Rio Grande SUN 7-9-18

ESPAÑOLA -- The soft light of early evening filtered through the colored glass windows on a recent Friday at El Paragua into a rustic room that hummed with the happy chatter of old friends as waiters delivered margaritas, sangria, and soft drinks to toast the end of an era at the community’s venerable Rio Grande SUN weekly newspaper.

The gathering of current and former reporters and staffers, some of whom had pounded out deadline stories on manual typewriters at the SUN back when Jimmy Carter was President and gas was 70 cents a gallon, celebrated a newspaper and publishing family that was dear to their hearts and influenced their lives.

It was only fitting that the master of ceremonies was the SUN’s longtime editor and publisher, Robert B. Trapp, who grew up at the newspaper co-founded in 1956 by his parents, Bob and Ruth Trapp and their friends, Bill and Holly Birkett. He learned from their example about the tenacity it takes to endure endless deadlines and shrinking ad lines and keep on punching. Trapp recently sold the newspaper to El Rito Media LLC.

Long before his hair turned gray over a 33-year tenure, the younger Trapp understood the underappreciated role of a community newspaper in Northern New Mexico, a place where great natural beauty and centuries-old cultural traditions co-exist with grinding poverty, high levels of drug addiction, underperforming schools, and ineffectual government services. Trapp’s trademark hard-hitting editorial style won the SUN many loyal subscribers, a legion of critics, and plenty of rocks thrown through its front window.

On this night, a nostalgic light filtered into the room as Trapp, at times with tears in his eyes, heaped praise, gratitude, and loving one-liners on the 40 or so current and former SUN employees in attendance. The applause and laughter were generous, and the sense of camaraderie was genuine.

Some used the SUN as a springboard to brighter lights and bigger newspapers. Investigative journalist and author Sally Denton stayed only a year or two at the newspaper before going on to work for Washington muckraker Jack Anderson and eventually embarking on a successful career as an author of books of narrative nonfiction. She counted her time at the newspaper as formative and the elder Trapp’s dogged and unflinching support integral to her later success.

SUN alums went on to fill key positions in newspapers across the Southwest and points beyond. From editorial writers in Albuquerque to TV news reporters in Kentucky, the training received in Española stood them in good stead wherever their careers took them.


On New Mexico in Focus, a reflection on a historic small-town paper, the Rio Grande Sun. The paper had carried the Trapp family name for more than a half-century, until the recent decision to sell.

Many stayed in their hometown. Typesetter Javier Mendez, spent decades at the SUN helping to put out the newspaper read in households stretching to the farthest corners of Rio Arriba County. The newspaper has held such an important place in the lives of its readers that it became the subject of the 2012 Ben Daitz documentary, “The SUN Never Sets.”

It was a place where longtime employees could recall selling the newspaper as children, then returning to work in the mailroom, or as typesetters, advertising sales personnel, or reporters pounding away at stories set in their own backyards.

Others counted their time at the newspaper as influential in their lives outside journalism, or what Trapp laughingly referred to as going over to the “dark side” of state government communications, careers in the law, and even a lobbyist or two.

As he worked the room, Trapp reeled off the names of his favorite editors and pinned an anecdote to each. Some were humorous, and others made him choke up with emotion as he recounted examples of dedication that transcended merely deadline journalism. Mike Kaemper, Tom Barnes, John Foster, Kevin Bersett, and Lou Mattei all made their mark at the SUN. As Trapp would write in a final editorial, “They had drive, passion and newspaper instincts.”

Foster, now a Boise lobbyist, offered a self-deprecating tale about his early reporting experiences, getting nervous after a source picked up his lunch tab. He returned to the office to confess his perceived sin to the boss.

“I thought I was going to get fired,” Foster said. “I rushed back to the office, and I poked my head in the door.” After revealing what had taken place, “Bob never even looked up from his computer. Without looking at me after I finished, he said, ‘You know, John, if someone can buy you for a sandwich, you’re probably not worth a shit anyway.’”

Trapp’s refreshing candor led Foster to better appreciate the craft of community journalism.

“It led to the embrace of this community,” he said. “You can’t be a reporter or a journalist and not live here and be a part of it. I really appreciated that from Bob.”

Turning to Trapp, Foster added, “The main thing I appreciate is that you let me run. I think something that needs to be said to this group that not many people realize is that Bob’s parents had this reputation for being these hard-charging, take-no-prisoners, we-will-fight-every-fight and defend the First Amendment and do our job. … The person who drove the hardest and who always had our back was Bob. Bob is the one who deserves that credit.”

Former news reporter and editor Kaemper, an Albuquerque attorney, recognized the considerable toll the all-consuming work of newspaper editing and publishing takes on its devoted craftsmen.

“Congratulations, Bob, on being smart and selling the paper,” Kaemper said. “I know that Bob and Ruth are looking on ... and saying we’re very proud of you. You did such a great job and carried the mantle. … You got Española a little bit more informed.”

And that, in the end, is saying quite a lot.

For his part, Trapp summed up his no-nonsense approach to the craft in a typically terse and pugnacious final editorial.

“Over the last 65 years the SUN has won a ton of awards, been recognized nationally and internationally many times and has a documentary that tells our story,” he wrote. “Awards are overrated. Any good journalist lives for that feeling on press day when that story they worked so hard on is finally ink on pulp. That’s the ultimate award and reward.”

Let’s hope the new owners fight even half as hard for Española as Bob Trapp.

(John L. Smith is an award-winning columnist and author. He is married to the writer Sally Denton.)