In a digital world, the personal touch still counts
July 6, 2016
By Teri Saylor
Special to Publishers’ Auxiliary
When Cheryl Ves-point, a former banker, took over ownership of The Barberton (OH) Herald in 2005, the responsibilities that were most challenging had nothing to do with the economy, keeping the paper afloat or covering tough issues in the news.
Instead, Vespoint found herself staring at a new digital frontier. The U.S. Postal Service was floundering, and websites that curated and aggregated news were on the rise.
Eleven short years ago, the world of journalism was on the brink of a complete paradigm shift. Vespoint had never touched a Mac, and neither she nor any of her fellow publishers had ever heard of social media. Mark Zuckerberg had just launched “The Facebook” at Harvard University. Twitter was still a year away. Yet Vespoint and The Barberton Herald made their way onto the forefront of technology and social media, and with a little intellectual muscle and a lot of hard work, they are setting themselves up as a modern, 21st Century news outlet.
“While mastering digital and social media has been hard, we are now on the cutting edge,” she said on the phone recently.
Founded in 1923, The Herald is the longest continuously running newspaper in Barberton. The city is located in Summit County, just 10 miles from Akron. Founded in 1891 by industrialist O.C. Barber, the city is home to around 26,300 residents. Long known as The Magic City, Barberton experienced phenomenal growth during its early years as the town embraced the Industrial Age. The city, which sits in a valley running parallel to the Tuscarawas River and the Ohio and Erie Canal, provided a favorable environment for new factories and residential neighborhoods, which led to the growth of a commercial downtown. Barberton’s centerpiece is Lake Anna, a 10-acre spring-fed natural lake left over from the last ice age. Surrounded by a 21-acre park, the lake area is a hub of activity and the site of many festivals and celebrations.
Over time, the changing economy and decline of manufacturing dried up the industrial hub, and many of the downtown shops closed. But lately, the city has been experiencing a renaissance, noted Vespoint.
“We have a new, young mayor who is working to revitalize Barberton through a downtown revitalization foundation,” Vespoint said. “He is turning our downtown into an arts district. There are new art galleries, a coffee bar and studios just a block from the newspaper. So many things have been done to improve Barberton for its residents. Life is coming back to downtown.”
Vespoint’s mother and stepfather purchased The Barberton Herald in 1986, and she enjoyed taking on small assignments and helping out. She joined the newspaper full time in 2004 and bought it when her parents retired in 2005.
The Herald’s paid circulation of 6,900 includes both print and online subscribers. Single copies are sold out of about 60 news racks throughout the city. The Thursday publication actually goes into production on Tuesdays and is trucked to news racks and the post office on Wednesdays.
Early on, mailing the newspaper was a major headache for Vespoint. But thanks to her friends at the Ohio Newspaper Association and the National Newspaper Association, she learned how to expedite the sorting and labeling process. She is especially grateful to Max Heath, NNA’s Postal Committee chair.
“We never could have made it without Max,” she said.
During the past decade, The Barberton Herald has expanded its platform and is committed to giving its readers the news in any format they want. Vespoint has also focused on helping her advertisers ease into digital media through customized service and a lot of handholding.
“The Herald goes the extra mile for our advertisers by hand-delivering proofs, designing logos, and providing original art and web design services,” she said. “About eight years ago, I noticed that our mom and pop advertisers were nervous about advertising on the newspaper’s website, so I started Herald Hosting, a full-service website hosting product.”
The Herald’s website package includes a registered domain name, website design and maintenance and link from the Herald Hosting listing on the newspaper’s home page. The package also includes a click-through ad on the newspaper’s website and ads in the print newspaper on a space-available basis.
Herald Hosting currently has 13 websites listed.
Vespoint also has dedicated herself to social media, and she spent an entire winter building a social media presence. Her efforts have paid off. The Barberton Herald’s Facebook page has more than 13,100 “likes.”
“I personally worked on growing our Facebook friendships, and we had a big party when we hit 5,000 likes,” she said. “We use Facebook to drive people to our online product and newsprint product, too. We’ve worked hard to get it to where it is now.”
From its early days, barbertonherald.com was mobile friendly and featured a paywall. Vespoint uses Google Plus and employs search engine optimization strategies to elevate the paper’s Google rankings. She also uses Instagram and Twitter and maintains a YouTube channel for the newspaper.
“I felt, several years ago, that when the postal rates started rising and the internet started taking away from print, we needed to get a foothold in the digital world to keep The Herald alive,” Vespoint said.
For all of The Barberton Herald’s growth and advances in the digital media age, nothing spells success for Vespoint more than her team of eight full-time and nine part-time employees.
“The staff we have today is the best in the history of the Herald. They give 110 percent each week,” she said.
Last spring, Vespoint was out of town when the City of Barberton sponsored a festival at Lake Anna. The staff, on their own initiative, wanted to do something special, so they crafted a large, cardboard replica of The Herald’s front page with a window cut out just under the nameplate. At the festival, they set up the display and invited people to pose for photos of themselves on the front page and put the photos on Facebook.
“There was a constant line of people waiting to get their pictures taken,” Vespoint said. “In one day, from noon until 5 p.m. an estimated 70 people got their pictures on the ‘front page’ of The Barberton Herald.
For Vespoint, her publishing journey has been an educational one. Even though she is still married to the print product, she has learned to apply her newspaper’s legacy of customer service and her own personal touch to a digital world.
But of all the lessons she has learned along the way, perhaps the best one to teach a staff the ropes and then empower them to let their imaginations take over so they can think outside the box.
Newspaper name: Barberton (OH) Herald.
What is The Barberton Herald’s circulation? The circulation is 6,900. This includes the online and the print product. We are proud to cover Barberton, Norton and the surrounding area since 1923.
What is its publication schedule? The deadlines are Mondays by 5 p.m. for the following Thursday paper. However, social media has pushed our newspaper into publishing daily online.
How long has your family own the newspaper? My mother and step-father purchased the newspaper in 1986. I purchased the newspaper from them in January 2005, when they retired to Florida.
How long have you been involved at the paper? How long as publisher? I worked small jobs at the Herald since 1986, but nothing full time until October 2004.
Does the newspaper have a mission statement or a motto? To provide firm and fair news reporting and to get the maximum exposure for our advertisers through a quality product.
How many people are employed at the Herald? The Herald employs eight-full time and nine part-time people. Some employees were unavailable at the time of the family photo.
What is your newspaper’s role in your community? The Herald’s role is to disseminate information and to spark conversations. Our role in our community is to disseminate information and to spark discussion.
What is the most rewarding aspect of publishing a community newspaper? Although sometimes being a publisher is a thankless job, it brings great satisfaction to know a small staff is producing a product that will be cherished in our small community now and for many years to come.
What are your biggest challenges? We insist on firm and fair reporting. The Herald must also go the extra mile for our advertisers by hand-delivering proofs, designing logos, one-of-a-kind art and web design services at affordable prices.
Discuss your strategy for growing your online and social media presence, and what makes you successful in the digital media world? Every employee is taught to use, maintain and publish on Instagram, Google Plus, Facebook and Twitter. Many employees are not familiar with social media applications but work hard to learn by posting updates, sports scores, police/EMS activity, along with events and news.
What are your top goals for 2016? Our goals are to increase our online subscriber base and educate readers to the many ways they can enjoy the Herald online. The Herald will strive to educate our advertisers of our opportunities to help them succeed in a small-town environment.
What advice would you give to other newspaper publishers who want to provide the best service possible to their readers, advertisers and community in general? The best advice for a new publisher would be to provide everything your staff needs to let their imagination take over. In the ever-changing needs of the newspaper business, it is imperative that you think out of the (newspaper) box.