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Local Journalists Buy Their Newspaper, Hoping For Great Things

One day, three journalists in a small town outside Albany pooled their resources and decided to buy their newspaper. The rest, they say, is going to be history.

The internet has become the go-to source for news for people all around the globe, and that has led to the printed page falling from popular favor. Newspapers in particular have been fading for years. Some major cities that used to have multiple daily papers now no longer have even one. But could that trend be bucked in smaller towns?

The first copies of the Altamont Enterprise rolled off the presses in 1884.  Melissa Hale-Spencer comes from a newspaper family and spent the last 20 years as editor of the Enterprise, covering local issues across several Albany County towns. This summer, Hale-Spencer, her husband Gary and staffer Marcello Iaia bought the paper from longtime publisher James Gardner for $45,000.    "This week we have election profiles if you look in our paper. We have pages of profiles. There's nowhere else. If you live in the town of Westerlo and you want to know what the issues are, we don't just do editorial endorsements where we say who we think is important, we go to the candidates and interview them on issues important to the people, so if you live in Westerlo you can see how your own views line up. We serve democracy in the way, and I'm afraid with newspapers — as you mentioned — fading, there's gonna be an essential function that's lost."

The print side of the Enterprise is holding its own, but that doesn't preclude tweeting and podcasting along with a presence on Facebook. Co-publisher Iaia is a classical guitarist with a music degree who marches to the clink and hum of the printing press.    "I came to the paper right around the time where it was really tender with it, its presence online. And it had had a simple website, it was going to a more advanced one, and I was just, I guess, curious, and I read a large portion of my news online, so I thought it was really important, a really important discussion, so I participated in that, at a small newspaper a new reporter could do that, and then from there it really just, over the course of two years, became a point where I was talking with Melissa a lot about things that weren't just interwove through the week's news, and I just saw how the paper was run, again, the perspective that you can take in a small business, and I thought, that's something that I could do, but it didn't really come to a business, a head or a point until Melissa, actually as the person who had been there for a long time, was getting the opportunity to possibly purchase the newspaper."

Along with Melissa's husband Gary, these three, at a time when printed newspapers are struggling, took a local institution under their collective wing. Hale-Spencer is proud of the paper's editorials, which she says have moved readers and led to change. She extols the virtues of the physical newsprint entity:   "It's something you can share. you know you can set it on the table, have a discussion. One of the things I focused on in this editorial, not just the typical 'please vote' editorial, but what's happened to the American electorate. And, as people are spending more time grazing for news and on their cellphones, there's less interaction and political discussion, and it has to do directly with the steep decline in the number of Americans who vote. It turns out newspaper readers are voters. Editor & Publisher did a poll, 50 percent of Americans vote anymore, that's high, that's in a presidential election year. Only 50 percent read newspapers, some of the exact same 50 percent are voters, so people that are reading are the people that are still committed to the idea of a functioning democracy."

IaIa says the newspaper gives readers a customized layout.   "I hadn't really appreciated that until working here and especially more recently around Melissa, who does the layout, and Christine our designer on Wednesday night. You know, a lot of times, each story will get its own layout, and it changes the reading experiences, and it really is important for what the story is about. Sometimes if the story is more visual, the images will be larger or toward the center of the story or it might be that it's accompanied with a picture page. Melissa really thinks about that with every single thing and she's resisted very strongly going to any sort of templates, which, a lot of readers probably don't realize but most newspapers, at least of our size, are using."

Hale-Spencer cites a recent article where pictures, color pictures, were critical components of the story.   "It's a story about stained glass windows. If you couldn't see the color there you wouldn't really feel the story."

A reminder of what the larger area newspapers, in effort to stay relevant, often present online: videos shot by reporters at stories they cover, posted to the paper's websites.   "The problem with having a lot of traditionally print reporters carry video cameras:  you can do great things with video but that isn't their training or their center.  Sometimes video is great and you want it in a story and it's essential. But there are stories where really having a reporter shoot video isn't really helping the story," said Hale-Spencer.

Iaia chimed in:  "There has been some really large crime stories that we've gone in and reported on, I think, more deeply, even if a lot of other places are picking up the story. You know, local crime stories.'  Hale-Spencer "We pick up blotters every week from all of our police offices. We don't just wait for them to send out a press release and tell us what's important, which is what a lot of big papers are doing these days since they cut back on their staff."

Hale-Spencer cites a front-page Enterprise story about a traffic stop where a taser was used.   "And this is without a big headline story where there's a death. This is just a routine traffic stop. What are their rights as citizens in a traffic stop? Most citizens think they have to allow a search of their car. They don't.  Most citizens think they have to have an I.D. with them. They don't. Informing people about their basic rights as well as looking at procedures and how they're codified in a police department, that's a window into that from just a tiny little story."

Hale-Spencer says stories like that one represent what the Enterprise is: a weekly publication with honesty, integrity and rich content. There's also a bit of luck involved: happy coincidences like those that led up to the transfer of ownership of the Enterprise.   "One of my very dearest friends at the very time I was buying this paper, Andrew Schotz, His suburban weekly in Maryland was folding, so I was questioning 'what are we doing?' And I think really a newspaper builds the community, the community bulletin board function I mentioned, its still part of our paper, the calendar, the events. But also, the big important issues, so that people can understand what is happening and can have a role in that. I like to think of every reader as an activist. if you give people the information they can make a difference in all kinds of things. In their schools, their governments, and it used to be a given in an American community. You used to be considered like poor if you only had one newspaper in town because you didn't get the competitive views, and now, there's so many major cities without a newspaper at all.  I find it very distressing for our future."

Hale-Spencer adds “the press is the soul of the newspaper,” and as such, the Altamont Enterprise goes to press every week.  "The tools that we use are a mirror and a torch. We try to hold up something to the community that reflects it, and we try to shine a light in dark places, but for the towns that we cover, I think we're essential. We get into what's happening behind the scenes, and that's the Heldeberg Hilltowns, New Scotland and Guilderland. But we also look through a local lens at much larger issues. You can look at almost anything through a local lens, so even readers outside of our coverage area, some of them have started subscribing because we take interest and looks at problems that are larger, and I think that's an important thing for a paper to do, any newspaper. And just because you're small in terms of circulation, doesn't mean you can't be big in the sense of the issues that you tackle or look at critically or in a way that sheds light on whatever the particular problem is."

The new owners say the Enterprise will carry on as it always has: serving up in-depth journalism and acting as a community bulletin board for 5,160 paid subscribers in and around a select but extremely important part of Albany County.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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