Erie Reader contributes to community revival

The elevator ride to the fifth floor of the Masonic Building on the corner of Peach and Eighth streets takes only about 30 seconds. The elevator itself has its paint chipping and tiles cracked, and it’s so small that if it ever got stuck any normal human being would feel the suffocating effects of claustrophobia. The doors open to the fifth-floor hallway, which doesn’t seem any less rundown; horror-film directors would love this eerie corridor that is still dark even at 3 p.m. With a right, to a door marked Room 500, the managing office of the Erie Reader seems a bit more friendly.

Editor-in-Chief Adam Welsh and Managing Editor Ben Speggen sit at a Plexiglas table near the window and – save for a few chairs – it’s the only furniture in the room. Speggen motions to the burnt-orange walls and says that they were just painted. The office space is only about a week old, Welsh adds. Previously, the editors had met at local restaurants and each other’s houses to plan and lay out the upcoming issues.

But even though the Erie Reader staff finally has its own office, the writers and editors have been long at work producing one of the fastest growing weekly publications that the city of Erie has seen. The Reader just celebrated the release of its 20th issue and has been in print for nearly six full months.

According to Welsh, the idea for the Erie Reader came to him from spending as much time away  from Erie as he did in the city, where he was born and raised. Welsh spent a few years living in San Diego,  where the idea for the Erie Reader saw its biggest influence.

“When you’re traveling back and forth between Erie and any bigger city, there’s always a laundry list of things where you think, ‘I wish Erie had this and this,’” Welsh said. “One of these things happened to be an all-weekly.

“In San Diego, you lived and died off of what was in the San Diego Reader. That was our inspiration for this – even the name: ‘The Erie Reader.’”

But could a weekly work in a smaller city like Erie? Welsh doubted that the Erie Reader would work.

“It was kind of a no-brainer,” Welsh said. “Erie really has a strong arts undercurrent to it, and definitely one strong enough to support an all-weekly.”

The idea for the Reader really got rolling in 2005 when Welsh’s business partner and fellow Editor-in-Chief Brian Graham moved to Erie, Welsh said. After researching several weekly publications around the country, the pair established their first blog website. The pair primarily used the Erie Times-News’ stories and then commented on them.

According to Welsh, the infant stages of the Erie Reader’s development were more about popularizing the brand name. The website developed further by July 2010 while the staff continued to plan the Reader’s first print issue. The Erie Reader finally debuted on newsstands on March 30, 2011.

The magazine is printed in a square, tabloid style with 24 full-color pages, according to Speggen. By printing about 10,000 copies of each new issue, Speggen said that the Reader is delivered to more than 150 locations – including restaurants, libraries and college campuses – all across the area, from North East to Fairview and south to Edinboro.

The Reader began as a weekly publication, with the entire editing staff working around the clock to put a fresh issue on stands every Wednesday. According to Welsh, he and Graham made an executive decision to decrease the workload and print a new issue every other week, and it’s that decision, he says, that has put the company in the good state it’s in today.

“We really benefited by going to biweekly, and we really didn’t miss a beat,” Welsh said. “It has a great shelf life – it doesn’t take anything away from the publication. But doing it for those 12 weeks was great because we really crammed it down everyone’s throats in Erie for brand name recognition.”

The concept of producing a new print magazine in a print-vanishing society didn’t faze Welsh and his staff. At the time of the company’s conception the economy wasn’t at its best either, but despite the recession Welsh saw opportunity.

“There’s a lot of costs incurred with starting a business,” Welsh said. “But when the economy is way down sometimes those things are a little bit cheaper, and it’s often an opportune time to start a business. We seized on that – that was our silver lining.”

Through their research, Graham and Welsh believed that the concept of a weekly publication in Erie would be successful Welsh said that he was confident that the Reader would have a strong readership.

“I know people here love reading about Erie and the businesses and the events,” Welsh said.

Welsh said the fact that the Reader is free on all newsstands doesn’t hurt either.

As a weekly publication, the Erie Reader doesn’t contain the news headlines of what has happened in Erie, but rather chooses to focus on the events happening in Erie. That’s why Welsh called the Reader’s If We Were You (IWWY) events calendar the “backbone” of the publication.

“Generally speaking, people pick up an all-weekly anywhere to find out what to do,” he said. “They keep picking it up because of the level of content.”

Speggen, the managing editor, said that a new trend in today’s journalism is for coverage of events and happenings in an audience’s area. While a news source is still necessary, a weekly in a community complements that news source.

“We’re able to focus on exactly what’s happening in Erie,” Speggen said. “People get excited about reading about that.”

Tracy Evans, promotions director and office manager of the crooked i in downtown Erie, said that she felt the Reader contained the best events calendar in the city.

“If you want to know what’s going on in Erie, you’ve picked up the right paper,” she said.

In addition to the Reader’s deep events calendar, the publication is also recognized for its unique writing style. Instead of a formal, objective-based perspective seen in newspapers, the Reader’s editors encourage the magazine’s freelance writers to write with their own voices. Both Welsh and Speggen stressed that the stories in the Reader are more in-depth than a normal news story.

“We tell writers to come up with the most engaging that is also informative,” he said. “That’s the style we go for, engaging and entertaining, then informational.”

At first Welsh was worried about having enough content for a weekly. He had concerns of the consistency of the writers to deliver the engaging style every issue. But now, he says, those initial doubts have disappeared.

“The ideas keep flowing in, the pieces keep coming in, the writers just keep getting better and I think we improve every issue,” Welsh said.

The Erie Reader staff has received plenty of gratitude from area businesses that have seen increases in attendance because of the advertisements in the Reader. According to Welsh, when the publication hit newsstands, the company offered cheaper advertising packages that appealed to the city’s small businesses.

“The idea was to have a lot of these small area businesses be able to get some kind of presence inside this publication that would provide them with some good exposure and help them get off the ground,” Welsh said.

Evans said that the crooked i has benefited from advertising in the Erie Reader. She appreciated that the Reader could reach an audience that her business might not be able to reach on its own.

The staff at the Erie Reader takes an active role in providing college students with interships. Speggen said that internships are crucial, and with the Erie Reader “on the cutting edge” of journalism, the Reader is the perfect place to gain experience working in the field.

Stephanie Confer, a sophomore journalism communications major and former summer intern at the Erie Reader, said that she felt she had a good experience interning at the company.

“If you put a lot of effort into something, you’re going to get back what you give,” Confer said. “I think the Erie Reader is definitely a testament to that.”

Despite being a startup company, Speggen said that it’s still important to take on interns and provide that experience that every student looks for before hitting the job market.

“We’re going to get better with the ability to help people get out there. It’s absolutely invaluable that we can bring in people who are extremely talented and educated and who want the experience that we can provide them with.”

Though Speggen hasn’t been with Welsh and Graham since the beginning, he’s been grateful to work for the publication that he calls “the best job in Erie.”

“I’m drawn to this type of project because it’s something that allows us to use our own voice and let ourselves be heard in a little bit more than most people ever are,” Speggen said.

Welsh said that the Erie Reader still has a long way to go, but the company has a lot of potential, especially with the publication’s website eriereader.com. Although some articles and columns are reserved for the print publication, each feature is uploaded to the website, according to Speggen.

Despite the Erie Reader’s infancy, Welsh said he’s pleased with the company’s progress.

“We’re always looking to keep growing,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of ideas and want to keep this thing evolving.”

DAN KUBACKI

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