Like many American boys in the 1970s and 1980s, Steve Novotney of Wheeling, West Virginia, had a paper route.
His bicycle, carting ink-stained sheets of print in bags strapped on the handlebars, has vanished into hazy memory, but there’s still news to deliver.
In 2019, Novotney and business partner Erika Donaghy launched Ledenews.com, an online-only community news site for Wheeling and dozens of surrounding Rust Belt hamlets that dot the Ohio Valley.
This area of former factory towns around Wheeling, population 27,000, belongs to the parts of rural and small-town America catalogued as news deserts. The U.S. has lost 2,100 newspapers in the last 15 years, and many of the surviving 6,700 papers, such as the Wheeling Intelligencer and News-Register, now a confusing combined operation, are shadows of their former selves. The latter’s publisher did not return an email seeking comment.
News organizations have been trying to digitize to survive since the internet was invented. What’s different about Novotney and a new class of entrepreneurs is that, instead of trying to make existing local print papers digital, they are simply starting local newsrooms from scratch, which is infinitely cheaper than it used to be without the cost of print, ink, or delivery trucks.
“I don’t see why digital media can’t develop the way newspapers did,” said Novotney. “It’s a business that can work, but you have to focus on the community you cover.”
The new local players are hustlers laboring on the ground, on the other end of the spectrum from billionaires buying established titles the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, and even smaller than outfits like the Mountain State Spotlight, a digital startup, founded in 2020, covering all of West Virginia that’s partnered with the American Journalism Project, ProPublica and Report for America. Over 80 online-only news sites were started in 2019. The Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers association was founded in 2012.
Whether Novotney’s ilk of digital news entrepreneurs can achieve escape velocity will determine if American journalism as we’ve known it can survive another century. Sites like Ledenews, the Beaver Countian in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, and the Indianola Advocate in Indianola, Iowa, are independent of Facebook, Google, or Nextdoor. They’re also nothing like pay-to-play fake news sites some political operatives have been exploiting to spread propaganda. These little guys do the work of journalism, making phone calls, going to see people, and correcting themselves when they make mistakes and aim to fund themselves organically the old-fashioned way, with advertising.
Inevitably, their operations are fragile, but you can’t argue with the beauty and essential necessity of something like Ledenews — a real newspaper, with reporting that covers sports, politics, traffic, anecdotal slices of existence — springing to life.
“I am concerned that we have become a soundbite society,” Erikka Storch, a member of the West Virginia House of Delegates, wrote me in a text message interview. “Nobody ever wants to get past the headlines, no matter how one-sided they are. Steve Novotney at Lede draws people into the story. I think it’s important to have strong, unbiased local journalism.”
Since the 19th century, local newspapers “have bonded communities,” Victor Pickard, author of Democracy Without Journalism? told me. Take for example, a recent story Novotney reported about an old man from near Wheeling who went missing. “For an 85-year-old man to come out of those woods with only a bump on his head is a miracle to me,” Lou Vargo, the director of the Wheeling-Ohio County Emergency Management Agency, told Novotney.
As I write, Ledenews has stories on its site about a recent death from Covid-19, a food renaissance in Bellaire, Ohio (population 4,000), and a tribute to a beloved fire chief named Clif Sligar. “Station 5 on Wheeling Island became a personal playground for a child growing up on North Penn Street,” wrote Novotney in his tribute to Sligar. ‘He loved the trucks, the helmets, and especially the gold pole that transported firefighters from their sleeping quarters to the frontlines of firefighting.”
Novotney, 54, said he started getting ideas for a new online-only news site around 2010 “when [online] newspapers started charging for subscriptions, and that told me how bad print media was struggling.” Ledenews, which cost $5,000 to start, now gets 1,500 to 2,000 readers a day, and brings in around $60,000 a year in advertising. After 10 weeks, Novotney’s new podcast draws over 1,000 listeners a day, he told me. The growth suggests he’ll make enough to run a profitable business within a few years, he said. The site published around 10 stories a week, including three major features. Novotney writes most of the copy and also relies on a handful of freelancers.
I went to see Novotney recently because I wanted to see what kind of person could pull off starting a legitimate online newspaper in contemporary news-confused divided America. The answer, in this case, is somebody familiar and popular in the community, can sell ads as well as report, possesses the stability of middle age, and is resolutely apolitical. Novotney is a former star baseball player, former American Legion WV state baseball player of the year, 6 feet 4 inches, and gifted with a charismatic, gravely radio voice. Everybody in Wheeling knows Steve. He works out of an office and podcasting studio he built in the basement of his home in Wheeling. It’s decked out with Pirates memorabilia. Prize possession: A chair from the clubhouse at Three Rivers, the Pirates’ former stadium. The fridge is full of beer.
Novotney worked at different newspapers in the 1990s, and then moved to Pittsburgh to manage the Pirates’ official newspaper. In 2004, Novotney moved back to Wheeling to work in radio, where he stayed until launching Lede in October 2019. It’s named after the lead sentence of a newspaper article, spelled “lede” in newspaper slang. He missed the radio, so in February, he launched a podcast. You can’t pin him down on politics. “Get rid of the crazy, go back to the middle,” he likes to say. “Anybody can have a good idea.”
“I honestly can’t tell you if Steve is a Republican or Democrat,” said Ben Seidler, a member of the Wheeling City Council. “Local content is really important, and Steve gets to stories in our community.”
Already, said Seidler, Ledenews has played an important watchdog role. When the state highway system set up a dangerous entryway to a highway during a renovation, Seidler’s action was to call Novotney. His call to the state would compel them to act, he figured. And it worked. Novotney called. The fear of negative coverage prompted the state highway to change the highway entrance, according to Seidler and Novotney. A spokeswoman at the West Virginia Department of Transportation did not return a request for comment. “It might have been because I called the sheriff and he called the state,” said Novotney. “I don’t care, I just care that it changed.” The people around Wheeling, he added, “are like my family, and I try to take care of them.” Novotney also said he’s committed to investigating misdeeds by any local government or corporation.
Victor Pickard, the media scholar and writer, told me he admires entrepreneurs like Novotney, but worries that his success might be short-lived. “We need something bigger that addresses the entire systemic problem of journalism” such as a subsidy system or a change in the tax code that supports newspapers, he said. Novotney admitted that it would be difficult to keep Ledenews going if he disappeared, but that he’s “working” on making it sustainable. One problem, he said: Not enough journalists around.
Finding advertisers, readers and staff would be even harder in rural areas. Wheeling is small by metropolitan standards. But it dwarfs the market size of more rural counties.
To help overcome some of these obstacles, Novotney is developing a new style of storytelling that suits changing news consumption habits. He writes as short as possible, with frequent paragraph breaks and sub-headlines. “The headline has to intrigue, the lede has to intrigue,” he said. “The attention span of today’s America is very short, you can’t go into the story boring. The reader can take the story off the hook more efficiently than ever before. You have to keep them on the hook.”