It was the summer of 1979 and Chad Baldwin, just 14 years old at the time, landed a job reporting for his local paper: The Riverton Ranger.
Baldwin rode his beat up 10-speed bicycle around town all summer with a camera bag on his shoulder and a reporter’s notebook stowed in his pocket. He wrote about everything from sports to breaking news. “It was paradise for me actually,” Baldwin recalled.
People in the tight-knit community knew Baldwin’s family, and by extension him. He’d go on to work at The Ranger full time, then winding his way through several Wyoming news rooms before becoming a spokesperson for the University of Wyoming.
Many Wyoming news figures got their start at The Ranger. Craig Blumenshine, who recently retired as a senior public affairs producer at Wyoming PBS, worked at the paper as a kid, helping produce the “baseball edition,” and later becoming a full-time staff writer. Pat Schmidt worked at The Ranger from 1970-’75 and went on to become the publisher of the Thermopolis Independent Record and a Wyoming Press Association Hall of Fame inductee in 2018. Even Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander), delivered the paper as a boy.
Former Ranger staffers speak of the newsroom where they began their careers with admiration. At the center of that esteem is the Peck family: the legacy started by brothers Bob and Roy and continued by Bob’s sons, Steve and Chris.
The Peck family’s two-generation run with The Ranger ended, however, in January. That’s when the paper announced the Pecks were selling The Ranger, Lander Journal and Wind River News to local financial adviser Grace Andrus, who moved to Riverton in 2017.
The paper has undergone a marked change since the sale. Press releases have appeared in full on the front page and long-time followers of the paper noted a hard right turn on the opinion page. At least four staffers have left, including several long-serving reporters.
In early February, less than a month after the announcement of the first sale, the paper again changed hands. The upheaval has many concerned about the future of Riverton’s local paper.
“That community deserves a strong local paper as does every community in Wyoming,” Baldwin said. “I’m hoping they can find their footing and carry on the legacy.”
Katie Roenigk, a staff writer, was excited when she first heard from The Ranger’s new owner. Andrus told her over the phone that she prized factual, unbiased, reporting, according to Roenigk, a sentiment Roenigk agreed with.
But then Andrus said she was looking for reporters to approach stories from a different view point, according to Roenigk. Andrus also expressed concern over the reporter’s residence in Idaho, where Roenigk had lived since 2013. Andrus agreed to give it a try despite the distance, Roenigk said, and reemphasized a desire for neutral stories.
The next day, Andrus sent Roenigk an email letting her know she would be paid for only two more weeks of work, she said.
Andrus declined to meet or talk to WyoFile for this story. She did send an email noting she heard a WyoFile reporter was looking into whether she had fired staff. “…Someone from your establishment is saying that I, owner of The Ranger, Journal, and Wind River, have laid off reporters,” she wrote. “That is untrue and your source is incorrect. Please be cautious on spreading fake news.”
The week Andrus acquired the paper, Claire Manning, the paginator, put in her notice, according to Manning. Manning said she clashed with Andrus over layout and proper attribution of articles.
Clair McFarland, crime reporter for The Ranger, wrote a column announcing her notice a few weeks later. In the column, she wrote she was leaving the paper to pursue a master’s degree in English Literature.
Randy Tucker, who reported on local sports and wrote columns for the paper for 27 years, announced on Facebook that he resigned Feb. 8. In the post Tucker wrote, “Honesty, truth, and integrity matter to me, and I can’t in good conscience continue with this organization.”
When reached by phone the day before his resignation, Tucker said, “I like to write, be part of the community, when I can.” He wasn’t sure if he’d leave The Ranger at the time because he felt passionate about covering local sports, he said, although wasn’t pleased with the direction the paper had taken.
“We’re not doing any really legitimate journalism, aside from features and sports,” Tucker said. “Everything that’s coming online has to be from a decidedly right-wing viewpoint to be run.”
In the Jan. 30 edition of The Ranger, Andrus published an editorial titled “Unconscious Bias.” In the column she wrote, “there may be people in the community who are fierce supporters of my predecessor in this media business. These individuals, due to their conscious or unconscious bias, will not approve of any change in procedure or content.”
Andrus didn’t name names, but may have been referencing concerns voiced by former staffers and others.
“It looks a lot different, doesn’t look as good anymore,” Baldwin remarked of Andrus’s paper.
“It’s like a middle school newsletter,” Manning said.
“I’m proud that in my history at The Ranger, there was never an implied political agenda,” Blumenshine said. “The thought of a newspaper having a political agenda, either left leaning or right leaning, is just very sad to me and I’m afraid The Ranger may be falling into that category. ”
Many former Ranger employees felt the paper’s opinion pages had taken a noticeable swing to the far right, and the layout was now riddled with errors.
The Sunday, Jan. 23 paper, for instance, included an item titled “Federal Judge blocks Biden vaccine mandate” with the byline “From Press Release.” The release stated, “A federal judge has agreed with the same arguments Harriet Hageman has been making in court that President Joe Biden does not have the authority to order federal employees to take the coronavirus vaccine.”
Other oddities included a front page press release from the Wyoming Department of Transportation announcing a public meeting that occurred roughly three weeks prior.
A Wyoming News Exchange story from the Gillette News Record was also listed as a “Special to the Ranger,” an attribution that Manning recalls explaining to Andrus was inaccurate.
Many critics pointed to a story that also ran on Jan. 23 as a top concern. The headline “Zwonitzer under investigation for gerrymandering,” with the byline, “Staff Reports,” ran a day before Wyoming GOP Chairman Frank Eathorne emailed a complaint to the Secretary of State’s office and a day after the Republican Party State Central Committee voted to file the complaint accusing Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne) of living outside his legislative district. Zwonitzer has denied the allegations.
Sen. Case shared an unsent letter he addressed to the new editor of the Lander Journal, which also ran the Zwonitzer piece on its front page. “I think you pre-printed propaganda from the Republican Party State Central Committee,” Case wrote. “Shame on you. To not verify news sources; to not talk to anybody involved; and to add an innuendo about Fremont County. Shame on you.”
“This was not thoughtful,” he told WyoFile. Case also wondered why the article ran under the anonymous “Staff Reports” instead of an accountable reporter’s byline.
He ultimately wants the new owners to find their footing. “I hope they succeed,” he said. “I love print and I love local journalism.”
On Feb. 8, nearly one month after the news of Andrus’ acquisition of The Ranger was printed, another announcement appeared above the fold. Andrus was transferring ownership of The Ranger, Lander Journal and Wind River News “to employees.” The initial announcement of The Ranger’s sale to Andrus foreshadowed this move, noting that “she intends in approximately one month to transfer The Ranger into its employees’ hands, as an employee-owned company.”
In fact, Andrus transferred her stake in the three publications to Edwards Group Holdings, a company that instituted an employee-stock-ownership plan in August.
“They build up a retirement plan, but they don’t have to pay into it,” Jerry Edwards, CEO of Edwards Group Holdings, said of employees. “So the better they do at their job, and the better the company does, the more money they end up making.”
Employees must be vested for five years before they receive 100% of their Edwards Group stock. “There’s not a percentage of the company they own,” Edwards said and he personally does not have a controlling stake in the private company.
Employees also have representation on the Edwards Group Holdings in the form of an employee stock ownership plan trustee. “He really doesn’t have voting rights, but he has what we call veto power,” Edwards said of the ESOP trustee. “He can stop something if he thinks it’s going to hurt the employees.”
Edwards Group Holdings employs over 120 people and owns 16 radio stations and 13 publications across the U.S., according to Edwards, who lives in South Carolina. Five of those radio stations are in Wyoming including, KVOV, dubbed “The Talk of Fremont County,” which relies heavily on conservative opinion programming, airing, for example, Sean Hannity from 1-4 p.m. on weekdays per the Edwards Group web page.
Manning, the former Ranger paginator, was upset when Andrus introduced Edwards as a consultant to the paper, she told WyoFile before the second sale was announced. “He’s always been kind of a thorn in the side of the paper,” she said. “He was always offering bullshit offers to buy things.”
Edwards confirmed he offered to purchase The Ranger in the past, but the Pecks were not interested at the time.
When WyoFile asked Andrus via email if transferring ownership to the Edwards Group was part of the plan when she initially purchased the paper, she did not respond to the question, and instead referred WyoFile to the story published in The Ranger announcing the sale to employees.
Chris Peck, one of the previous Ranger owners, declined to comment, citing a non-disclosure agreement he signed at the time of the sale. He would only confirm that he and his brother, Steve Peck, owned the paper and sold it to Grace Andrus.
The article announcing the initial sale noted, “The other reason he’s choosing to sell now, said Peck, is that the buyer finally is right – a local person who wants to be involved in local media rather than an outside ‘absorber’ of local business with no ties or interest in the community.”
A venerable past, an uncertain future
“You had a pair of brothers who came back from World War II, hung their hats in Riverton, and made a go at the community’s newspaper. They believed that a newspaper was the heart of the community, and I think they were right,” Blumenshine said.
The Peck family’s legacy is formidable. Bob and Roy Peck — the brothers Blumenshine referred to and founders of The Ranger — are both Wyoming Press Association Hall of Fame inductees. Bob Peck served as a state senator and supported a variety of projects — from the Central Wyoming Regional Airport to Central Wyoming College to uranium mining efforts — that he believed would improve the economy in Riverton, according to Dave Perry, who worked as both a reporter and then managing editor at The Ranger between 1978 and 1995.
“Bob used to say that The Ranger wasn’t the biggest business in town and it didn’t make the most money, but it was the most important business in the community,” Perry said. “We always wanted to tell our community’s story better than anyone else did.”
Former reporters also spoke highly of Steve Peck, his commitment to journalistic ethics and focus on telling local stories. Resources were fewer during his tenure as publisher, and he had to contend with the general decline of the newspaper industry, yet The Ranger won numerous Wyoming Press Association awards, according to former staffers.
Edwards said he plans to invest in The Ranger with new equipment, more color capacity to the presses and new computers. He intends to remodel The Ranger offices and include additional page sections. He said in the past the paper ran too many wire stories, and going forward it will be focusing “very hard” on sports and local events. It needs to hire more staff, which has been difficult, Edwards said.
The editorial direction will trend more conservative, better reflecting the Riverton community, Edwards said. “The editorial direction previously was extremely one-sided. And we’re not that way. We’re balanced.” In the past, “opinion ended up on this paper in different places,” he said, and that will change, with Andrus remaining as publisher.
Former Ranger employees don’t agree that opinion made its way into reporting.
Pat Schmidt, who worked at The Ranger from 1970 to 1975, said Bob and Roy Peck were both “very fair minded” and very active in the Republican Party.
Baldwin, who worked at the paper full time from 1988 to 2001, said divisive issues like water rights were covered “objectively and effectively.” According to Roenigk, who reported for the paper until 2022, “The journalistic ethics of the newspaper were solid, and integrity was prized.”
What will it take for The Ranger to succeed in the community? According to Baldwin, the new owner, whoever that might be, will fare best if he or she is “being supportive and letting the journalists do their jobs.”