When Tropical Storm Irene swept up the Hudson Valley and quickly became far worse than anyone had predicted, residents in some of the more remote Catskill towns and villages needed information fast. But the institutions they counted on — like local government, traditional news media, and other mainstream institutions — were themselves overwhelmed and unable to help. Into this breach stepped two women, their newly launched Web site, and the future of news gathering and dissemination.
The two women are Lissa Harris and Julia Reischel, and the Web site they run is the Watershed Post, found at www.watershedpost.com. When all else failed, residents of Delaware, Greene, Sullivan, and other rural counties turned to the Post for updates on everything from road closures and evacuations to rescue centers and, when the storm passed, sources for clean-up and financial help.
As word spread of the devastation, and reporters from traditional media tried and failed to get into the region, Harris, 35, and Reischel, 29, found themselves being interviewed by the New York Times, CNN, NPR and New York City radio stations. “I did a segment on Democracy Now from my bedroom, in my pajamas,” Harris laughs. “But if we didn’t do it, no one would have known what was happening here. The floods were our defining moment.”
It was a moment that Harris and Reischel were ready to seize. Harris, whose family has deep roots in the area, became a journalist after earning two master’s degrees, the first in natural resources from Cornell, the second in science writing from MIT. She did freelance writing for outlets in the Boston area, including an alternative weekly. “I had this pipe dream of starting some kind of publication, an alt weekly, in the Catskills,” she says. “It’s more or less a news desert here. Newspapers are going out of business or shrinking. Many towns don’t have a newspaper, and the ones that remain concentrate on the bigger cities. None of them has a rural focus. It’s an area that needs a news outlet.”
She had met Reischel, a Washington, D.C., native who was a legal reporter, at the weekly. They married and had a daughter, Ruby, now three. They also had a friend who was running a successful news blog in Boston. “Every reporter in Boston reads it,” Harris says. “He is a one-man band, and he does a fantastic job at combing the Internet covering breaking news. We started thinking about doing it in a rural area, where it would be even more useful. We asked him to build a site for us, and he said sure.”
It took about six months to build the site, which launched in January 2010. Harris moved back to the area — she lived with her father at first — and Reischel and Ruby joined them a few months later. They now live in New Kingston in a house that is both a 24-7 newsroom and a toddler-friendly playpen.
How do two people — plus a handful of underpaid freelancers — produce a timely news publication, as well as procure funding, advertising, and grant money to keep the computers running? “It’s pretty much full-time, all the time,” Harris laughs. They try to publish four to five posts a day, “but we go a bit easy on weekends, just one or two a day,” she says. They do most of their “reporting” without ever leaving the house, searching the Internet for news wherever they can find it — traditional sources, social media, personal blogs, and the like. They then link that to other articles, both current and past, to provide some context and back-story. Harris estimates that about 75 percent of their content comes from the Web. The rest is old-fashioned gumshoe reporting, attending town meetings and school board spaghetti dinners.
Or riding an ATV through the floodwaters of Delaware County, as Reischel did in the aftermath of the storm, or touring devastated Margaretville with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, as Harris did. “Before the storm got underway, I started a live blog session to allow people to comment or follow along in real time,” Harris says. “We had no idea how bad the flooding was going to be. By the next day we had 2,000 people reading at any given moment. It was crazy. But it was the only way to find real-time information. And then we became the public face of flooding in the Catskills to the world.”
No doubt that won’t be the last time the world learns about the region from the Watershed Post.