A Q&A with LION member Cynthia Prairie, publisher of the Chester Telegraph in Vermont.
1. When did your site launch, what geography does it cover and why was it founded?
I launched The Chester Telegraph in January 2012 covering the town of Chester in central-southern Vermont.
In 2010 and with a USDA grant, my husband I had launched a Joomla website to market Chester as construction crews replaced two bridges that connected Chester to I-91 for more than a month during the summer tourist season.
Part of that website was a blog. And whenever I posted hard news, the readership numbers spiked, especially after August 2011, when Tropical Storm Irene hit Vermont and that site was getting readers from all over the world.
At the time, newspapers in the nearest cities – 30-plus miles away – were cutting back on their coverage, leaving only two free weeklies that cut and pasted press releases but did not do much staff-generated news.
I saw this “news desert” as an opportunity and have expanded our coverage areas to the nearby towns of Andover, Weston, Grafton, Windham and Londonderry. While the total population of these towns is around 9,000, a large portion of the property in the towns belongs to second homeowners who enjoy getting local news while away from Vermont.
2. What was your background before becoming an independent local news publisher?
I have a journalism degree from UNC-Chapel Hill and spent nearly three decades since as a copy editor and news editor for medium and large newspapers in Raleigh, N.C., Baltimore, Buffalo and Chicago.
My last newspaper job was with the community newspaper chain Patuxent Publishing in Maryland, where I spent 16 years before moving to PR in state government for two years, to watch the sausage being made up-close. My husband, young daughter and I then moved to Chester, Vermont, in 2004, believing that newspapers – and with it good reporting – were dying quickly.
3. How would you describe your operation and business model?
We see ourselves as a traditional newspaper that uses the advantages of digital delivery instead of spending time and money staining dead trees with ink. Our slogan is “All News. No Paper.”
We base our publication around a weekly "News Alert" and put up the majority of the week's content on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. But we work all week and if a piece needs to be published on another day, we do it. Every article that goes into the paper simultaneously goes to Facebook where we have more than 3,300 fans and more than 3,200 followers. We also share with several Facebook pages totaling another 4,500 fans.
Our income – such as it is – comes from advertising, and one of our problems is that there are never enough hours in the day to sell and design ads as well as report, edit, etc. But we have noticed that after five years, it's not as hard a sell. Businesses are coming to see print ads as a waste of money, and more and more people we meet know about us and read us.
4. What do you consider your competition as a local news or information source?
As a local news source, we don't have much competition. We cover select board meetings, planning and zoning, breaking news, crime, education, business and other areas that a shopper or a “press release digest” does not. What we have noticed in the past month is that the two shoppers in the area are trying to cover news like we do. And they have had some success.
The only time a reporter from the traditional papers – the Rutland Herald, Brattleboro Reformer, a TV station or VPR – shows up is for a murder, accident, fire or a meeting that's expected to be a donnybrook. As often as not, since they don't know the community, it's more difficult for them to see the subtlety in issues and opinions.
5. What makes your site unique?
We seem to be unique in all the wrong ways. Since we were coming into an area – and a state – that had never had a hyper-local online newspaper before, I chose design and functionality that looked and worked like a hard copy newspaper.
It's dark and dramatic, not the bright white background with the gigantic photo that is pretty common now. The name “Telegraph” is even old-fashioned.
The ads are old-style – there is little to no movement on the page – and we manage them in-house. (This also overcomes the ad-blocking problem.)
Google also doesn't consider us “mobile friendly.” But in the tests that we run ourselves, our entire newspaper shows up, including ads, as a miniature version of the desktop view. Both our readers and our advertisers love that.
6. What is something you wish you had known when you were starting out or would do differently now that could perhaps serve as advice for others?
I wish that I had had a better sense of where we could go with this venture and what we would need in manpower and financial support to get there. Like most journalists, I was not immersed in the world of ad sales (although my father had been a newspaper ad salesman for years.).
It would have been a good move to have an ad salesperson when we launched. So I suggest that everyone get one.
I also wish that I had had a clearer picture of the pool of talent in my communities. If we had launched in many other markets, I could have thrown a rock in the grocery store and hit five journalists and two ad salespeople. Not so here. There isn't that legacy here.
7. What about your operation is your biggest source of pride right now?
Our readers and our advertisers recognize our value and they tell us. On Monday, Sept. 18, we surpassed our pageviews for all of 2016, and we have seen double-digit readership growth every year.
8. What do you struggle with the most?
Ad sales and finding reporters. There's plenty of people out there who want to write about their personal interests, but a good reporter is a rare commodity.
9. What are some of your future goals for the site?
We are concentrating on shoring up loyalty advertisers and readers and finding ways to get readers to donate to The Telegraph simply because it is so important to them. Since we are a for-profit, that's going to be quite a trick, especially since I don't want to construct a paywall.
10. Why are you a member of LION Publishers?
Our mistake, we thought we were joining Lions Clubs International. Live and learn.
(That is my husband's remark. And I thought it was hilarious.)
Actually, I had been looking around for a journalists' organization to join that would give me a sense of community. There are so few journalists in our area, we could be considered an endangered species. And I've found a very knowledgeable, diverse and supportive group with LION. The exchange of information and lively banter in the LIONs Den is very important to keeping me grounded and sane. Thanks so much for it all.
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