A Q&A with Lissa Harris, publisher of the Watershed Post in New York.
1. When did your site launch, what geography does it cover and why was it founded?
We launched the Watershed Post without much ceremony in January of 2010, to cover the rural Catskills region of upstate New York. The area is home to New York City's huge unfiltered watershed — hence our name.
At the time, it was largely an experiment in doing news aggregation in a rural setting, inspired by Adam Gaffin's Boston-based site, Universal Hub (also a LION member). Adam built our site and is still involved with the tech side of the project.
Our area is a very challenging one, news-wise. Broadcast media is very thin on the ground. Most of the Catskills region is covered by a shrinking corps of tiny independent print weeklies, and a few dailies whose main focus is on their more urban territory. Cell phone coverage and even high-speed internet access is spotty or nonexistent in a lot of our region, too.
These days, we still do some aggregation, but are mostly dedicated to original reporting. We try to focus on stories that other news outlets in the area are missing, or ways to add something new to local coverage of an issue.
2. What was your background before becoming an independent local news publisher?
We're alt-weekly people. I met editor Julia Reischel (who's also my wife) while we were both working at the Weekly Dig in Boston. We've both done stints in community news. I have a science writing and natural resources background, and she worked in legal news reporting for awhile. All this stuff has served us well.
I'm the local — I grew up in the Catskills.
3. How would you describe your operation and business model?
Most of our revenue comes from advertising — and a huge chunk of that is print advertising. We publish two local tourist-oriented glossy annual magazines, the Catskills Outdoor Guide and Catskills Food Guide. Our margins on advertising in print are much slimmer because of high production costs, but still, it's often easier for us to get big ad buys in print than online.
The magazines are a lot of work to produce, but they're a great tool in helping us reach new advertisers and getting our name out there in the region.
About a fifth of our revenue comes from a supporting grant from the Ottaway Foundation. We're interested in doing more fundraising and growing our revenue from member support. Sticking our hand out for support doesn't come naturally to either of us — it's a personality thing, more than anything else. But we know we have the kind of loyal readership that could deliver on that, if we approach it the right way.
4. What do you consider your competition as a local news or information source?
Our obvious competitors are mostly local print weeklies. But mostly, it's Facebook.
People in our region are used to having spotty news, and having to wait for the paper to tell them next week what they already know. That makes for some very robust local rumor mills. The gossip circuit was formidable around here in my grandmothers' day. Facebook has basically weaponized it.
We benefit from this, too. A lot of our news tips come from social media, and a lot of our inbound traffic. But with so many of our fellow mom-and-pop businesses paying Facebook directly for promotion, I'm much more worried about social media as a competitor for revenue and audience than I am about other news outlets.
5. What makes your site unique?
I think the main thing that separates us from most local digital news sites is our geography. Very few people are crazy enough to try this kind of thing in a huge rural area, apparently. In our coverage area, we have dozens upon dozens of towns, villages, school boards, quasi-governmental agencies, regional offices of state government, etc. And then there's the New York City water politics.
Our rural geography is both our biggest challenge and our best opportunity. We're breaking down long-standing information silos in the area. We're reaching a lot of different audiences that don't have many other local information sources in common, and I think that's very cool.
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?
Keep it simple! We built a lot of unnecessary complexity into our Drupal site when we first built it — lots of content types, complicated taxonomy. I'm now working on paring that down.
7. What about your operation is your biggest source of pride right now?
Honestly, I'm so proud that five years after our launch, we still exist, we're growing, and we're paying ourselves and our contributors. For two reporters who never had any kind of background in sales or business, I think that's huge.
8. What do you struggle with the most?
Being in constant "news triage" mode is very draining. We're always asking ourselves: Of the fifty things we could legitimately focus on today, which two should we pick?
Because our territory is so large, because our organization is so tiny, and because the existing local news media outlets are so thin on the ground, there's a lot of great stories that we aren't covering — that nobody is covering. There are a lot of towns around here where a reporter paying a visit to a town meeting is a rare occasion. The biggest struggle for us has been coming to terms with the all-too-obvious fact that we can't do everything.
9. What are some of your future goals for the site?
Hiring is an obvious one. I'd love to have a full-time staff reporter. We hired a part-time salesperson recently, which was a great step for us.
In the long term, one of our biggest goals is to define and structure our own jobs so that somebody else who's not a driven founder type could step into them. We'd love for the site to outlive us.
10. Why are you a member of LION Publishers?
I'm mostly here for the shop talk that goes on in the Facebook group. I go for long stretches without interacting much, but knowing that it's there if we need it is precious to me. I've found the LIONs to be very generous with their advice and candor, and I'm so glad to have a no-bullshit bunch of peers to go to for professional dilemmas.
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