DELHI, NEW YORK — The Watershed Post, an online news source for five counties in upstate New York, made a splash last fall with its real-time coverage of widespread flooding that swept one woman to her death in the Neversink River. Its editors call this back country in the Catskill Mountains a “news desert,” mostly bereft of local media coverage, but one of the area’s defining features is its invaluable wetness: the rivers and reservoirs that feed water to New York City. “The population is rural and quirky, but the watershed means everybody has a lot in common politically and even culturally,” says Julia Reischel, who co-founded the site. Despite the concerns shared by the scattered and disparate denizens of the watershed, there is no media outlet that covers the area as a whole. Instead there are parochial blogs here and there and a few local dailies in the larger towns at the edges. “There are a lot of unconnected silos and hubs of information,” Reischel says. “We’re trying to bring it all together through aggregation and our own reporting.”
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The Watershed Post covers fifty-plus towns in the Catskills with an emphasis on the environment, especially hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for natural gas and New York City’s sometimes imperious land grabs to secure its water supply. It also focuses on the region’s busy events schedule—“there’s the garlic festival, the stream festival; pretty much every weekend in the summer, there’s some sort of theme festival,” Reischel says. She and Lissa Harris, the other principal and a Catskills native, scour regional publications and blogs and have cultivated “a spider-web network that feeds us things, sends pictures, calls with story ideas,” Harris says.
The aggregated output, supplemented with original reporting by Reischel, Harris, and, more recently, paid freelancers, lacks a clear sense of editorial cohesion. But that’s understandable for an outlet aspiring to be the news source for a region as atomized and diverse as the Catskills. Its function is to be a central information hub, and it excels at that. The site is alive with news bites from across the region—its offerings one recent day included a story about an overturned watermelon truck in Schoharie, a political cartoon by Bovina artist Gary Mayer (a recurring Sunday feature), and video of Ulster County executive Mike Hein at a town meeting in Hardenburgh (pop. 208) discussing plans for the nearby Belleayre Mountain Ski Center.
Reischel and Harris met while working for an alternative weekly, the Boston Weekly Dig. They later married and moved from Massachusetts to the Catskills in 2009. Working out of their house, where they’re also raising their three-year-old child—“it’s a mom-and-mom shop,” says Harris—they hired Adam Gaffin, the force behind Boston’s online-only Universal Hub, to help construct the site and Harris’s father, Fred Harris, as their graphic designer and marketing consultant. Both Gaffin and Fred Harris continue to consult. The Watershed Post officially launched in January 2010.
After a slow start, readership jumped following their coverage of the floods last fall, when even the relevant emergency management services were not updating their websites with current road-closures and danger zones, according to Reischel. She estimates that 12,000 readers visit The Watershed Post each month, a number that’s growing slowly but steadily, mostly through word of mouth and the editors’ conspicuous attendance at community meetings and events.
The demographics of the region are unusual. In addition to the local population there are tourists from New York and elsewhere—Harris calls them “flatlanders”—who swarm the mountains in the summer. The Catskills also host diverse religious communities. “A lot of religious groups buy a big chunk of land and start a commune. There’s Islamberg, which Fox News has been ranting and raving about, a Zen Buddhist monastery, a Hindu ashram, hippie communes, refugees from China, Kung Fu monks. It’s a very weird world alternate reality up here, but it’s great for a writer,” Reischel says.
Like many sites supported by online advertising, The Watershed Post is struggling to stay afloat: display ads and advertising subscriptions by local businesses will cover operating costs through 2011, but Reischel and Harris have yet to make a dime of profit, relying on savings to pay living expenses while they build a readership and hone their business model. The subscription ads, priced to sell at $25 per month, are cheap enough that rural outfits leery of web advertising can try it with very little downside. The ads run in a column on the right edge of the site and are administered by the businesses themselves, with varying degrees of tech support.
“Web literacy is really all over the place,” Reischel says. “Some businesses are using Facebook and Twitter; some have trouble copy and pasting. We spend a lot of time hand-holding, but it’s slowly catching on—more and more businesses are open to the idea.” Whether they can scale this model up to fully support themselves is an open question, but they remain optimistic. “The last frontier is cheap, online, local ads,” she says. “Nobody’s figured it out yet, but we’re making headway.”
The site got a big boost earlier this year with a $20,000 grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation to set up hyperlocal sites for economically depressed towns that are underserved by the media, a description which fits a number of Catskills communities. Reischel and Harris recently launched the first pilot site for Shandaken (pop. 3,200), hosted by the Watershed Post, and plan to launch another for neighboring Olive (pop. 4,600). Both towns had been in their coverage area from the start, but the grant enabled the editors to start paying freelancers to do more granular reporting on school board and town hall meetings.
Shandaken and Olive are good candidates for the experiment because they lost their primary local news sources last October, when the Phoenicia Times and the Olive Press went under. Harris posted a heartfelt obituary for the publications on the Watershed Post that landed on the front page of the Phoenicia Times’s final edition. The uncommon camaraderie between old and new media inspired a column by Peter Applebome in The New York Times.
If The Watershed Post fails, there may be no reporters around to write its obituary or outlets to publish it, and that would be a bad sign for the prospects of rural news coverage anywhere. For now, however, the upstart continues to grow, building its readership and advertising relationships. Though the pay isn’t much, it’s even hiring. Among other qualities, Harris and Reischel are looking for “a crusader on the quest for the Holy Grail of journalism: A homegrown, 100% local, sustainable business model for news on the Internet. If we crack this,” they continue, “we will have succeeded where the likes of AOL and the New York Times are still floundering. And we’re going to crack it.”
Watershed Post Data
Name: Watershed Post
Principal Staff: Lissa Harris, publisher and editor; Julia Reischel, publisher and editor.
Affiliations: International Women’s Media Foundation’s Women Entrepreneurs in the Global Digital News Frontier
CJR on Watershed Post:
08/30/11: After Irene: How a Hyperlocal Is Helping - In the Catskills, the Watershed Post is coordinating relief efforts - Alysia Santo
07/27/11: A River Runs Through It - Defining news communities through the water they share - Alysia Santo