Publisher Notes: The Spy in 2018

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Waiting for the Stage William Caton Woodville (National Gallery of Art). Forwarded by Spy Agent Glass

For almost nine years now, I have made it a practice to insulate the Chestertown Spy and Talbot Spy from any comparison to other print or online publications. In simple terms, this has meant that I have never participated in any professional association nor have I been a subscriber to the Star Democrat and Kent County News.

Like any act of innovation, it is not in the creator’s best interest to compare one’s new enterprise to models that are not direct competition. From its earliest beginning in the spring of 2009, The Spy was developing an entirely different news source targeted at community education first and foremost. It also began as a “no-profit” turned non-profit business that aimed at successful sustainability rather than return on investment.

All of that has worked in our favor as we recently completed eight years of operation. Unlike countless other start-ups, particularly in small communities throughout the country, the Spy has been able to grow in its reach (one million plus hits a year) while maintaining the trust of our readers and the confidence of our sponsors.

But like every other curious person in the world, I couldn’t help but wonder about the “other guys.” And last November I broke these vows of separation in two ways: 1) I attended a conference devoted to independent local online newspapers and 2) took out subscriptions for Chesapeake Publishing’s local papers.

In Chicago, over 150 publications and their representatives gathered for four days to discuss best practices and new trends in this growing field. And it was heartening to hear in some ways that not one these other online ventures had found on a sustainable business concept like the Spy model.

The other trend was that very few of these newspapers moved beyond their primary focus of covering local government issues.  In most cases, there was no attempt to include local arts and culture, or there were only token steps to publish press releases related to these subjects. And few, if any, had taken advantage of multimedia like original content video, which has been the Spy’s primary tool since we began with now close to 2,000 videos online.

In the case of both the Star Democrat and the Kent County News, my response is only one of respect for these “newspapers of record.” Unlike the Spy, these printed news sources must take on the responsibility, and the expense, of covering such local topics as crime, sports, weather, legal notices, and obituaries, all of which is not in the Spy portfolio.  It was a relief to note the unique difference between the Spy and these legacy papers, and the complementary nature the Spy plays to their hard work.

And so the Spy starts the new year with a renewed confidence but also profound gratitude to its writers, columnists, poets, and the kind and thoughtful support from the Spy’s fiscal agent, the Mid-Shore Community Foundation, as well as the Spy’s talented and generous board of advisors for making it the success it has become.

Beyond our investment in technology, the Spy has been particularly proud of the extraordinary trust our 100,000 readers a year have in these two online news sources. In the midst of what might be one of the most challenging times for public discourse and the public’s trust in news in our country’s history, every week the Spy has become a safe harbor for serious and thought-provoking perspectives. I am indebted to our remarkably distinguished columnists and friends Howard Freedlander, Craig Fuller, Jimmie Galbreath, Jamie Kirkpatrick, Mary McCoy, George Merrill, David Montgomery, Nancy Mugele, Al Sikes, and Amy Steward for sharing their very different points of view with the community. Likewise, we are grateful to our readers willing to engage in civilized debate in response to those opinions by offering up their comments.

As publisher, it would have been impossible to fulfill our mission last year without the generous contributions of our writers and volunteer editors. Those include Jane Jewell and Peter Heck in their coverage of Kent County, Jenn Martella for Talbot County, Jean Sanders for maintaining our high quality of design and our Facebook presence, the marketing strategic support of Bill Rolle and Mary Kramer, and Neoma Rohman and Derek Beck for website support. We are also indebted to our content partners, the Delmarva Review, Capital News Service, the Bay Journal, Maryland Reporter and Talbot Historical Society for their invaluable service to our region.

One of the reasons that the Spy has maintained its existence for eight years is to keep the organization financially nimble and free of debt. One way we accomplish this is that neither the Spies nor our parent, the Community Newspaper Project Fund, have any full-time employees, including this publisher. Instead, we offer modest stipends for our writers and greatly benefit from the volunteer support of others.

We will continue that tradition in 2018 with a few changes in editorial priorities and staffing.

To emphasize our commitment to public affairs, we have renamed our Occurrences section just that to reflect the Spy’s coverage of local issues facing the community rather than the need to produce daily headlines. While we suspect that most of our readers understand this subtle but significant difference, it helps to reinforce our mission to educate the community through “long-form” coverage of timely issues.

This year Jenn Martella will take on a managing editor role for the Spy. Jenn created the Spy’s popular Habitat section for Chestertown and Talbot County, and we have asked her to extend that coverage to include our culture and arts as well as direct the Spy’s ongoing sponsorship/ad program from Mary who is leaving the Spy after six years of very committed service to our mission.

2018 will also be the first year that the Spy will have an annual giving campaign to encourage our readers to donate what they might to keep the Spy solvent. While we are committed to maintaining the newspapers free to every member of the community, like every nonprofit organization, we must also find an easy way for those who appreciate our role on the Eastern Shore to support the Spy on a monthly or yearly basis.

Lastly, pundits are predicting 2018 to be a gruelling time in American politics as the country faces a Congressional election in November. It is unlikely the Mid-Shore will avoid this environment as challengers continue to sign up to oppose Congressman Andy Harris for the 1st Congressional District race from both parties. Once again, the Spy is determined to be a safe harbor for debate and will be making this race a public affairs priority over the next eleven months. We look forward to working with all political parties to ensure constructive dialogue in what might be one of the most critical elections in our country’s history.

Dave Wheelan
Publisher and Executive Editor

 

 

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