September 29, 2016

The Salt Flat News

How Richard Goldberger made a newspaper that lasted five years reporting on one of the most uneventful places in Utah (The West Desert).

by Anand Rao

From hermits who discussed hippies to swan songs of departing sheriffs and the ghosts of the Central Pacific railroad, the Salt Flat News: Wendover’s Picture Paper was, in the words of its founder, an experiment in existentialist journalism, an attempt to render spice to a land either baked soulless by the sun or swept empty by the wind. Richard Goldberger, the man behind Salt Flat News, was apparently inspired by the thought of doing something no one had ever done before. He wanted to create “the only paper in the world that gives a damn about what happens on the Salt Flats.”

I should either be incorrigibly curious or journalistically inept to be interviewing a man who started a newspaper about nothing that was set in the middle of nowhere. The vast expanse of the western Utah desert does have one thing in abundance though– space. “Space is an interesting frame,” he says lying down on a grassy stretch next to a street in downtown Salt Lake City and looking out into the afternoon sky.

“When you look at events in a frame of space, each event becomes singularly important and you will learn to appreciate its intensiveness,” he says pausing to relish the Daliesque picture he was trying to paint with words. I was sitting cross-legged watching the senior journalist lying down in front of me with copies of Salt Flat News spread out. The rather unexpected setting of the interview was a trifle too brightly lit for my camera’s liking but it did offer an interesting view of the downtown.

Richard Goldberger

The Salt Flat News was supposed to be a monthly newspaper that saw twenty one issues in five years starting with the first issue published on July 4, 1970, which according to Goldberger was the only issue that was published on time. “The issues came out when they did,” he says with utmost seriousness. Was it hard to find stories of interest in the desert? Goldberger dismissed the question with one sweeping line. “I can find a story in everything.” Truly enough, Salt Flat News carried long and laid back features on everything from hikers and hobos to wrecks and frog jumping contests in the desert. It had large pictures, mostly of people.

“It was a popular paper those days and had a circulation of over 80,000 copies,” he adds. Salt Flat News ended abruptly in 1975 when John Smith, the new owner, stopped publishing it. I couldn’t resist asking why he didn’t start another paper given that he was still in his mid-thirties when his paper was bought and shut down. “I would have started another paper if I had the money,” he replied.

We walked back to his apartment I was intrigued by the collectibles. Among hundreds of randomly scattered pieces of writing, illustration and other curios were at least two hundred liquor bottles in his living room and office alone. Maybe his next project should be an exhibition of his eclectic bottle collection.

As I walked out of his world, I couldn’t help asking myself who really is Richard Goldberger?

Is he a genius in our midst, poised for international fame or one of the million spent forces in journalism who is too detached from today’s reality?

“Have I succeeded?” he had asked himself during the interview. “I am being interviewed about a paper I created 40 years ago. Of course I have succeeded.” He had the answer to that one too.  §