This week we are featuring a different kind of small community – one that is very much part of the Phoenix Metro area but is disconnected and has often been referred to as the Mayberry of Phoenix. Have you guessed it yet? It’s Fountain Hills. We spoke with Ryan Winslett, the Fountain Hills Times Editor, about working at a small-town paper that is next to the big city. We are lucky once again to have Tracy Townsend author this for us.
Why Report Local?
“Why Report Local” is a special series that showcases community newspapers throughout Arizona. The series provides a glimpse into small-town and rural newspapers, highlighting the value of being a reporter in these communities.
The Fountain Hills Times Editor Ryan Winslett talks shop about working in community journalism, and the advantages of getting to experience “the whole enchilada” as a reporter for a small-town newspaper.
Tell us about Fountain Hills and what people might expect if they moved there.
Fountain Hills is a very idyllic place to live. It’s a small community of about 25,000 people, but we’re a 15-minute drive from Scottsdale in one direction and a 15-minute drive from Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa in the other direction. We’re a big enough town that we have most of the stuff you could need here. We’ve had several letters to the editor refer to Fountain Hills as living in Mayberry. It’s great; it’s a nice small town USA.
What is the history of The Fountain Hills Times? What’s it like to work at the newspaper?
The paper started in 1974. Alan Cruickshank, who’s the president of the company, was one of three people who founded the paper. The paper has been here since the town kind of was growing out of the dirt. The first issue costs 15 cents. It was 16 pages, and I think it was broad like tabloid style. They had 400 subscriptions and about 100 to 150 sales at newsstands. Today our subscriptions are a little over 4000, and the cost for an issue finally went above $1. We’re a hyper-local newspaper. If it doesn’t happen in Fountain Hills or involves someone in Fountain Hills very directly, we don’t cover it.
Until very recently, people who worked here stayed here for a very long time. Like the publisher, he’s been working here since he was a kid. One of our design team members grew up here, and her parents deliver the papers. It is very much a small, tight-knit group of people. As far as the structure of the paper goes, we’ve got an office manager, a couple of advertising reps and a couple of people who do the actual physical layout of the paper. I’m the editor, and I’ve got three reporters. It’s a small operation, but we get it done.
Since Fountain Hills’ demographics skew a little older, is the print edition still a solid part of your operation, or do you have more content on your website and social media?
Print is a big part, and that is honestly one of the advantages of living in an older community – they still want that print. I would love to have a bigger online presence, but that would require a full-time position. We also have a pretty large number of winter visitors who still want to stay up to date here. Several years ago, we decided one cost gets you the digital version of the paper, the print edition of the paper and full access to what we post online, which ends up in the paper anyway. The winter visitors love the option of getting the physical paper while they are here, and then they get the digital version when they go back home.
What’s the day in the life of a reporter at your newspaper?
We have beats, and we also pick up slack all over the place. One reporter covers news, the obituaries, the crime log and also two retirement communities, Rio Verde and Tonto Verde, which are a bit outside of Fountain Hills. Another reporter covers arts and entertainment, clubs, business and religion. And then we’ve got a reporter who does schools and sports. And then, I handle the letters to the editor and whatever comes my way. We have our editorial meetings where we’re catching up on what everyone’s working on and sharing ideas. We constantly are talking about events that are coming up – who’s going to shoot this, who’s going to cover this story, who’s going to pick this up? It’s kind of a potpourri of stuff, and we all chip in whenever necessary.
Do you feel like a reporter coming to a community newspaper like yours would be set up for success better than going directly to The Arizona Republic?
I think so. It’s kind of like when people compare a 3A school to a 5A school. If you’re a decent enough athlete, you might get some playtime on the football team at a 5A school. If you’re a decent enough athlete in a smaller town, you might be playing every minute of every game. As a weekly, we get a little more time to work on our stories; there’s not as much pressure that the story has to be done now. We also have closer relationships with our sources, which allows us to be a part of the community that we’re covering, and I think that would allow reporters to do their jobs better.
What’s the turnover for reporters at the newspaper?
Up until recently, most people at the newspaper were here forever. But during the pandemic, things got tight. We had to shorten up hours and we lost reporters. But now we’re getting back to normal. We hired several new reporters last year, and I would like to think they’re going to stay here for a good long while. And we’re working with them constantly, hopefully making them the best versions of reporters they can be. I think a community newspaper offers stability and something that you can’t get anywhere else, which I think is attractive to a lot of young writers.
How would you “close the deal” with a reporter who might be interested in working for The Fountain Hills Times? You get to experience everything here; you’re going to get the whole enchilada. You’re going to be interviewing people. You’re going to be shooting photos. You’re going to be out in the community, not just doing something from behind the desk. A community newspaper is the only place where members of the community are going to find out their local news, which is why I think it’s so important what we do. We provide something that no one else can or does.
Tell us your thoughts on the future of small community newspapers.
I feel like bigger newspapers are at a bigger risk than smaller community newspapers. Not just the cost of operation and the manpower and everything that’s required to do a statewide newspaper, just that there are ways for small community newspapers to provide news that isn’t covered anywhere else. As long as there is a desire to be informed within small communities, I think small community newspapers are going to continue kicking just fine.