Kaatscast: the Catskills Podcast
March 1, 2022

The Mountain Eagle

The Mountain Eagle
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This year, The Mountain Eagle celebrates 40 years of newspaper publishing, and a relaunch in 2017 brought expanded coverage to Schoharie, Delaware, Greene, and northern Ulster counties. Join us for a conversation with publisher Matt Avitabile on local Catskills journalism and the nuts and bolts of creating and distributing a weekly paper in an increasingly digital age.

Thanks to our sponsor: the Catskill Mountains Scenic Byway
Production intern: Jared Lyman

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Windham approves new police fuel system. Hubble company wins bid for Hawkinsville sewer project. Self court right to get LED lights. Middleburg board votes no confidence in Mayor. Sullivan named fighting Tiger Athlete of the week. These are some of the headlines from last week's issue of the Mountain Eagle; a newspaper, a real paper, that's covering stories impacting our Catskills communities. This year the Mountain Eagle celebrates 40 years of local journalism, and a relaunch in 2017 brought expanded coverage to Schoharie, Delaware, Greene, and northern Ulster counties. We visited their office in Stamford, New York for an interview with publisher Matt Avitabile. So my background in journalism prior to purchasing the Mountain Eagle, it was almost nothing. I took one comm class in college at Oneonta and I got an A in it. Apart from that I have just about none. The background in journalism that I grew up with was my dad's. So my dad moved us up from Astoria, Queens to work at the Mountain Eagle back in the early '90s. I watched him for years as I was growing up, covering things delivering papers. By watching him I learned a lot as a little kid. I took his word processor, used to write stories, and I typed out this little mock newspaper called The Middleburgh News and tried to sell at a garage sale for a buck apiece. I was probably around seven at the time. So I did not intend to get involved in journalism. I have no extensive background in it prior to getting involved in this. But one of the secrets of a small town paper is your experience is important. But it's far more important to have people with more experience and often more skilled than you have. That goes a lot of things right, if you're doing it the right way? Absolutely. There's an old saying if you're the smartest person in the room, you're probably in the wrong room. It's pretty similar in print journalism. The one thing that I have is energy. My main profession is teaching. I teach at Oneonta and Hartwick. What I really wanted to do as a young man was become the mayor of my hometown in Middleburg in Schoharie county. So I ran for village trustee at the age of 19. I didn't know much about it. I knocked on a whole bunch of doors, ran against two incumbents in a march municipal election and I want up losing by 16 votes. And then that got me convinced that I would eventually do my part to try and become communities mayor and hopefully help out. Following year there was an opening and I won at 20; ran again for re-election a couple years later. And then 2011, our community faced catastrophic flooding from Hurricane Irene. And I was in the right place at the right time. At the village hall in the aftermath of the floods, so I played a role along with a lot of over 100 more volunteers getting food to people working with volunteers getting the word out, and then in March of the following year, thankfully, and much appreciated, the people of Middleburg made me mayor for eight years. By the time I left in 2020, I I feel confident saying I accomplished every single thing that I promised. In 2016, I got a message from my friend Tim Knight, who's the editor of our Herald Cobleskill Herald section, and he was telling me that the Mountain Eagle had made major structural changes that they had gotten rid of just about everyone on staff. And so the light bulb went off. I knew I was going to be busy and wanting to try something else. I liked the challenge of trying to keep a print newspaper alive. I figured I like to take things that are broken and put them together and did that with the village after the flood, and want to do that with the Mountain Eagle since my dad worked there when I was a little kid. So I put in an offer, and I bought the paper in January 2017. What was the state of the paper when you took it over? And how has it changed? It was very challenging. By the time January 2017 came around the Mountain Eagle had relieved everyone except for Liz and two drivers; our own Liz Page. Finally after the first two weeks, I realized that gosh running a newspaper's expensive. Even when you don't draw a salary, it's expensive and even drivers are expensive, printing's expensive. Every single thing keeping an office is expensive, and the Mountain Eagle had dwindled to 450 readers in January 2017. So it was very challenging. I realized I couldn't afford to pay drivers. So I wounded up splitting that route up; one of my friends took one I took the other and I want to regularly delivering papers for three and a half years. Now I'm the backup. But most of those stops I was doing by hand, and over time, it got easier. Instead of me being out till two in the morning after my night class, over time, it got earlier. Then I was able to split routes, so I could pay people to do more, and what was two big routes eventually became six routes, which made it so much easier to be able to get the papers out while businesses are still open, be able to collect money. Who's on staff here? Is it all freelance? Or are there any full timers? One W2 employee and that's Liz, and if you count me in as full time then me too. Are there other editors? So we've run a complicated sort of system; it wasn't intended to expand so quickly. But one of the things I learned as the mayor and one of the things we've learned with paper is that if you bring logistics, everything else will eventually follow. It was originally going to be myself, Liz, and my friend Tim Knight, and another friend of mine, Tyler James is going to sell ads. Tim took a background role, I did a lot of the delivery, and Liz basically taught me how a lot of this worked. And what wound up happening over time was there would be more and more openings, whether it be what you might call a news desert where there was a need for news due to a variety of factors. So for example, in late 2017, there was a need for more news in Schoharie County. So I hired my father. I talked with Michael Ryan. Mike was the newspaper's really good reporter since the mid '80s, work for two of Columbia-Greene's papers; Mountain Eagle and the Windham Journal. Well, Mike got laid off when Columbia-Greene got rid of everyone. Then Columbia-Greene closed down the Windham Journal. So I talked to Mike and had an opportunity to expand out our coverage into Greene County. We added a few pages of paper and just hope that it went well. Well as time went on, there was more and more demand for news coverage in Greene County since there wasn't very much in that in the mountaintop area. One of the business owners in Windham brought up the idea of trying to sell the Windham Weekly on the cover, which wound up kicking off a whole bunch of ideas where the paper no matter where you buy it, is exactly the same in content, but the different areas will be on the cover depending where you are. So in working with our printers at the Daily Gazette, we were able to do that, and that system eventually grew into editors for each section. So right now, we have Liz as the editor of the A-Section for Delaware County, my dad, the Schoharie County editor, the B-Section, Mike Ryan, the editor of the Wyndham Weekly, the C-Section, and then add a catch all section called Tri County where we put legals and columns and stuff we couldn't fit elsewhere in my editorial, that sort of thing, and then starting last year one of having a lot more demand in other areas. One of the areas is Margaretville; Catskill Mountain News going out of business. We wound up forming the Catskills Chronicle as the E-Section. Brian Sweeney's the editor of that and finally wound up expanding a lot of our coverage in Schoharie County. And in July, I opened up the Cobleskill Herald, in which Tim Knight is the editor. We've been very fortunate we've been able to build the model that we have. Is this the last newspaper focused on the Catskills? What's left? Us, Daily Freeman, Daily Mail, and the Walton Reporter. Oh, and the Hudson Valley One. They used to be four different papers. They went solely online for a couple months, and then they came back and crammed them all into one newspaper called Hudson Valley One, which I think is pretty clever under the circumstances. So yes, they're in that too. What happens to the papers that didn't make it and how will you avoid that same fate? Let's go through the list. So before I bought the Mountain Eagle, the Delaware County Times went out of business. Shortly after I bought the Mountain Eagle, the Windham Journal went out of business, and early last year, Catskill Mountain News went out of business and all of the local papers are stressed in their own way. Some are dealing with it better than others. Part of it is our weekly format that helps us a lot. Part of what's also helped us is that we've been able to develop each region so my original idea was mostly Schoharie County before I even bought the Mountain Eagle, and then it became Schoharie County in the greater Stamford area, etc, etc, etc. Eventually, by creating a footprint of Delaware, Schoharie, and Greene counties, we now have a set boundary where we can hopefully develop each section better and better, so we can retain more and more readership, and so far it seems to be working. Has it been difficult finding advertisers? Yes and no. So we're very fortunate we hired the best ad personnel of our county. Gretchen Balcom; she used to work at the Catskill Mountains. She used to work at a bunch of papers. She's excellent. She has been phenomenal. Elsewhere, it's been hard simply because of staffing. In fact, I used to call people and say, 'I just bought the Mountain Eagle, would you like to be a part of it?' And they'd say, 'Oh, Mountain Eagle. Oh,' and then there's a pause, 'I thought the Mountain Eagle was out of business.' So it was pretty hard. But what wound up happening is that we started mailing copies to people of special editions every once a while, like, 'Hey, we're still here,' or 'Hey, we grew.' And at that point, they can't say we're out of business. So now, it's still hard. Greene County and Schoharie County, we could still use probably one person for each county. But as far as enough advertising revenue to keep the business going. Thankfully, we're okay. And I thought Coronavirus is gonna destroy that market and it actually grew it in some places. We'd like to take a moment to thank our sponsors, and then back to Matt Avitabile on local journalism in the Catskills, the mechanics of printing and distributing a physical paper and plans for future growth. Plus a few words from longtime staffer Liz Page. Kaatscast is supported by the 52 mile Catskill Mountains Scenic Byway, following New York State Route 28 through the heart of the central Catskills. For maps, itineraries and links to area restaurants, shops, and accommodations, visit sceniccatskills.com. We also get support from listeners like Alan and Donna, who left this on our listener comment line. We love your interviews and topics and everything, and it's so local. That is terrific. We love your commitment to the community and keep working forward. Thank you. Good work. Thanks. Thank you, Alan and Donna, and to all our contributors. If you'd like to leave a comment, go to kaatscast.com and click message. Click the support button while you're there, if you'd like to make a contribution. And now back to Matt Avitabile in Stamford, New York. Is there a renewed thirst for print journalism, in light of all of the, you know, online sources of various levels of quality or not or not? There's a yes and a no to that. Some people will want their news only for free. The other week, I had a comment on one of our Facebook pages. And someone asked about a shooting in Cobleskill and said 'Can you tell us more? Or do you have more?' And I said, 'Yep; front page of this week's paper.' So someone then commented underneath. 'So we're supposed to pay to read what you have or something?' And then I went to comment, and I felt like saying 'That's how newspapers work.' But I try I'm usually not snarky, so I wound up clicking on it to take a look at it, and by then she had deleted it. I think she realized that that is how newspapers work. So there is a fair amount that wants it for free. There's a fair amount that will only read it online, especially younger people. There's a combination of older people, especially in news deserts, places where they lost their primary coverage. Windham. Middleburg to a certain extent. Margaretville, where they don't have a newspaper. So they really want it, and if you could prove them quality, they'll stay with you. And then one of the major changes just in the last year and a half has been an influx of people from out of the area, especially downstate, who come up and either they love the print because they want to know more about the area, or they love it because they think it's a quaint, you know, boutique, small town Green Acres thing; and both are fine with me, and it's definitely changed how we operate the paper. Do stories come to you? Do you assign stories to reporters? How did you wade through what gets covered in a typical week? So part of this has to do with the model that I built, not having a lot of experience in journalism I knew I had to rely on people knew a lot more than I did. And so what happened was I would accumulate what I call the All Stars; the best writers for a region with Mike, my dad, and Brian, and then bring in younger people. So you bring in my friend Tim, and I hire a whole bunch of freelancers. And so there's a model in which part of me says, 'You already know what you're doing. Just go do it.' And then you know Liz, or Brien, or Mike will send me back their set of stories for a week and that's it, and it's done. Liz Page, great name for a print journalist, by the way, has been at the Mountain Eagle since the beginning. My name is Liz Page, and I do a little bit of everything. In 1982, when I started with the paper, they hired me as a receptionist. But didn't last too long because people were calling me to tell me that it was a picture to take care, something to do there, and I ended up going out and covering things. I do a little bit of everything from office work to, you know, I've been editor at one point. And I think the best thing about the job is that being a reporter and a photographer, I've done 1000s of things, and I've learned a lot. Were you born and bred in the Catskills? Born and raised in Stanford. I live one mile from where I was born, from the hospital where I was born. I've been here, except for college, pretty much my whole life. Everybody in town must know you. A lot of people know me not so much anymore. There's a new a new generation coming in but. Is it hard to balance knowing so many people in town and the responsibility to cover certain things? Or? I don't think so. I think people understand. You know, especially now like, I'm kind of, you know, stepping back a little bit. I'm not, I'm not everywhere. You know, I like to have my time to myself. And what's it like working with Matt? Oh, Matt's fabulous. Matt lets you get away with anything. Keith, he's always very forgiving. I think is he'll always say, 'Don't sweat it,' you know, when I think that something went wrong, or I got out scoop dirt, 'Don't sweat it.' I try not to sweat it, although I'll bring it up three or four more times before I let it go. So what will happen is deadlines, press deadlines, Wednesday, five o'clock, then I'll put together first draft 10-11 o'clock, Wednesday, send a copy to the team and say, 'Hey, can you look at this? See if there's any typos or whatever.' I get my comments back by about nine o'clock on Thursday morning, and then on a typical week, I'll have to get the pages in by a little bit after 10. I usually do at 10:10, so I have 10 extra minutes in case I missed something, send them into the Gazette, they have to create the plates, they can actually press them. And they do 20 Page run, so I have to be conscious of our page count, I had to make sure that we don't do more than multiples of 20. So that's why we often cap at 40 pages. There's extra run fees and everything involved so they get them around 10, and they print them. They're usually done by about 1:30, go pick up the papers. There'll be sectioned, so you'll have every area with that section on the front; Windham, Cobleskill, Schoharie, and then that way when we go to the Cobleskill Stewart's we drop off the Cobleskill Capo and then we go to the Margaretville Valero, it's the Catskills Chronicle on the cover. And it's a model that works pretty well. And then the subscriptions, do you physically label them and send them out? Yah, well on my kitchen table. Wow. Yep, it's all almost everything except for printing is by hand. So we get the papers would bring them in me and Bill and sometimes someone else would join us. Sometimes my sister stops by. Sometimes my dad, sometimes Tim, will come in and we'll label and go through each and every one and you got to bag them individually and they got some that go out of town. So they go in an 'out of town' bag and then you have you know, Middleburg, Schoharie, Margaretville, Windham, Stamford, that sort of thing. Where do you see the paper going from here? I think that the papers has reach its geographic maximum; all Schoharie County, a chunk of Delaware and Greene counties, about half of Greene County and about a third of Delaware County, and then a couple of towns in Ulster County. I don't think that there's much more room for physical expansion. But my hope is that over time, our coverage for each area will grow to the point where the paper can not only continue where we're at 40 pages, but maybe be a little bit bigger physically. My idea was that it would become like a permanent fixture for the three counties. A lot of the papers that went out we're trying to focus on this very small portion of the Catskills, and it was a model that worked up until about 1995. But now we would almost have to be bigger and have economies of scale where it's almost like the Mountain Eagle now has five different paid papers inside of it. But it saves me a heck of a lot of money to print them as one, that sort of thing. My hope is that I can eventually build the administrative staff, pretty much all the administrative stuff comes through me. Eventually, I'd like a Secretary. Eventually I'd like to have one or two of the editors, maybe my dad, maybe Tim take on some more of the administrative tasks. I did that with the route where I was able to gradually break them down and split them up. If I can do that with the logistical stuff, I'd like to basically take what we're doing now and expand a little bit further within those areas and see where it takes us. What's the relevance of print journalism in 2022? For the first three years that I was involved with the paper, much of it was a slog to convince people to come back to print journalism. People who used to subscribe to the Windham Journal but didn't as it declined or the Mountain Eagle but didn't want it declined, and convince them that we're not only here but we're here to stay. And I remember somebody says 'Ah, you will be out in six months,' and it stuck with me. Coronavirus changed everything. At first, it caused us a deep drop in our circulation as everyone stayed home, and then immediately following it caused a spike that was even larger than the drop. Part of it was people came up in the city, so they just started buying the paper. Part of it was there was no other local news source. You can read Twitter, you can read Facebook, you can watch the TV channels that are offering, and they all give you a good perspective. But there is no update elsewhere about what the Margaretville town board was doing, what the Stanford village board was doing. What Guilbeau council was going to do with who you know, are they going to keep students home or not. And what happened was, for a lot of people, it really reinforced that idea that a local newspaper is a necessity in a lot of areas. We got a lot of subscriptions from people who wanted to just to get the news makes total sense, people who got a subscription because they also just wanted to support us at if we don't support you, you won't be there anymore. There's been this curve that's happened in all of prime media, including books, and there was this large dip in somewhere around 2010 it started rebounding out. It's not quite up where it was, it's not even close. I'm grateful for any incremental growth that we're able to have. Right now we're just a little under 3,000. The Mountain Eagle at its height was about 8,000 around 1988. We're not going to reach that simply because of demographics. But you know what, in this day and age for a local newspaper, to be in the black, to have 1000s of readers and actually be able to grow either in coverage, or readership or both, is a real blessing, and as much as I'd like to take credit for all of it, and obviously I've worked a lot at it, so I'm going to take some. I've been very, very fortunate to work with the people that I do. For more on the Mountain Eagle and to sign up for your own subscription, go to the-mountaineagle.com. Thanks to Matt and Liz for taking the time to speak with us, and thanks again to our sponsors. Kaatscast is a production of Silver Hollow Audio. Please be sure to subscribe or follow us wherever podcasts are found for free and automatic delivery every two weeks. I'm Brett Barry. Thanks for listening, and we'll see you next time. 

Transcribed by https://otter.ai / JL