FARMINGTON – When Robert Elmore moved to Farmington in the 1980s, the Thrifty Nickel was a local city classified paper, but when he bought it in 1989, he saw the potential to turn it into a paper serving the Four Corners.
After 35 years in print, the Thrifty Nickel announced in early May it would permanently close its doors, unable to weather the economic environment. During its time, the classified paper reached more than 100,000 people a week throughout the Four Corners and helped support local charities and fundraising,said Allen Elmore, Robert’s son and the manager of the classifieds since 2008.
“You put your heart and soul into your business. You bleed for it, you sweat for it. Whenever the business takes a hit, you personally take a hit. It felt like putting down a pet,” Elmore sai.
While some people might blame websites like Craigslist for pushing classifieds out of business, Elmore said their family paper could have operated for many more years if it had not been for the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on local businesses.
But Elmore did say very little of the paper’s income came from everyday consumers after Craigslist because they had to offer the smaller ads for pretty much free. Their direct customers became local businesses that bought the larger classified ads.
“We had found our niche,” he said. “We would have been able to operate at that level for the foreseeable future, on and on and on.”
Despite downsizes to staff and deliveries over the years, the paper had been able to weather the 2008 economic downturn and the turn to digital because it held a unique position in the Four Corners community, Elmore said.
“We had a huge following from the agriculture community, gun owners and people selling livestock and pets,” he said. “A lot of these things aren’t allowed on Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace.”
Yet when the coronavirus hit the Four Corners and nonessential businesses closed their doors, the paper lost its main revenue source. Even with laying off a few employees, Elmore said the paper still had to pay the costs of printing and distribution, which accounts for the majority of the company’s overhead.
“We made the decision to shut down because we were hemorrhaging money,” he said.
As public health restrictions began to ease and businesses could open up with limited capacity, the classified still didn’t see a way to continue bring enough revenue in and cover the huge overhead costs of printing and distributing.
“Most of (the businesses) had taken a hit and just staying alive was the first thing on their mind,” he said “We take a back burner.”
Before the coronavirus hit, the paper also lost a significant amount of money because of tariffs on Canadian paper in 2018. The U.S. Commerce Department under the Trump administration had imposed tariffs up to 20% on newsprint imported from Canada. Elmore estimates the paper saw hundreds of dollars a week in increased paper costs over a 10 month period.
A regional historyThe Thrifty Nickel – which eventually became known as the American Classifieds – reached its highest distribution level in 2005, with the paper printing 32,500 copies per week. Before the pandemic shuttered businesses, the classified was reaching a distribution of 29,000 papers per week.
Elmore – who said he grew up in the newsroom and helped to lay out the paper by hand – said his father saw the potential to bring the Four Corners together and reach a larger audience with the classified paper in the 1980s.
“When Dad arrived, he realized that the Navajo Nation and Southwest Colorado all come to Farmington to shop,” Elmore said.
He added this regional approach not only contributed to the paper’s success but the classified paper’s vision of a connected Four Corners community contributed to Farmington’s success. Before the big box stores arrived in town, Robert went to outlying communities and to the Navajo Nation to invite them to shop in Farmington.
“I do feel like he is one of the unsung heroes of Farmington’s economic success,” Elmore said of his father.
Already semiretired before the paper’s closure, Robert and his wife are planning to purchase and operate a campground in Colorado, a longtime dream of theirs.