SYLVESTER, GEORGIA — Matt Medders was too young to be the chairman of the Worth County Commissioners, and Sherry Walls knew it. Although beating the incumbent by 208 votes, Medders was a few months short of meeting the legal requirement that the commissioner for the rural county in southwest Georgia be at least 27 years old.
Before she could break the story for the weekly Sylvester Local News, where she worked as a reporter, Medders and the paper’s editor approached her to suggest she not publish.
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Despite the Atlanta Journal Constitution and other state media later publishing that he was ineligible, Medders remained chairman. The ethical dilemmas continued for Walls, and she began asking for her name to be removed from stories that were heavily edited. (The editor in question is no longer with the paper; Medders did not respond to requests for comment.)
After unsuccessfully proposing that the newspaper launch a website, Walls left in 2009 and partnered with the former county clerk, Deborah Robinson, to create Worth County’s first online daily news source: Worthit2u.net.
“We didn’t set out to hurt our local paper,” says Robinson, the site’s owner and business manager. “All of our nearby counties had online news. We just wanted to bring the county up to its surroundings.”
Now citizens in surrounding areas are looking to Worth County for news, and Robinson says the site is averaging 80,000 page views per month in a county of around 22,000 people.
“Small town, everybody hears everything,” Walls says as explanation for the site’s expanding visibility.
Worth County is a place that still celebrates an agriculture economy through events like the Egg Festival, Peanut Festival, and National Grits Festival, whose grand finale involves contestants jumping in a pit of grits.
Worthit2u.net is based in Sylvester, the county seat. When scanning a homepage of bass tournaments, pork skin advertisements, and forecasts of 100 percent humidity, there’s no denying its audience is made of deep Southerners.
Robinson and Walls can be seen driving around town in the official Worth County Online News Ford F-250 truck, which serves as a rolling billboard. Robinson uses the vehicle primarily for sales appointments after her day job at the Countryside Animal Clinic, while Walls uses it for reporting on the go.
“I sleep with the scanner right beside my bed,” says Walls, who writes full-time and posts at least one article a day.
Content is community-oriented: Corey Odom signs to play college baseball; Mickey Walker receives two new lungs; middle school students travel for chorus competition. But it’s not all soft news. Recently, the site published footage taken from inside a patrol car during a high-speed chase that resulted in two drug-related arrests. Robinson narrated the video, which has been viewed more than 600 times on the site’s YouTube channel.
“We don’t want to hold anything back,” says Robinson. “We feel people that have the right to know what’s happening in the community.”
Over 150 advertisers have paid attention as well, resulting in $33,000 in revenue last year. After a week’s worth of sale visits, Robinson creates the new ads on Wednesdays, placing them prominently above, beside and in between content, with top spots running for $200 a month.
“People ask if we are going to go to print,” says Robinson. “I say ‘no,’ we’re going to green.” Environmentally and financially, the site is headed in that direction.
Robinson and Walls understand that building revenue online takes time, but so does sustaining community support. The site has plans to expand its multimedia content and begin live streaming of sport events, local auctions, and on-scene news reporting.
“If, suddenly, the site wasn’t here, I think the community would feel it,” says Walls.
What better way to gauge a site’s true worth?