Women Entrepreneurs in Digital News – Lissa Harris, Julia Reischel

NewsShed: Bringing News to a Fragmented Rural Landscape

After working as reporters and editors in Boston’s news market for the past decade, Lissa Harris and her partner, Julia Reischel, decided to relocate to the Catskills – a homecoming for Harris, who grew up there.

Several local papers had once flourished in the towns scattered among the scenic mountains and valleys north and west of Kingston, NY, and the Hudson River. With their backgrounds in science and legal reporting, Harris and Reischel planned to cover a range of economic and environmental issues that affect residents in an area encompassing five counties.

They quickly realized that the Catskills community had a critical need for town-level information on a complete range of topics – not just business and science concerns but social, educational and arts news as well. These needs were not being adequately met by local or regional newspapers. In fact, many of the familiar mastheads had vanished while others were in financial trouble or about to close.

Yet the region’s potential readership and advertising base is substantial. About 400,000 permanent residents are scattered throughout the countryside or live within approximately 75 small towns and hamlets. At least half the towns have no news coverage. Reischel and Harris call them “news deserts.”

In January 2010, several months after settling into their new home, Harris and Reischel launched the Watershed Post, a regional online news site that covers everything from restaurant closures and ice sculpture festivals to flood reports and news from the Environmental Protection Agency’s regional bureau. Water issues, in fact, dominate the Watershed Post – hence, the source of its name – because water is the common concern that unites Catskills residents and their Manhattan neighbors, many of whom have chosen the area as a second home. The rural population balloons on weekends and holidays with tourists and city dwellers, all of them served by the Catskill/Delaware Watershed, as is 90 percent of New York City.

When yet another newspaper, The Phoenicia Times, folded last October, a new project called NewsShed that Harris and Reischel were nurturing through the early development stage, took on heightened urgency. NewsShed is a “Town Pages” project, they explain. This will be the site where residents of a particular town can post information about what’s happening in their immediate community and link it to the regional Watershed Post.

“We’re starting in towns that very recently had a newspaper go out of business,” says Reischel. “That town is left with a vacuum of information.”

The Watershed Post’s regional site does not have much room for news tightly focused on one small town. “I am adapting the architecture of the regional publication to a more interactive site for the Town Pages,” says Harris. “It has a different layout and will be more reliant on user-generated content than our regional site. Here, for example, is where residents can post calendar entries about a wedding or announce a birth.” The micro sites will also offer local businesses opportunities for more targeted advertising as well.

Their online publication has brought out a popular response among readers but for the local businesses, it’s a tougher sell. Many simply don’t know how to post their advertisements online. Yet Harris and Reischel offer a very attractive flat rate of just $25 per month rather than a fee-per-placement structure. Businesses such as realtors, restaurants or retailers with a customer base extending to several towns or even across counties will also be able to tag their products or sales specials to more than one Town Page, linked as well to the regional Watershed Post.

In the Catskills, the Watershed Post is one of the few media outlets with a regional focus and its advertising terms are far more advantageous than a newspaper’s traditional rate plan. Self-service advertising is still in its infancy and no one has come up with a fail-safe formula yet, but Harris and Reischel believe they have invented a system that is easy to use and affordable. The challenge is getting businesses to learn their way around a web site. They don’t particularly like the Internet but they see the world moving in that direction.

To meet that need, Reischel and Harris plan to hold more literacy workshops – they have hosted one already – to teach advertisers how to post ads and tag them to multiple NewsShed sites. It’s a learning curve for everybody; the two women freely admit that their own professional backgrounds are overwhelmingly editorial. With the Shandaken Town Page about to launch, the women are planning a literacy workshop for that community. They’re also discussing the possibility of co-hosting future literacy workshops with a local nonprofit organization.

Two local radio stations recently launched in the Catskills area, both of them community access stations on full-power FM transmitters. Reischel and Harris see promising partnership opportunities with both of them in the future, especially to promote community events. The two women have appeared on their shows several times and the hosts have permission to use the Watershed Post news content on air as well.

Harris and Reischel plan to set aside a portion of the $20,000 IWMF grant to fill two part-time positions: freelance writer and ad sales rep. The writer would help them cover important local meetings and regional hearings that cannot be assigned to volunteers. Finally, the grant will allow them to bring in a freelance coder to help fine-tune the technical software. Everyone is aware of the shifting media environment and emerging technologies that must at least be examined and perhaps mastered.

Follow Watershed Post on Twitter: @watershedpost.

April 26, 2011

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Lissa Harris and Julia Reischel