Key to success: ‘You don’t keep everybody happy’

Goal is to report “properly and fairly” on every issue

By Kevin Spradlin
ENGL 336

* Video – an interview with Mary Sincell McEwen

OAKLAND, Md. — For more than two weeks, her secret was kept.

During a Nov. 2 interview with Mary Sincell McEwen, editor of The Garrett County Republican newspaper, McEwen let slip that she was just about out of energy. There is, after all, only so much change a single individual can withstand before they decide the thing they love is no longer the same thing they fell in love with.

In July, NCWV Media, based in Clarksburg, W.Va., completed its purchase of The Republican News, a weekly newspaper in Garrett County, Maryland’s westernmost county (almost West Virginia, many say). McEwen had been promoted from associate editor to editor at the time of the sale. Only four months later, she acknowledged she was ready to leave the post.

As McEwen spoke about the importance of local journalism, she wondered about her place in it.

“I think one of the biggest drives is to stay on top of the crest of the wave as much as you can, paying attention to as much as you can,” McEwen said. “You know, it’s kind of wearing me out. If there’s something on Facebook that no one’s brought in here, we will often run with it … that’s all with the knowledge that the whole genre has changed, the whole industry has changed so much.”

Those changes in the industry of journalism were exacerbated when the changes after NCWV Media’s acquisition of the paper, which had been in the Sincell family since 1890 and began in 1877, named in honor of President Abraham Lincoln.

Mary Sincell McEwen publishes her farewell column on The Garrett County Republican's Facebook page.

Mary Sincell McEwen publishes her farewell column on The Garrett County Republican’s Facebook page.

On Nov. 16, McEwen announced she is resigning as editor of the paper. As the hour passed in the early November interview, her thoughts and facial expressions seemed to range between what once was, what is, and what could still be. It all centered around how important she believed a community newspaper is to the people it serves. In that belief, she has never wavered.

“I think for us, in the editorial side and the writing side, we measure success by people writing us letters to the editor … by people being knowledgable, showing up at meetings, and being involved and citing our paper a lot,” said McEwen, who sat in her newly relocated office, with nearly blank walls serving either as a sign of the just-completed move to the new building or, just as likely, a sign of something else.

But who’s been doing the writing has changed since the paper was purchased in July. That’s when McEwen’s brother, Don Sincell, stepped down as editor after 40 years in the family business. The number of staff members in the newsroom has decreased over the years — an affliction suffered by most every newspaper in the country, due to the economic downturn beginning in 2008 — but whose name was in the bylines was important.

“Well, we were pretty static for a long time,” McEwen said about staffing levels. “When the new folks took over … they’re all about efficiency. Don left, and Don wrote a ton of stuff as the editor. They didn’t realize how much he wrote. They didn’t replace him.”

Upon completing the transaction, NCWV Media also closed the Grantsville office, which served as a gateway to the community newspaper for people who lived too far away to travel to Oakland regularly. Everybody remaining with the business is being asked to do more with less. It can get tiring.

Photo by Kevin Spradlin Mary Sincell McEwen has been with The Garrett County Republican since 1991. She has resigned as editor, effective Nov. 30, but will remain the Arts and Entertainment editor for the paper, which was owned by the Sincell family from 1890 to 2017.

Photo by Kevin Spradlin
Mary Sincell McEwen has been with The Garrett County Republican since 1991. She has resigned as editor, effective Nov. 30, but will remain the Arts and Entertainment editor for the paper, which was owned by the Sincell family from 1890 to 2017.

“It’s very difficult, and I’m worn out, frankly,” McEwen said. “I think a lot of it has to do with good time management, and deciding what everbody can do, and being reasonable about what everybody can do, and a heavy resilience on the Internet, finding what we can find, getting on the phone, being as efficient as possible with the time that we have. Not as much getting out and driving all over the place. We have a staff photographer. If there’s a ribbon-cutting or something, we can call Lindsay (Mulliken).”

For customer convenience, “we did have a satellite office in Grantsville. They closed it,” McEwen said. “I think that’s … not great. Because that was a really good public relations (tool, that made) it more convenient for people who live 45 minutes away from us to get a line ad in. It was nice to have that presence up there, and we don’t have that anymore. So, we shrunk. And the job just continues. And, you know, you have to make a decision, if you’re going to pare down what you’re writing … and do more in another area, or if you’re going to kind of spread yourself thin. And we’ve kind of spread ourselves thin.”

McEwen had been with the paper since 1991. Two others in the newsroom have a combined 26 years with the paper, while a third person has been with the paper “on and off since 1991), but well over two decades. Then there’s the new sports writer, who was “plucked out” by McEwen by a group of her son’s friends at West Virginia University.

Screen Shot 2017-11-18 at 10.55.59 AMThe epitome of local news

Brian Jarvis, who heads NCWV Media, recently purchased a new headquarters in downtown Oakland for The Garrett County Republican. Located at the internet of Green and Second streets, the newsroom remains just a short walk from a vibrant arts community, town hall and county courthouse. There’s also the historical society and museum, two antique stores, a bookstore and a bakery.

“Town news is a big deal,” McEwen said. “County government is huge. We usually have a county government story on the front.”

Other top coverage areas include school news and high school sports. Reader-submitted elements include event calendars and state parks, which are a big deal since “in Garrett County, it’s a lot about what we can do, because it’s a recreation-driven place. So there are a lot of people who live here and come here who want to be outside doin’ stuff. Also the arts, the arts is a huge push.”

Though she seems to lament the loss of status that comes with being a family-owned newspaer, McEwen simultaneously praises Jarvis for purchasing quality community newspapers to help keep them afloat.

“When you have people who invest (in news), like Brian Jarvis … he’s investing in a lot of small-town newspapers, and that’s great, because it’s helping them survive and continue to do what they need to do, which is to keep their community bound and connected to one another. I think the future of the newspaper is dicey as far as how it is handed out to folks, but I don’t think the need for it is that dicey. I think that will continue for quite a long time, and I have much more confidence in that now than I did 10 years ago.”

The Internet 

The newspaper has solid market penetration, with a circulation of “up to” 9,000 in a county with a population of approximately 30,000 people. Like any other news outlet in the country, how people consume their news is changing. To react, The Garrett County Republican has tried a number of methods regarding its online presence.

Since the transition to NCWV Media ownership, The Garrett County Republican no longer has its own URL. Instead, its online content is hosted under NCWV Media’s flagship paper, The Exponent Telegram in Clarksburg, W.Va., specifically, theet.com.

“A lot of people were saying … what is ‘theet’,” McEwen recalled when the online transition began. Yes, I think it’s caused confusion. We’ve written about it. It’s set up so that anybody going to the (old URL) goes directly (to the new one). People are getting used to it, slowly.”

There is no pay wall now. All stories are posted online at no cost to readers.

“I have huge mixed feelings,” McEwen said of that approach, which differs from the online subscriptions the paper used to sell. “I’m probably not the best spokesperson. Being in the family makes me … digging my heels in a little bit.”

Having no pay wall is a concern, she said.

“We had people who were subscribers, and they paid. Now they whole thing’s on there. The plan is to make it go back to a pay wall in some time, when they’ve attracted a lot of people. I don’t know if they’ll really do that.”

McEwen catches herself, and stops short.

“I’m not even supposed to be saying ‘they.’ I’m supposed to be saying ‘we‘.”

Back to the issue at hand.

“They don’t worry too much about subscriptions,” McEwen said. “It’s obvious … it’s a different mindset. They are much more concerned about the advertiser than the actual paper buyers. It’s just a shift … in the whole thing being efficient and making sure the bottom line is really paid attention to.”

Still, there’s a nagging concern.

“I worry about the folks who paid for a subscription,” McEwen said, “but I also think life is kind of like that with the Internet. You never know quite what’s gonna come down the pike. When a company changes owners, you just don’t know.”

Why local news matters

The Republican, in whatever form, has “been here for such a long time, been here for 137 years,” McEwen said. “People are very used to it. We had press trouble, or when we had trouble with computer-to-plate machine … one time we had to publish Friday morning” — a day late. “You would have thought somebody had died. The phone rang, and rang, and rang. People were so dependent on it. It is a habit. There are things that people really look for. And it’s alway surprising to me … if we happen to leave out the stock report, you would think, ‘oh my God!’ You know? People are like, ‘what’s the matter with you guys?’ It’s a service … that people have come to be used to.”

People want the obituaries. Or the opinion page. Or, as McEwen puts it, “where ever their interests take them.”

“I think it builds community,” she said. “I think that it helps people know they’re on the same team, and that they are in this part of the world where we all communicate. And I think that’s really vital. And if it goes away … social media has its draw and its importance, but I mean, there sits my mom, out there reading every paragraph. And thousands of people do that every week. I think it brings people closer together. I just think that it preserves that sense of belonging to a community when you read a paper that covers such a wide array of events right here in the mountaintop.”

A quality newspaper, McEwn noted, is going to have a variety of opinions on a given issue. Unlike social media, a reader can’t so easily filter out views that don’t match their own.

Online, “you can hide everybody who annoys you. Getting your newspaper, you read about all kinds of different things. It’s not filtered. I think that’s important.”

 

 

Filed in: Featured News, News

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