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Courier-Observer marks 25 years as a leader in community journalism

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MASSENA - It’s been 25 years since the Daily Courier-Observer newspaper first rolled off the presses in St. Lawrence County, bridging the gap between two very different communities, and bringing a new era of journalism to the north country.

The newspaper’s first press run was on May 2, 1989, and the new product was a merging of Potsdam’s weekly Courier-Freeman and Massena’s twice-weekly Massena Observer. Both papers had published in their respective communities for more than 100 years.

A quarter of a century into the merger, Managing Editor Ryne R. Martin views the paper’s legacy as one of success. He candidly admits bumps along the way, especially in the early days as the paper learned to navigate its way through some of the cultural nuances unique to Massena and Potsdam — one a proud blue-collar town and the other steeped in academia.

“We quickly became aware that we were putting out a paper that served two distinctly different communities,” Mr. Martin said. “Potsdam was focused on the universities, while Massena’s economic interest centered around its plants. There was also a strong sports rivalry between the communities. How we covered sports and where we placed those stories in the paper was sometimes an issue.”

Another early challenge for Mr. Martin and his staff was the size of the geographic area the newly formed paper was covering, with smaller communities outside the main villages of Potsdam and Massena scattered from the Adirondack foothills to the St. Lawrence River valley.

“Trying to cover everything from South Colton to Akwesasne both on the news pages and the sports pages has never been easy,” Mr. Martin said. “There was no shortage of challenges.”

Retired St. Lawrence County Newspapers Editor and Publisher Charles W. Kelly was a key player in the decision to form the Daily Courier-Observer. In 1989 the Courier-Freeman and the Massena Observer were owned by Park Communications, and Mr. Kelly recalls a strong lobbying effort on his part to convince the company to start a new daily publication in an era when many small papers across the country were folding because of lagging advertising revenue.

“It wasn’t an easy sell to the Park company. They were good business people, too. But they didn’t see the rest of the market up here,” Mr. Kelly said.

Mr. Kelly said his decision to start the paper was based on what he viewed as two key factors. He said the Johnson Newspaper Corp. — several years before it owned the Daily Courier-Observer — had just purchased the Malone Evening Telegram, a move he saw as an aggressive push into the region. The second factor, he said, was a strong advertising base in Massena at the time that could help temper financial concerns associated with starting a new publication.

“At the time Massena Observer was the strongest newspaper in the group. You had Alcoa, General Motors and Reynolds, and of course the Power Authority. There was a lot of money down there,” Mr. Kelly said.

In hindsight, both Mr. Martin and Mr. Kelly said that early decision to start a new daily newspaper in the north country turned out to be a good one. They say in the 25 years since its first press run, the Courier-Observer has become an integral part of the region it serves, documenting daily life, weighing in on important issues on its editorial page, and helping citizens keep a watchful eye on government officials, boards and agencies.

And while technology has forever changed the way newspapers gather and disseminate information to the public in recent years, Mr. Martin believes the modernization has strengthened the paper’s ability to keep people informed about grass roots issues affecting their lives.

“We hear about the death of newspapers all of the time, but with online access people are actually reading our papers even more,” Mr. Martin said. “The one thing that hasn’t changed is the job of telling the community, our readership, what has happened. Our job hasn’t changed. And that’s being part of the community we live in and chronicling history on a daily basis.”

Patricia L. McKeown, former executive director of the St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce, began her career in the north country after moving to the area and taking a job as editor of the Massena Observer in 1975. She also spent 13 years as news director at North Country Public Radio and served as former Gov. Mario Cuomo’s north country liaison. In her decades of working either for, or closely with, the media, Ms. McKeown said she would be hard-pressed to find a community newspaper that’s been as savvy as the Daily Courier-Observer over the years.

“When I went to work for the Massena Observer in 1975 it was just after the hot metal era in newspapers,” Ms. McKeown said. “We covered every meeting there was. Every single board was covered by a reporter. The Courier-Observer today is still a darn good community paper. The focus is the same, to keep the government and the people honest.”

Northern New York Newspapers Managing Editor Elizabeth G. Lyons agrees. She said the success of any newspaper today, whether daily or weekly, is tied to an almost insatiable desire to provide as much local news coverage as possible to the community it serves.

“The Daily Courier-Observer started at a time when new daily newspapers were unheard of. We enjoyed a successful start 25 years ago and we will enjoy success for the next 25 years because we deliver news about Massena and Potsdam like nobody else can,” Mrs. Lyons said. “We carry the personal stories of people that members of each community care about, in addition to the important work of keeping people informed about what their local governments are doing.”

She said as technology changes, how the publication delivers the news might change, “but our focus will always stay the same. I love that we have a strong web presence and popular social media sites because those online venues provide greater access to hometown news for people who live elsewhere but still care about what happens back home. That’s a real positive that we will continue to build on in the years to come.”

Johnson Newspaper Corporation, Watertown, purchased the Daily-Courier-Observer and its sister papers in St. Lawrence County in 1997, and in 2001 moved the Courier-Observer office from its longtime Main Street location to a newly constructed office and pressroom at Harrowgate Commons. The major investment by the company and formation of the Northern New York Newspapers group has helped further cement the company’s commitment to journalism and publishing in the north country.

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