Bob Bonnar pours all his talents and enthusiasm into community journalism

Teri Saylor

Special to Publishers' Auxiliary

Apr 1, 2022

(Wyoming Press Association)
Bonnar (Wyoming Press Association)

Bob Bonnar, a newspaper publisher and jack of all trades has never earned a single credit hour in college journalism, but he has racked up a pile of awards for his staff’s feisty coverage of Newcastle, Wyoming. Last year, the News Letter Journal received the NNA’s top prizes for Freedom of Information reporting and General Excellence.

Bonnar comes by his talents naturally.

“My mom is a good writer who was once a news director at a radio station,” said Bonnar, who grew up in Newcastle. He spent his youth hanging around the station with his mother, Penny Bonnar, and as a teenager took a job there doing sports play-by-play announcing.

When his mother transitioned into newspapers, Bonnar did too, becoming a part–time reporter at the News Letter Journal and eventually transitioning into the editor’s role. Bonnar covered sports and launched a weekly sports column called “Shots from the Cheap Seats.” Many awards followed, including recognition by the Wyoming Press Association as the top sports columnist among Wyoming’s small weekly newspapers.

He left that job after three years and moved to Wright, Wyoming, where he managed a sports bar. He met his wife, Stephanie, there and started the High Plains Sentinel, running it out of the bar. This was around the turn of the 21st Century, and print journalism was beginning to transition as the internet began to emerge as an important platform.

“It was tough starting a newspaper when newspapers were starting to decline in value,” he said. “Stephanie learned to do graphic design and pagination, and we worked together in the back of the bar for several years.”

He later sold the newspaper and returned to Newcastle as editor of the News Letter Journal. He is now a co-owner with his business partner, Robb Hicks, and serves as publisher. Hicks also owns and publishes the Buffalo (Wyoming) Bulletin.

Over the past two decades, newspaper publishing has not gotten any easier, and to save money, neither Bonnar nor his wife work full time for the newspaper. Instead, he runs the operations from his home and remote “command center” in Durango, Colorado, where he moved just before the COVID-19 pandemic. He helps his wife serve as a caregiver for a dementia patient, is also an ordained minister who performs weddings, and he has returned to his roots in sports, doing play-by-play broadcasting for the Fort Lewis College Skyhawks.

“We work hard, we’ve had no problem getting extra jobs to pay the bills, and we don’t have to put additional pressure on our small town newspaper to support us,” he said. “We’ve been lucky to have that newspaper and lucky to have a daughter-in-law who is our news editor.”

Together, news editor Alexis Barker and general manager and managing editor Kim Dean keep things running on site.

“Our graphic designer, Amy Menerey, is a contractor who has been in newspapers some 30 years – longer than I have, and I think she is one of the best graphic designers in the Rocky Mountain region,” Bonnar said.

In addition, a longtime friend who is a full–time teacher and former high school coach covers sports. He also counts on a stable of part timers to keep things clicking along.


“These sorts of things don’t come together for everybody. I’m fortunate,” he said.

Bonnar recalls his first Wyoming Press Association Convention in 1998, where he won awards and made connections he treasures to this day.
“I was welcomed right into the club, into the old backrooms with the cigars and whiskey, where I got to learn so much,” he said. He went on to serve as WPA president and led the association’s lobbyist efforts for about 10 years.

Newcastle is a rural community, sitting on the northeastern edge of Wyoming along the border with South Dakota. Its population is around 3,400. According to the Travel Wyoming website, Newcastle was formed after the coal and railroad industries came to the area, which was also known for the Cheyenne to Black Hills stagecoach route, which brought a handful of characters to the area in the late 19th century. The nearby Thunder Basin National Grassland and Black Hills provide a haven for outdoor enthusiasts.

Last winter, Republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney made the news for abandoning a GOP event in Wyoming in favor of attending the Wyoming Press Association’s 2022 annual convention. A photo of Bonnar’s staff talking with Cheney made the front page of the New York Times.

“I told them right before that picture was taken that they had a ringside seat to watch history unfold,” Bonnar said.

Weekly newspapers consider “refrigerator journalism” as their main bread and butter, but they are not shy about publishing hard–hitting journalism. Led by Barker, the news editor, and Dean, the managing editor, Bonnar’s reporting team fought hard for information to enable them to report on the construction of a $740,000 home and station for the Newcastle game warden and his family in 2020. Purchased by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the home and property costs ran nearly a half-million dollars over budget.

Further, the newspaper faced a $300 fee to access public records about the project.

Their efforts won them a first place FOIA award in NNA’s 2021 Better Newspaper Contest. The contest judge called their work “solidly written and researched.”
The judge went further to say: “The gyrations officials went through to conceal information were nothing short of astonishing. And to charge such a high fee for what should be free and public information certainly fails the smell test.”

The News Letter Reporter also won a first–place General Excellence award in the NNA contest.

While Bonnar views his newspaper as a watchdog — or bulldog — he also strives to promote the community it serves and the wellbeing of its citizens.
Staying in business is also top of mind as he balances profits from both his print and online products.

While print circulation is down to 1,700 off its peak of 2,000, online subscriptions are up about 200, he said. The newspaper’s online newsletter has about 550 subscribers. Bonnar reckons his saturation rate is around 80%. He also distributes single copies on racks throughout town.

He’s partnered with a marketing company and is moving into some content marketing in hopes of increasing his online advertising. This content ranges from tips articles to press releases he receives.

Bonnar admits he can always use more advertising. Banks, grocery stores, the area hospital, and a local refinery offer good support, he said. Advertising dried up during the COVID-19 pandemic, and he’s working hard to build it back. He’s seeing a measure of success by creating spec ads and selling them to local businesses

Facebook is a dominant platform to showcase the newspaper and its articles, with around 3,000 friends and followers. Bonnar also uses Twitter, and a high school intern is running a successful Instagram for the newspaper.

Living in Durango, 650 miles from the town he covers, Bonnar has become what he calls a digital consumer of his own newspaper, and that gives him a unique perspective.

“I feel we are several years ahead of similar-sized competitors on the digital front,” he said.

And for all the highs and lows in the newspaper business, Bonnar is excited about the future. The pace is a little faster and there’s more competition from different platforms, and he believes the key to success is to stay out front.

“You have to be nimble and faster than the competition, whether it’s your neighboring newspaper, your rural radio or television stations, internet news or websites,” he said.

In his crystal ball, he sees a leaner, meaner industry.

“I’m positive about our future, and the sky’s the limit,” he said.

Teri Saylor is a business writer in Raleigh, N.C. Contact her at