In my conversations with Gazette-Mail readers, by both email and phone, I find myself thanking them more and more regularly.
Doesn’t matter if they’re suggesting a story, or complaining about one that’s been written, or having trouble logging in to our website, or saying they can’t get a carrier to put the paper on the front porch. I usually say some version of, “Thank you for telling us about this. We always like to hear from our readers.”
I might not have meant it every single day of my decades-long journalism career, but I mean it now.
A year and a half ago, I didn’t know if I would have a job in a few weeks. Neither did anyone else I worked with at the Gazette-Mail.
Our company was bankrupt and for sale, following the path of so many American newspapers over the past couple of decades. Would we be swallowed up by a chain that would slash our staff, or bought up by venture capitalists who would drain as much money from us as they could?
Instead, we got bought by a group of regional investors who — although they still care about making money — came on board because they believe in the importance of local journalism.
Now, 18 months later, we’re still telling the stories we believe our readers want to hear, and the stories we believe they should hear.
Ironically (to use Statehouse reporter Phil Kabler’s favorite word), even though we have fewer print subscribers, more people read our stories and see our photos than ever before.
Our publisher, Jim Heady, set us a goal last October to double our digital subscriptions within a year. We did it with three months to spare, and we’re working toward the next goal.
We’re branching out in other ways, as well. More than a year ago, we started a weekly news podcast, “Mountain State Morning.” It started out as a recitation of some of the week’s stories, but Kate Mishkin, Cathy Caudill, Rafe Godfrey and several others here have made it so much more than that.
We’ve started a second podcast, “All ’Eers,” about WVU sports. That one’s only a few weeks old, and thanks to the Mountaineers finally beating a decent team, this week’s edition should find Tom Bragg and Derek Redd in a better mood.
But I’m not here to tell you it’s been all rainbows and unicorns. We halved our daily comics pages and combined our two separate opinion pages, and lots of readers had something to say about those changes. Our website sometimes makes you log in every time you want to read a story. (That happens to me, and it drives me crazy, too.)
Probably no change got more attention than when we changed our obituaries, to align them with the rest of HD Media’s online sites. But we heard your complaints, and shared many of them, and the experience has gotten better, according to what I hear from readers.
We laid off a brilliant photographer, Craig Hudson. That really hurt. Other people have left and not been replaced.
The smaller newsroom has made us focus on the stories we think are really important, and to find partners to help us tell them.
One of those partners is Report for America, which places young journalists in newsrooms to report on undercovered areas and subjects. We have two of those corps members now, Caity Coyne and Amelia Ferrell Knisely, and they continue to write stories we simply wouldn’t get to if they weren’t here.
The environmental lawyer Tom Galloway, who died earlier this year, was instrumental in getting this program off the ground and in making sure the Gazette-Mail was part of it from the beginning. His family foundation has helped fund the program, and the Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation has paid part of those reporters’ salaries, as well. We are extremely grateful to them.
Also, longtime reporter Ken Ward Jr. has been part of the Local Reporting Network, an outreach program from the national nonprofit news organization ProPublica. The big story Ken wrote about Gov. Jim Justice and The Greenbrier resort a few weeks ago might be fresh in your mind. He spent last year writing about the natural gas industry and its impacts on West Virginia residents.
You won’t find stories like these anywhere else. We know that our readers are smart and want to stay informed, and we appreciate that.
To that end, we’re holding a Reader Appreciation Event on Thursday evening at the newspaper building, at 1001 Virginia St. E., in connection with Charleston’s monthly ArtWalk. I’ll be there, and several others from the Gazette-Mail will, too. We hope you’ll join us, because we want to hear from you.