“If you lived on flat ground, we wouldn’t talk to you.” That’s what an interview subject and fellow Coloradoan once said to Barbara Ford, a High Timber Times reporter. She acknowledges that life on flat ground really is different than in the high mountains of Conifer, Colo. It takes a special reporter to understand that.
At 8,200 feet elevation, the unincorporated town is not your average U.S. city. Residents keep an emergency bag packed by the front door in case of forest fires in the densely wooded mountains. Ford reuses everything she can and keeps trash inside to protect from nosy bears.
Like her lifestyle in the mountains, Ford’s career in journalism has also been unconventional. Until age 47, she raised her family, then went back to college in 2005 “with a full vengeance.” Beginning in photography at Metropolitan State College in Denver, Ford moved to photojournalism and finally settled on a degree in convergent journalism, which focuses on presenting a story with more than just text and photos — emphasizing digital, video and audio reporting to capture a story in the subject’s own words.
Though a nontraditional student, Ford had no trouble relating to her peers, who were often half her age.
She believes that in some ways her age offers an advantage, both in college and now as a reporter, explaining that “one of the things about being older is, you have experiences to connect with people.” From surviving homelessness on the streets of Seattle to living in a posh neighborhood in Denver, Ford has lived a rounded life and uses these experiences to connect with people she interviews.
While reporting human interest stories, she relishes the chance to sit down with sources and let them talk. She does not write to be acknowledged, but to describe and preserve the stories of the local people on that mountain in Colorado — stories from as long ago as the Civil War.
“Most people don’t see Conifer,” she said. “That’s my job.”
A personal reward for her journalism came during a visit to a neighboring town’s library. A woman in her 90s, now a friend of Ford’s, was sitting at a table clipping stories from the High Timber Times. When Ford asked the woman what she was doing, there was a lengthy silence, which “doesn’t mean it’s time for you to talk,” Ford said. After a moment, the woman explained: “This is our history. Someone is taking the time to document our histories.”
Reporting is not easy in a town as small as Conifer. After several years covering the local firehouse, it became clear that she should cease reporting on it when she moved into that jurisdiction and depended on the firehouse for protection. She explains that some journalists who cover her area head home to flat ground, avoiding the potential conflicts that arise from reporting on such a small community.
“It is very difficult to report where you live,” she said. “I need my neighbors,” meaning that everything she reports on affects people she knows and can lead to personal conflicts. “People who have read your stories will let you know when they’re angry.” But Ford and her fellow staff make it work.
An SPJ member since 2009, Ford recently served three years as membership chairwoman for the Colorado Pro chapter. She thrived in that position, in part because of the fulfillment she finds in reaching out to members, finding out who they are, what they do and why they do it.
One of the most effective chapter programs Ford has participated in is the Fireside Chat series, where working professionals in the Denver area come together to hear from speakers and “drink up the culture” of the Denver Press Club.
If there is one thing “flat-grounders” should know about Conifer, it’s that “for every tree on this heavily wooded mountainside, there is a story.” Don’t judge the town by its closed stores or lack of services, Ford warns. “To understand it here, you have to be up here. These people will bring you in, make you a part of the community and let you be of service. They will take you in and tell you their stories.”