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Ex-Reidsville Review editor launches online newspaper

by Amy Kingsley

A familiar name in Reidsville press circles will be embarking on a venture in February to bring in-depth reporting to town residents using a novel medium for community news.

Jeff Sykes, the former editor of the Reidsville Review, is launching the Reidsville Free Press, an online newspaper, in the next couple weeks. He is currently tweaking the technology behind the site and finessing agreements with contributors.

The concept involves blending newspaper-style journalism with features like online diaries kept by locals. All of it will be presented in a format where readers can interact by posting comments to the site.

Many community newspapers, including the Reidsville Review, have websites related to their printed product. The emergence of a strictly online product is a new concept for smaller markets that has proved successful in Montclair, NJ and Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Internet publishers that eschew the printing press can save significant costs associated with production and distribution but face challenges publicizing and legitimizing their product.

‘“This is not just a blog,’” Sykes said. ‘“I’m more calling it an online newspaper.’”

He will be competing for readers with the Review, which is owned by newspaper chain Media General, the Greensboro News & Record and The Neely Chronicle, a Rockingham County opinion paper. Sykes edited the Reidsville Review for three years before he resigned in July.

‘“I’m really anxious to get back into reporting,’” Sykes said. ‘“I spent three years as an editor and discovered that I really missed writing and reporting.’”

Sykes resigned after a two of his staff reporters admitted to making up quotes for a front-page advertorial called ‘“Two Cent’s Worth.’” When the two, Michael Pucci and Brook Corwin, approached Sykes with the information, he issued a verbal warning but did not fire them. News of the fabrications hit the News & Record and several of Sykes’ superiors expressed dissatisfaction with his handling of the situation.

‘“The bottom line is that I made the wrong decision,’” Sykes said. ‘“I should have fired those guys when they first came to me. By July I had just given up and become resigned to the fact that I wasn’t going to work there long.’”

Soon afterward, he started thinking about moving on. But he and his wife never really considered moving away from the area.

‘“I was thinking about starting a publication,’” Sykes said. ‘“But then I had a moment of clarity in November. If the future of publishing is going to be online, why don’t I just do that?’”

It is a similar model to one used by Chris Graham, the publisher of online newspaper The Augusta Free Press, which covers state and local issues around Augusta, Staunton and Waynesboro, Va. Graham and his wife, both newspaper veterans with 16 Virginia Press Association awards between them, started their online newspaper with the intention of adding a printed version. They decided it was more economical to stay strictly online.

‘“We have between five and thirty regular advertisers,’” Graham said. ‘“It’s a full-time gig.’”

They conducted research that revealed widespread internet access in their area that would make them available to 70,000 local readers.

‘“We couldn’t reach 70,000 with print,’” Graham said. ‘“To make it work, you have to be in a community with tremendous access to the internet. But in 2006, this is viable pretty much anywhere.’”

Big newspaper chains like Media General, which owns more than 120 community newspapers, represent a minority of North Carolina small town weeklies, according to Jock Lauterer, the director of the North Carolina Community Media Project at UNC. About 52 percent of community papers in the state are family-owned.

Communities served by chain-owned newspapers benefit from the companies’ extra resources, but might suffer a loss of local personality.

‘“A chain might think and act more like a corporation,’” Lauterer said. ‘“They are not there out of a sense of community. They are there to make money.’”

Graham worked at chain-owned papers before making the leap to online journalism.

‘“I think what we offer, as opposed to papers owned by chains, is more focused, more in-depth journalism,’” Graham said. ‘“When I worked with chain papers, the staffs were expected to do a lot more grunt work.’”

Sykes also sees his upstart as an opportunity to fill a void he perceives in newspaper coverage of Reidsville.

‘“I want to give people the opportunity to see their community in a way that isn’t tainted by ineptitude, one man’s opinion or a much larger institution’s condescending attitude,’” Sykes said.

One drawback of online publication is the variation in quality and legitimacy among internet products. Readers sometimes prefer a newspaper they can hold in their hands, Lauterer said.

‘“The bottom line is that when I walk into the men’s room,’” Lauterer said, ‘“it’s newspapers that I see on the ground, not laptops or flat screens.’”

Still, the success of the Augusta Free Press, Barista.net in Montclair, NJ and the proliferation of blogging in nearby Greensboro gives Sykes hope that his new endeavor will flourish.

‘“I know it will be very small to start with,’” Sykes said. ‘“But I am banking on the future.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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