Looking back, looking forward
Sometimes it's helpful to remember where you've been, when considering where you're going.
The river runs through it
The River Reporter
By John Arden-Hopkins
[Reprinted from “A Celebration of Community Excellence,” 1997 New York Press Association Better Newspaper Contest.]
Everyone at The River Reporter agrees with publisher Laurie Stuart’s assessment: the paper’s story would make a great movie. Growing a community paper through years of financial woes, personal setbacks, boycotts and even having a house burned haven’t dampened her relish for putting out an exceptional community newspaper and it makes a great story.
“This is a story about surviving,” Stuart says. The River Reporter was founded by Thomas DeGaetani, a Manhattan arts heavyweight who was told by his doctor to seek a more relaxed style of life. His response was to move to Sullivan County, where he had a vacation home, and found an arts service organization. At that time—1975—the Narrowsburg area was without a local paper, according to Stuart, and so DeGaetani decided to start a paper to serve his new home. The River Reporter was born.
The original publishing group was a not-for-profit corporation. The paper came out every two weeks, there were no ads, and “sustaining” corporation members had their names listed in the masthead. Two years later, DeGaetani hired singer and artist Stuart and her husband to work on the paper. “We put it out typed on my Smith-Corona,” Stuart recalls. In February of 1978, DeGaetani told Stuart he had been 19 days without a rest. The next day his heart condition claimed his life.
The staff decided to keep the paper going. “It was a community trust handed to us, and we couldn’t leave it,” Stuart said. For a few years the bi-weekly paper limped along, then the staff realized it was time to go weekly. The challenge was that the money wasn’t there. After a local business person made an offer for the paper, Stuart and her family decided to form a corporation, Stuart Communications, Inc. and buy the paper themselves. They went weekly in 1986, and were at once embroiled in a local environmental dispute. The paper was threatened, and in August of that year Stuart’s house burned to the ground, which cooled the local strife, but put heavy strain on her personal life. To this day she suspects arson, but no arrest was ever made.
After winning a libel suit in 1993, and losing its editor a few years later, The River Reporter continued to gain strength and “the paper is doing fine now,” Laurie says. The River Reporter won 14 awards in this year’s Better Newspaper Contest.
Stuart is working now to reward her loyal staff, some of whom have lived the entire saga of the paper at her side.
“It used to be if you were at The River Reporter you were exceptionally poor but happy,’ Stuart laughs. “We’re changing that.”
With a paid circulation of about 4,000, and some design work that adds additional income to the paper’s operation, The River Reporter has reached a place where it can grow and continue living out a passion for community service. “I look at community newspapers as a treasure—they really are,” Stuart says. “I’m looking out the window right now at a beautiful river and it wouldn’t be unusual for a bald eagle to fly by. The thing I like about my job is I can help my community develop,” she says. “You can provide something that’s good for the community and the financial rewards will come, too. I love it.
“We never thought we’d be in this situation forever,” Stuart smiles. “We just wanted to get this paper so it didn’t fold. We’re beloved here,” she concluded, “and that’s great. All in all, it’s been a very pleasant journey.”