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Small town USA journalist on the realities of owning two weekly community newspapers

Patty Louise owns two small weekly newspapers in New York state, and recently fulfilled a dream to tour much of Atlantic Canada, including a trip across the Gulf of St. Lawrence to visit Port aux Basques. – © Rosalyn Roy / Wreckhouse Press Incorporated

By Jaymie White Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with files from Rosalyn Roy

Journalism is both difficult and rewarding, and Patty Louise, who owns and runs two weekly newspapers, understands the sacrifices that comes with it. “Since I was a teenager I wrote for our weekly newspaper, so I knew from an early age I wanted to be a journalist, and I went to Syracuse University for that and got a job right out of school. So for the first 20 years I worked at daily newspapers, and the last one was in Syracuse. I was a sports editor for a while, and then I was a bureau chief of one of our counties, and that involved driving an hour to work each day,” said Louise. “Our kids were starting to get involved in sports and things after school, and it’s not like a nine to five job, so I’d be looking at my watch going, oh, I got to get back to this game, and the game starts at six, and then you’d start doing, ‘maybe I can get there for half the game’. I just missed a lot. I said, ‘I got to work closer to home,’ and I went to a dinner and with some former colleagues, and they mentioned these people they had worked with wanted to retire, and they said it was in Waterville (New York), which was about 30 miles away, so I started thinking about it, and I thought I could do a weekly paper.” There was a moment in church one day that made the light bulb go on, and Louise knew she was going to buy the paper. “We were in church, and there’s a hymn – I Lord or Here I Am, Lord – that was the hymn, and I turned to my husband right there and I said, ‘I’m going to buy that paper.’ I knew nothing about it and he’s like, ‘what are we talking about?’ So I called the woman who owned it and introduced myself, and she said, ‘come meet us,’” said Louise. “We sat down and we talked for four hours and it was like we talked about books. She was an English teacher, and we talked about being Italian, and we talked about things we liked and our kids, and we finally got around talking about the paper. We worked it out and I started in May 2001. I bought this paper, the Waterville Times that began in 1857,” said Louise. “It was a weekly paper, and we have a lot. Waterville is our center. It’s really the Waterville Central School District is kind of our area, and there’s a lot of small towns and villages around there.” Back then, things weren’t as technologically advanced as they are now. “We didn’t have a computer. They were still – doing nobody’s going to know what this is, but – still doing waxing. So you’d type out on the typewriter, like your headline, and then you’d cut it, and then you’d run it through the waxer, and you’d paste it up on the page. You’d type out your columns, and you do it. So you’d had to get something straight. It was an all-day process, and I thought, I had come from the daily newspaper I was at which was owned by a family that had a lot of money, and we were using computers. We had Internet. We didn’t do anything like this, so we quickly moved into the new century, did a lot of stuff on computers and it takes you a while to learn. You learn community, you learn people to trust you and to get to know what your coverage type is,” said Louise. “Like, if they maybe get in an argument during a meeting, but then it blows over, are you going to put that in? Where are you going to go with things? So we did that, and you fall into a groove.” Louise eventually went on to purchase a second paper. “I have two full time people – a reporter and a person who does the ads, the website, the subscriptions. Those are the big things. In early March of 2020, my friends who owned a newspaper in their circulation area, we shared a town, and they wanted to retire. He had been in the military, and they bought the paper as kind of a hobby, and they wanted to travel more. They’re in their late 60s now, and they said, ‘so we want to sell, and can you help us?’ So I met with them,” said Louise. “Mary kept saying, ‘you ought to buy it,’ and I said, ‘buy your paper? I have a paper,’ and then the pandemic hit and I said to them, ‘guys, this is bad timing.’ He had been in the military, so he’s very precise, and he set a deadline, and then I looked at it, and they were actually making money during the pandemic early on, the advertisers were still there, and I thought, ‘well, we could just incorporate all that and we could do it,’ and so we did. So I bought a paper during the pandemic, which is foolhardy, but it worked out all right. So we have two papers, the West Windfield Star and the Waterville Times, and it’s all local news and it’s ground based, hyper-local news. We’re at the town board meetings, and we’re at the school board meetings, and we do a lot with high school sports. That’s a big thing because when I first started, the daily papers would only cover our teams if they were really having great years and going into the playoffs. Well now the daily papers are done, so they’re not covering anybody’s sports.” The local coverage her papers provide gives wonderful insight for residents in the community who may not get it otherwise. “We don’t really write sports stories. I say we write feature stories about a sports event because you start using the jargon and it’s like nobody knows what a nickel and dime defense is or whatever,” explained Louise. “So we write about it and people keep up and they love it because they take the paper and the moms, if they’re on their game, cut the stories out and put them in little scrapbooks so they can go back and see what happened. We run honor rolls, and we have a person who does a recipe column. We run library columns. We’re the only source of news unless you go to a meeting, which nobody wants to do. They’re like,’ oh, it’s too late, or I got something on TV or it’s snowing out.’ So I always say we go to the meetings so nobody else has to, and it’s worked out well.” The importance of getting the facts straight falls heavily on the shoulders of those in the journalism profession, especially in smaller communities. “I’ve only worked in New York state, and when you’re out there, you’re the front lines. If you make a mistake or you get something wrong, you’re going to run into those people. But then as I got to work for larger papers, you get isolated or somebody calls you and they complain, and you’re like, ‘I don’t know this person,’ or whatever. The accountability falls away, which I think probably helped contribute to the death of daily newspapers. We as a journalism group, we weren’t listening to what people were saying. So when I went back to a weekly, somebody would say, ‘well, I read that, but I think I said this,’ because maybe you hear things wrong or you misunderstand what someone’s saying, so there you are, face to face,” explained Louise. “You could be in the grocery store or the post office or at a school event, but there they are saying, ‘I think you got this wrong,’ and you have to listen. I mean, you can’t avoid that, and your own moral compass comes into play. Like, what do you put in your paper that’s fair? We don’t do a lot with police blotter stuff. I figure if the police are coming to your house, you’re already having a bad day. You don’t need to see it four days later in the paper and have all the people who didn’t know why were the police at your house. I think we’re a kind group, which I think isn’t unusual in weekly newspapers.” Louise believes that people who run weekly newspapers understand that they are covering people first and foremost. “You might say you’re going to the village board, or you’re going to the basketball game or the hockey game, or you’re going to the county fair, but you’re really covering people, and I think we remember that and carry that more than daily papers do, which, again, contributed to why so many of them are out of business.” Even though she is running two separate papers, there is very little overlap in content. “It’s probably about 90 per cent separate content. We do have some overlap with things that might be of interest. We’re like, ‘this is interesting for both papers.’ We just had a county fair that actually falls split down the middle, so when we were going through the pictures, I was like, ‘well, this kind of falls onto the Star side, this falls onto the Times, but these can all be shared.’ Or I went and took pictures at a girls’ softball game and I deliberately chose one that was between teams, that we had one in each circulation, but you got to be creative like that when you’re running a weekly, because you got to make the most of what you got and you don’t have a lot,” said Louise. ”But most of it’s separate. They’re two separate papers, separate layouts, everything, so it does add to the work for sure.” Each paper enjoys a solid, loyal subscription base, for both the print and digital editions. “The Times is the larger one, and we sell about 1,500 papers, and that includes stores. And the 75 people or so who are online subscriptions, the Star is a little smaller. It’s about 700 including stores. We don’t have an online presence for them. People were not interested. We tried to push it. They didn’t want an online subscription at this point. So we have an older population of readers. So our readership, though, per household, and I know that a number of our readers or subscribers share their paper with others,” said Louise. “Subscribers basically cover the cost of mailing it, so that’s kind of a wash for everything else, like salaries and print and all that. Some of it’s ad revenue, but we get a lot of public notices and legal notices, so there’s a lot of requirements. So if you’re doing a public hearing, your municipality needs to take a notice out. If you’re doing solicitations for bids for a project, they need to take an ad out, and if you’re starting or altering a business in New York state, you have to have it in a weekly for six weeks.” Even though there is money coming in, it’s not a large amount by any stretch. Louise is passionate about what she does. “Nobody’s getting rich off this business or making so much money that you’re like, ‘wow, I don’t have to worry about money’. We just cut costs as much as we can,” said Louise. “We keep our papers at the same page count every week, so it means there’s a lot of stuff left over in certain times, and you can just be like, ‘okay, put that in,’ which is one of the reasons why we do our Baby Edition in August. It’s quiet. We don’t have a lot of stuff going on, high school sports or meetings and things, so we do that. You make use of what you got as best you can. We run a couple history columns and we have a big calendar in the paper.” Even though Louise runs two papers, her staff is quite small. “So I’m the owner, editor, and a reporter. People say, ‘do you work full time?’ I say, ‘I work all the time.’ That’s how newspapers go. I have a full time person who does ads, our subscription base, our postal requirements, technology stuff, and kind of grabs the phones when I’m not there. She works out of home two days a week, so is in the office three days a week, and I have a reporter who does a lot of the meetings because, again, they all meet on the same day and same week,” said Louise. “So this way we can get to as many as we can, and a guy who has another job, but he’ll pump in on the weekends to help with photos and things that we might not get to. So pretty much three of us do the two papers. We get a lot of contributions from like, say, a library column, a history column. People send notices in. You have to edit them and all that, but we get a lot from there. Some weeks, twelve pages fills up just like that. Other weeks, you’re like, ‘oh, well, what can we steal from one paper to put over here?’” Louise much prefers journalism life at a weekly to life at a daily. “I enjoyed it more, the shift. It was getting back to the basics of journalism, just telling stories, telling what’s going on in your community. And the other thing was, when I was at the daily, the last one, I would work with a reporter and we’d come up with an idea, and a reporter would go out and report, and we’d get the pictures, and we’d work together. The person would start it. We’d work together, and then we’d send it off to the main office where 14 other people dove into it. Sometimes they’re like, ‘well, that’s not what we’re going for.’ Or they’d want this, and it would get changed, and I would see it again and again as a reporter, the light would just go out of their eyes,” said Louise. “So I don’t miss that. We don’t have the resources we used to do or I used to have, but it’s accountable journalism. That’s what weekly journalism is. I will be in the grocery store and someone will say, ‘want to talk about a story?’ Or say, ‘oh, thank you,’ or they want to know when their subscriptions up, and I’m like, you got to call me on that because I just don’t know off top of my head.” One issue that is routinely discussed when it comes to journalism is the impact of social media. “It’s a great way to get real news out there, but once it leaves you, if it’s in the paper, you can’t change it. You cannot erase the words in a story in the paper and change them. I mean, that print copy is not going to change, but on social media, people can take something and misinterpret or deliberately misinterpret and say ‘oh, this is what that story is about,’ and it’s off and running and you can’t stop it,” said Louise. “We monitor our Facebook page for discussions to make sure they don’t cross lines of civility and such, and then otherwise we just kind of ignore it, I guess. We have a page. We push some of our stories out there. We’ll put little videos out during something interesting. We’ll do a little snippet of something. It’s kind of interesting. I think we have to be more aware of the effect that social media has on little children.” While social media might be better at getting news out quicker than a weekly newspaper, it can quickly devolve into a digital mess thanks to flared tempers, misinformation, and lack of journalistic standards. “For example, our school district was part of a swatting incident. So that’s when some idiot contacts people at random. Somehow they get on their algorithm and they said there was a bomb in the building, and our superintendent immediately knew when she made the call to the law enforcement, when she got the email, that it was part of a statewide swatting incident,” shared Louise. “So they knew it was probably not true and so, as it unfolded, to get the kids to school and to check the buildings, that you still have to do, they had a plan in place, an emergency plan, and it didn’t work. There were some flaws as they went through this incident, which really wasn’t a big deal because there was no bomb, but it was a situation. There were flaws in communications and how they handled things and all sorts of things. Well there were people in the community who wanted to just hang these people in school and say, ‘oh, this is terrible.’ So I wrote and said, okay, one, nobody was hurt. This was not a bomb, and the people who followed the plan were following a plan that had been made up. We don’t want them going rogue in the middle of a situation saying, ‘okay, I’m not going to follow the plan.’” Having that sense of investment and pride from the readers in the communities they serve helps bolster the newspapers’ success. “They have an ownership too, and I like that more than anything. It’s theirs and people do appreciate, as they see the dailies around us and other weeklies, you know, fall, they kind of realize, ‘wow, what would we do if we didn’t have it? We wouldn’t know about this.’

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