The Catskill Mountain News, the Catskills region’s oldest continuously published weekly newspaper, last week announced its immediate suspension in a letter from its publisher of the past two and a half years, Joan Lawrence-Bauer.
“It is with great sorrow that I let you know that the Catskill Mountain News has temporarily suspended publication,” wrote Lawrence-Bauer on the paper’s website and Facebook page. “A series of technical, staffing and financial issues that include the electronic hijacking of our e-mails and archives as well as plagiarism of our work has forced us to step back and re-visit what we are doing and how we are doing it. We hope to be back on the newsstands and in your mailboxes, but are uncertain at this time when or if that can happen.”
Attempts to reach Lawrence-Bauer, who in 2017 bought the newspaper from the family that had started it over a century earlier, were unsuccessful. A brief e-mail response said, “Sorry, I can’t.”
The paper traditionally covered Margaretville, Middletown, Fleischmanns, Arkville, in Delaware County. It expanded coverage to Roxbury and Andes, and, in the mid-1980s, started covering Shandaken.
The Catskill Mountain News’ previous owner, Richard D. Sanford — whose grandfather founded the publication in 1904 — suggested this week that he didn’t believe there was much of a chance that he would come back to revive what had been his family’s legacy. Speaking at length about the troubles facing the newspaper business off the record, Sanford added that much would come out later, once his lawyers gave him a go-ahead after a pending foreclosure and probable bankruptcy proceedings are completed.
“If the paper can return to publication, all existing subscriptions will be honored and extended. If not, we will advocate for the return of un-used subscription fees,” Lawrence-Bauer’s on-line announcement of January 22 had continued. “If you wish to receive e-mail updates from me, please provide your e-mail address and a note specifically asking for e-mail updates from Joan Lawrence-Bauer. We thank you for your loyalty and hope for better days ahead.”
Those wishing to call were asked to leave a message. Those wishing to stop by the publication’s offices were asked to make an appointment.
Comments on the newspaper’s Facebook page featured laments for the loss of a local institution and hopes that the newspaper would rise again.
“This is a huge loss for our community. We need independent local newspapers to help us understand what is going on in our community,” wrote Julia Reischel, former publisher of The Watershed Post, a pioneering web-based publication that ran from 2009 to 2017, and currently a councilwoman in the Town of Middletown, where the Catskill Mountain News is based. “Each loss like this chips away at our civic life.”
The paper’s last issue of January 15 gave little direct indication that the newspaper’s end was near. There was, however, a story without a byline about the ways in which small newspapers gain “official newspaper” status from local municipalities. And there was also a sharply-worded editorial against the county’s newly reelected board of supervisors’ chair by Lawrence-Bauer.
“At the county level, the two major political parties each choose a paper to print the legal notices,” the latter editorial explained. “The board of supervisors then appoints those choices as official papers. They may appoint additional papers if they wish, assuming there’s a benefit to taxpayers and residents.”
Delaware County had decided not to use the Catskill Mountain News as an official newspaper. Also, the editorial said, “The Town of Middletown, after decades of choosing only the Catskill Mountain News, last year chose both the [Walton] Reporter and the News. This year, without explanation, Middletown designated ‘the Catskill Mountain News and/or the Mountain Eagle.’
Choosing an ‘and/or’ status did not meet the requirements of the law, the editorial continued, and “the town board is expected to correct that error in its meeting tonight.”
The piece noted that Middletown deputy supervisor Brian Sweeney, “a working journalist employed and paid by the Mountain Eagle, makes decisions on newspaper appointments for the town without recusing himself or articulating his conflict of interest.”
What wasn’t noted was that Sweeney had been an employee of the Catskill Mountain News for 37 years, with many of those years as editor. Sources said that Lawrence-Bauer had fired Sweeney, who has deep ties in the community her paper serves, and then wrote a news story in which it was stated that he’d retired. Sweeney apparently never forgave her.
In the paper’s final edition, Lawrence-Bauer’s editorial on Delaware County board of supervisors chair Tina Mole was entitled “County has lost its way.”
“This newspaper,” it read, “has been repeatedly ‘punished’ for its coverage with the loss of advertising dollars from those involved, and, last week, with the loss of the designation as an official county newspaper.” A list of county businesses gone bad throughout recent years followed.
Sanford suggested that whatever problems forced the current publisher’s decision couldn’t have been based on the income from county and town legal advertising, given that it was the start of a new year. He thought other issues were involved. He and others didn’t understand Lawrence-Bauer’s references to email hacks or plagiarism.
Lissa Harris, who founded and ran the Watershed Post with Reischel and now freelances for a number of other publications, including Ulster Publishing, spoke this week about how the Catskill Mountain News’ local reputation had started slipping with several news gaffes, including a Facebook post on a prominent member of the community’s tragic death published before his family members could be notified.
The Catskill Mountain News came into being in 1904 when the widow of an owner of the Margaretville Messenger, founded in 1894, passed it on in a credit deal to Clarke Sanford, a local schoolteacher. When Sanford later bought the Utilitarian, another Catskills publication, he started claiming the combined papers’ origins to the bought paper’s founding in 1863.
Richard D. Sanford, the founder’s grandson, started running the family newspaper in 1985. He briefly expanded it with the purchase of several other weeklies in the region within a few years of his taking over, before pulling back to just his home-town publication in the early 1990s. His wife Laurie’s family has long owned the Sullivan County Democrat.
“I sure am excited about taking the helm at the News,” Lawrence-Bauer wrote to this reporter at the time of her purchase. “Dick has done a great job of keeping the publication profitable and it is fun to look ahead at all the possibilities…As you know, in a career that now spans 45 years, I’ve worked for government entities, for non-profit organizations, and for private-sector businesses from owning and operating an independent insurance agency to my consulting business. After all of that, I went back to the private sector because, to be honest, I’m really tired of the tyranny of the committee and working in group-think settings.”
Sweeney outlined his journey at the paper. “I began my journalism career at the Catskill Mountain News in January 1981 — my first full-time job after graduating from Siena College. As with any job, there were ups and downs over the years, but we always got the job done and had a lot of laughs along the way. Less than two years after the company changed hands from the Sanford family, I was let go in November 2018, after 37 years of affiliation with the paper. I offer no comment on that decision. I feel deep sadness for the Sanfords and the community that the paper’s legacy has ended.”
When Sanford expanded the scope of his newspapers 30 years ago, other weekly publications in the Catskills included the Windham Journal (founded in 1854), the Ulster County Townsman, the Sullivan County Democrat, the Walton Reporter; the Ellenville Journal, the River Reporter, the Delaware County Times, the Cobleskill Times-Journal, the County Shopper (and Rural New Yorker), Woodstock Times, and the Mountain Eagle, which was founded in the 1980s as a counties-spanning regional publication. In the early 2000s they were joined by Brian Powers’ The Phoenicia Times and Olive Press, Ed Sanders’ Woodstock Journal and several short-lived zine-like publications.
By the end of this century’s first decade, half of the area’s smaller publications were defunct or swallowed by larger entities. Many of the survivors were “ghost newspapers,” shadows of their former selves. A number of local web news sites arose, the best of them being Watershed Post. Many wrestled with finding their fundraising base and readership eaten away by the rise of Facebook, Twitter and other social-media sites.
Those who had spent their careers in small-town coverage — such as Sweeney, Hugh Reynolds, and many others, including myself — moved from publication to publication and searched for other means of making a living.
Working for the Catskill Mountain News was my first job after film work and writing for a Wall Street publication in New York City.
“Laurie and I are starting to plan a funeral for the Cat News, a big party,” said Sanford as we reminisced. “It had a good life. There’s a lot that needs celebrating, and remembering.”