The Hancock News: ‘We think there’s value in the print edition’

When it comes to covering town news, “we take that tradition pretty seriously”

By Kevin Spradlin
ENGL 336

HANCOCK, Md. — The Hancock News is unique among newspapers that agreed to sit down for an interview. The weekly newspaper, established in 1914, has only the slightest Internet presence.

Kate Shunney, editor, and reporter Geoff Fox, are just fine with that approach.

The Hancock News has been here for over 100 years,” Shunney said, “serving the townspeople of Hancock through a lot of different ups and downs economically. So we take that tradition pretty seriously, though we do have obviously challenges to our position in the news landscape.”

The Hancock News is situated in the town of Hancock, population 1,545, in western Washington County. The newspaper’s coverage area extends to southern Fulton County, Pa., just a couple miles up the road, east to Big Pool and west to Little Orleans in eastern Allegany County.

Photo by Kevin Spradlin Reporter Geoff Fox, left, and Kate Shunney, editor, lead the news coverage for only print newspaper dedicated to covering the town of Hancock, Maryland, in western Washington County.

Photo by Kevin Spradlin
Reporter Geoff Fox, left, and Kate Shunney, editor, lead the news coverage for only print newspaper dedicated to covering the town of Hancock, Maryland, in western Washington County.

Its website is essentially a digital bookmark that offers visitors only the bare bones of information — the newspaper’s office location, and the phone and fax numbers. Not even office hours are posted.

It’s not easy to report the news first in Hancock. The “big city” newspaper in nearby Hagerstown, the Herald-Mail, will send a reporter to the town of almost 1,600 residents when big news happens or when controversy strikes, whether it’s the location of the new library, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources proposing all-terrain vehicle trails without local input, the permitting of a medical cannabis dispensary, or when the remains of a human body have been found.

Editor Kate Shunney and part-time reporter Geoff Fox realize they might not be first to report they news. What they do get, however, will be accurate, and it will also probably be a bit more than a news release from a government agency.

The Herald-Mail, Shunney said, “sends reporters here now and again, and they seem to be ramping that up recently. And then we have Facebook pages that, you know, cross into some of the things that we do. But small town newspapers do things that other media don’t. We run birth announcements and obituaries and public notices and town council coverage that doesn’t get the attraction of media that’s about … revenue. We do the kind of gritty stuff.”

Shunney called the Herald “a good paper … but we produce a weekly record of the stuff that happens to people in Hancock. And that exists as a public record, almost an archive of local history. The value of that is significant. Fifty years from now, if somebody wants to know when so-and-so died (or) what day something happened in Hancock history, they can look in The Hancock News and it’s going to be there.”

Fox, who balances his workload at the News with a full-time job at a Hagerstown department store, recalled a time when he used a tape recorder for an interview. Somehow, the interview was lost, but Fox took quick steps to recover and report the story in a timely manner by reaching out to the source a second time.

There is plenty of time to make adjustments on the fly, Fox said.

“I know with the Herald-Mail, they have a certain amount of time to get their stuff in, whereas we have that full week,” said Fox, who has been a reporter in Hancock since 2011. “If a town meeting happens on a Wednesday night, their reporter has only Thursday to get it in. I can go back listen to (the meeting on tape) … but where (the Herald‘s report) might only be maybe a few paragraphs, mine will be a lot more. So that gives people in Hancock the chance to say … (that) The Hancock News as the entire discussion.”

Shunney echoes Fox’s sentiment: “We’re never gonna win on speed, because we’re a weekly paper. We don’t have an online edition. But we can distinguish ourselves by depth and context for our readers.”

There are many reasons why The Hancock News — owned by the Buzzerd family of nearby Morgan County, W.Va., which also owns the Morgan Messenger, for which Shunney is also editor — does not have an online presence. On the editorial side of the equation, Shunney said it comes down to primarily a lack of manpower.

“In order for us to pay for a website and set aside time for somebody to keep it relevant and working decently would necessitate they not be doing something else that we’re doing right now,” she explained. “And we talk about it. We talk about doing something in conjunction with the Morgan Messenger website. Advertising gives us pages and anything else. The cost of the newspaper, most of the time, doesn’t cover the cost of printing the newspaper,” much less adding in the time demands of maintaining a digital presence.

Money, too, is an issue.

“I think for The Hancock News, there would be an expectation that it would be free,” Shunney said, “in which case we’ve just eliminated some portion of our subscriber base. There’s value in what we do. It costs us money to generate the newspaper. The ink, the staffing, the support staff that goes into that. That’s worth at least the cost of the newspaper.”

And updating a website, Shunney said, is “a whole other project. I know that because I do that for the Messenger. I basically run whatever digital presence we have (there). And it’s a project, and it can have a life of its own, attending to comments, loading new content, managing people’s interactions with it. For the Messenger, that’s worth the effort — we have a larger advertiser base (and) a larger reader base. We just haven’t figured out the magic formula over here.”

Shunney said The Hancock News as a weekly circulation of about 1,600, including newsstand sales and subscriptions. The Messenger, meanwhile, has a weekly circulation of about 5,600.

Screen Shot 2017-11-17 at 8.38.45 PMReader trust

Fox and Shunney figure there is a great way, even for what they consider to be the smallest member of the MDDC Press Association, for the two members of the editorial staff — plus a part-time sports reporter who doubles as the high school’s athletic director — to build and maintain trust with readers.

The basic goal, they said, is to not making mistakes.

“Getting people’s names right and not screwing stuff up,” Shunney said. “Giving credit where credit’s due. Inviting reader participation” through letters to the editor or submitted news releases. “Not screwing stuff up and making corrections when you do.”

Fox emphasized the importance maintaining relationships not only with readers, but with sources. When human remains were found in town in early November, newspapers in Hagerstown and Martinsburg responded, as did a television station.

“Kate was up there,” Fox said.

The other outlets apparently seemed content on staying within town limits and taking authorities’ viewpoints from the friendly confines of a building. But not Shunney.

“It’s in our back yard,” she said. “I can show up at a crime scene and the sheriff knows who I am. When we can show up on the scene and be there, and stand there and talk to the police chief … they know who we are. They see Geoff at every council meeting, and they see him at the parades and at the festivals. They know why he’s there. They can tell the difference between somebody who just wants to get their piece of the story and go, and somebody who’s there to listen and wants to know how it really affects the community.”

For The Hancock News, such in-depth coverage is a double-edged sword. Sometimes, all they can do is sit back and chuckle.

“Readers and residents seem to crave that kind of attention from the big outlets,” Shunney said. “They’ll share those big stories (on social media), ‘Hancock made the Baltimore Sun.’ That seems pretty exciting.”

As for readers’ reaction to it being reported on locally, they’ll say, “‘well, of course it was in The Hancock News.’ You just assume that’s the way it is.”

Digital platforms

Shunney and Fox have recently embarked on the Twitter adventure for news coverage. Shunney has designated Fox the social media specialist for the News. It’s a relatively new feature, but it’s proven to be worth the effort.

“It does work well for trials,” Shunney said, to announce breaking news of verdicts and sentencing.

The Hancock News Twitter page.

The Hancock News Twitter page.

Twitter can even help with routine coverage, Fox said.

“If there’s something going on, like the Halloween parade, (or the) Walk to End Child Abuse, I can post pictures,” he said. “If something comes out that needs to be out there …”

Fox used Twitter to relay longtime Mayor Dan Murphy’s decision not to run again for election.

“I took a picture of his announcement and posted a picture on Hancock News Twitter,” Fox said, adding that school news and house fires also get noticed by more than 200 followers.

Despite so many news outlets, large and small, across the country that choose to put content online in a variety of ways, Shunney said the discussion of “print or digital” is not the right discussion.

“For me, philosophically, it’s not really an argument between digital and print,” she said. “I think that’s a false argument. I think digital news and content is a whole separate thing. And a print product has a different kind of life. And I think, you know, really successful media companies work both. We think there’s value in the print edition. Like Geoff said, somebody’s going to clip out that clipping and put it in a box somewhere, and they’re gonna find it 40 years from now. And we know that to be true because people bring that to us 40 years later.”

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