking trip with some friends again this year (a tradition we’ve had going for a while now), visit my brother and hopefully take a vacation to the East Coast to see Acadia National Park this fall.
To see more of Kristen’s work at The Sheridan Press, visit thesheridanpress.com
Click here for WYLD West: The Podcast, to hear Kristen’s episode.
Click here for Sheridan Travel & Tourism’s YouTube channel and a feature on the 7th annual FAB Conference. Filmed on location at the Sheridan Press and throughout Sheridan, Wyoming. Cinematography by Shawn Parker and Jeff Shanor. Editing by Jeff Shanor.