A letter from the editor: The Watershed Post slows down

This isn’t an easy thing to announce. I’ve been drafting and discarding different versions of this essay for more than a week now.

Let's get right to the point: As the Watershed Post’s sole full-time employee, I’ve come to the conclusion that we can’t survive in our current form. It’s a conclusion my wife and business partner Julia Reischel — who is not as inclined as I am to dither about things — reached some time ago. Julia resigned as our editor last November. Since then, she’s been enjoying the incredible luxury of doing one person’s job instead of ten, at John Fairbairn's law office in Margaretville.

The job of running a news outlet for the huge, diverse, sprawling Catskills was always far too big for two people. It’s laughably too big for one. Since taking over both publisher and editor roles in November, it has become increasingly clear to me that something would have to give. It’s a tough decision, but I’ve decided the only path that makes sense for us is to let go of our mission of frequent, regular community news — and along with it, my own full-time role at the helm.

I will keep the website running. We will still accept long-term display advertising. And we will still run stories occasionally, as our budget and my time allow. But without daily or weekly content, and without full-time attention to the invisible but vital role of running the business side, it won't be a sustainable business. It will be a labor of love.

Practically speaking, that means I'll have to find other ways to put food on the table. I've got some intriguing prospects in mind, and I'm looking forward to having time to devote to them. For now, feel free to swing by the Union Grove Distillery in Arkville, where I've been pulling a few shifts as a bartender. I admit, I'm enjoying myself. It's a good gig for somebody who's spent a long time getting people to tell their stories.

I am proud of what we’ve achieved at the Watershed Post since we launched it in 2010, with no great fanfare, out of my father's living room in Delhi. We have built a strong and loyal audience among both local residents and weekenders. We were a vital source of information during a chaotic disaster. We have been eyes and ears on stories that were being given short shrift by the rest of the local news landscape. We have run ambitious features, investigative reports, and thoughtful coverage of local arts that went beyond the press release. We have built a business solid enough to pay all of our writers and interns and contributors — and, after the first couple of years, ourselves — in an industry that is shockingly dependent on free labor.

We have a great local audience that is hungry for news. We also have a couple of successful print magazines, the Catskills Food Guide and the Catskills Outdoor Guide. They have proved to be both popular and financially viable, and we will continue to publish them.

But I feel the writing is on the wall for digital display advertising, our main revenue stream for supporting online news. I see more and more small businesses taking money they would once have spent with local news outlets, and spending it on digital ads — not on local websites, but on promoted Facebook posts and Google keyword advertising.

As a business person, I can’t argue with that. It works. The titans of the web have huge and increasing reach, even in our rural communities. They have sophisticated tools for targeting likely customers by geography and demographics. They have products that a business owner can buy for $5 with a few clicks of a mouse, products that require no human time investment on the other end for design or sales or customer support.

What they don’t have is reporters.

Facebook is a powerful marketing tool. It’s a powerful community information tool — something we saw first-hand during the Irene floods in 2011, when social media played a vital role in keeping people informed in a crisis. But Facebook is not going to cover a government meeting, or dig into data buried in paper records, or call an official to check up on a fishy-sounding rumor, or ask pesky questions about matters of controversy. For that, you need reporters — and they need to be independent, they need to be paid.

(If you want to read more about what the rise of Facebook means for the news industry, I recommend Emily Bell, whose sharp commentary for the Columbia Journalism Review has been doing wonders for my sanity in this difficult business.)

I have been telling fellow reporters for years that we’re not competing with each other, we’re competing with social media. I wish that weren’t true. I wish I had lost this fight to my fellow local news publishers. There would have been a certain curmudgeonly nobility to a contest between print weeklies and digital media, with the old guard emerging victorious over us geeky upstarts. But the rest of the local news media landscape is struggling as well. Several local weeklies have folded since we started the Watershed Post in 2010, and others are alive but fragile. Layoffs and cutbacks have claimed decades’ worth of newsroom experience at our regional dailies.

Many well-meaning readers have suggested to me that I turn the Watershed Post into a nonprofit, or fundraise on Kickstarter to cover the bulk of our annual budget. I’m not going to do that. I’m not fundamentally opposed to donations — we accept them from readers, and we are very grateful to an annual grant from the Nicholas B. Ottaway Foundation that has helped us grow over the past five years. But I have resisted letting the Watershed Post be too dependent on philanthropy, because I don’t think it’s a healthy position for a news outlet to be in.

I have a background in ecology, and I know it’s affected how I see this issue. Independent local news outlets are an endangered species. Their habitat is shrinking, they are beseiged by new predators, and the resources that once sustained them are becoming increasingly scarce. A species will never be healthy and robust as long as its natural habitat is being decimated.

In this metaphor, nonprofit news outlets supported by philanthropy are like zoos: They help to make sure the public has access to the news, and preserve valuable professional knowhow and institutional memory so future generations of reporters will be stronger. They have good work to do, and they’re doing it. But a species that only exists in a zoo cannot truly thrive. The hope of conservationists is that one day, the zoo will be an ark from which to repopulate a healthier world.

I hope that in the future, a better business model will emerge for local news. And I hope that if it does, Catskills local news outlets will be able to adapt to it.

Local news outlets are struggling, but we still have many independent papers in the Catskills region. If you’re dismayed by the loss of regular local news from us, I suggest you subscribe to — and, if you have a business, advertise in — at least two local papers, the closest weekly and your regional daily.

Some of the local weeklies you should consider subscribing to: The Catskill Mountain News, whose new owner is ambitious, energetic, and passionate about the community. The Mountain Eagle and Schoharie News, both rescued from closure by a community-minded local mayor, who is now taking them in a new direction. The Walton Reporter, a paper that has been impressing us lately with the hustle and drive of their investigative reporting on county government. The Sullivan County Democrat, which publishes twice weekly, and covers a large territory with steadfastness and breadth. The Woodstock Times and its fellow Ulster Publishing papers, which have long been a home for excellent feature writing and in-depth local coverage. The River Reporter, a paper with an environmentalist bent that strives to unite the communities on either side of the mighty Delaware River. The Windham Journal, which just this week announced its metamorphosis from a standalone paper to a weekly insert in the Catskill Daily Mail — a move we’re hoping won’t shrink coverage of the Greene County mountaintop.

As for the Watershed Post, I hope it will continue to be a home for occasional stories you won’t find elsewhere. We have a few in the works even as I write this. I want to keep running features, and I hope that disconnecting from the daily news cycle will free me up to work on a few of the in-depth, data-driven local enterprise stories we haven't had time for in the hustle of running a news outlet. I’m open to collaboration with other news outlets or bright ideas from local organizations. And I encourage local writers to pitch us, although I can't make any promises as to what the future will hold for my editing time or our freelance budget.

I’m not here to put a shiny marketing spin on our move to slow down our news operation. The rural Catskills region deserves more and better news coverage than it’s getting. That’s why we started the Watershed Post in the first place.

Thanks for reading.