Julia Reischel is a co-founder of the Watershed Post and resident of Margaretville.
JNU: What brought you to the Catskills?
JR: I came here because of my family. I’m not from here. I like to describe myself as a carpet-bagger [laughs]. Lissa, my wife, grew up here and has about six generations of family in the Margaretville area. When I started dating her in Boston, I knew pretty much immediately that I was going to end up here if I stuck with her, because she has this magnetic pull to this area. All her potential stories ended here. So the Catskills were in my future and when we got married we moved here. We started the Watershed Post, our now defunct news site that we ran for seven years.
Is The Watershed Post still up?
It’s up, but just not being updated. We’ll keep it up as a sort of archive and honestly, it’s Lissa’s call on that because I formally quit a while ago. [Laughs]
Did you have a contract with her? [Laughs]
We actually do have a contract in place.
That’s very sensible!
[Laughs] If we were going to have some sort of acrimonious split, one of us would have to buy out the other. What actually happened was that I decided to give her de facto control over it in exchange for not doing anything for it anymore. So I’m still technically part owner. She ran it by herself for a couple of months and came to the same conclusion that I did, which was that there’s no money in journalism.
There was really no point in continuing with something that we can’t afford to run.
That’s so depressing. What’s going to happen to the future? I know that’s a really crazy question, but…
No, not at all. I’m actually really disturbed. I think it’s a democracy crisis. I have very dark things to say about this…
Go for it. [Laughs]
Sure! [Laughs] The thing I learned from being a community reporter here is that nobody goes to public meetings unless they’re really angry about something. It’s very difficult to understand what’s going on at your local municipal level, because the issues are extremely complicated even though it’s just a small town with just a couple of thousand people. The governance issues are just as complicated as, say, a big city like New York. So you have really sophisticated issues; you have nobody really watching in person from the public and you have a declining press corps that no longer attends meetings regularly. We could not cover all the public meetings in our coverage area at all. And, the newspapers that still exist, The Walton Reporter and the Catskill Mountain News do not routinely cover every meeting any more. It’s very difficult. So the civic generation of the record, which is what newspapers used to do, is no longer happening. That role is being left empty, across the whole country. The power structures have few eyes on [them]. And so that means that people know less about what’s going on than they used to. And that means that there’s a lot less understanding and good faith about government. I do think that the decline of the print media and the press is one of the reasons why we have such a divisive political debate now. You have two echo chambers talking to their own constituents on a national level and not talking to each other. On the local level, you just have a growing vacuum. It’s very terrible. The thing about newspapers is that they used to rely on classified ad revenue, classified advertising that was destroyed by the Internet about 15 years ago. The display advertising has not replaced it and no other business model has either. Even the NYT’s ad revenue has declined by a third in the past year. Time Inc laid off 300 people this week. Media is dying. It’s not going to be replaced by anything.
But let’s go back in history: how did the media start? With the town crier getting into the public square and reading something that just happened in the [Roman] senate or parliament. Is that right?
Possibly. I don’t really know. I mean, some of this is lost in the mists of time and if you’re talking about America it’s one thing. I do know roughly that Ben Franklin published the first newspaper in the United States I believe. But for a quite a long time, in the 1800s I believe, newspapers were largely party organs, like a Tammany Hall democratic organ published a newspaper. So we’ve had periods in our history where the news has been partisan and biased. In fact, this recent period that we’re coming out of, where this idea of an objective press was a widespread one, is a new thing. It only came about post-war in the fifties. So in a broad view, we’ve been through this before. We’ve been through times where people don’t have a similar idea of what’s going on in the press, but I think people used to go to their own local meetings in person. [Laughs] And we don’t do that anymore. Has it ever occurred to you to go to a Town Meeting just for kicks?
No, but I did go to the Public Hearing of the Zoning Board in Fleischmanns this year.
Good for you!
But everyone went to that. [Well, not everyone].
Thanks. I was wondering while you we were talking: does anybody read the paper? Who’s got time to read the paper(s)?
I don’t know. Margaretville used to have several local weekly newspapers 100 years ago. I can’t imagine that nobody read them ever. There must have been some kind of audience for it. Also, advertising in those used to be something that people read. I mean before the Internet and before radio, newspapers were culture.
I remember when I was growing up, we used to have the local [free] Advertiser and we just used to look at the ads and I have to say that about the Watershed Post. I used to go to it for the ads, because I wanted to know what was going on. Where are we going to go now?
Well, you should go to the remaining papers, but I don’t know. It’s a cultural crisis. I think we will solve it in some way, but I don’t know how. There’s no obvious answer that’s bubbled up here. That’s really pretty clear. So I think we’re just headed into a dark time where there isn’t much common information that’s shared.
One of my new year’s resolutions was to read books [to get my information, as opposed to the Internet]. I’ve been reading some books on geopolitics and some autobiographies of prominent public figures. Do you think people have stopped reading books too?
I don’t. Actually, people are reading more; don’t get me wrong. It’s not that people aren’t reading the news. We had a huge readership. It’s that they’re not paying for it. It’s the same thing with books. There are more books being published than ever before. I think more people are reading them, but there’s just less money being made from them.
That’s the thing. Nobody wants to pay for anything.
I want everything to be free too, but if everything is free then it’s being paid for by some shadowy means that you don’t understand.
Whatever is free, it means that you’re [the consumer is] the product.
You got it.
You’re giving your information. All these free apps that are on your phone: they’re looking at your information on the phone and you don’t realize.
Exactly. And I think people are more sophisticated about that than they used to be, but it’s still quite draconian. It’s not good. I really think it’s bad for civic life.
So, you’re getting into civic life?
I am! So one of the things I thought I could do when I quit the Watershed Post was run for office. You can’t be both a reporter and an elected official.
You can write some really good reports in the future. [Laughs]
You can cover yourself: “Today I did this…” [Laughs]
No, I can’t do that, but being a reporter, at least as it was traditionally practiced in the last century, you are really quite restricted from doing a few things in civic life. Also, the election galvanized me into thinking: “what can I do”? I felt very disengaged from politics during the last election cycle as I think many people did. I don’t want to do that any more. I want to take part in my community where day-to-day issues matter to me and to my neighbors and they’re not embedded in this partisan bitterness that just defuses the national story. We can talk about the local roads, or the local resort or poverty or opioid addiction locally and those issues aren’t destroyed by knee jerk partisan reactions from on high. I do think, in a very Pollyanna way, if more people participate locally on a political level, we can build bridges over these [political] chasms of disagreement that have existed nationally. I went to a couple of meetings after the election and someone said: “if you want to make a difference, run for office”. So I thought OK, all right.
Women are really underrepresented in politics too.
All throughout it, and I’m also gay. I’m a women and a lesbian. I’m also a mom. I’m in the school. None of this would have occurred to me that these are institutions I could have a hand in running before being prodded to consider my role. Politics at its best is service. I know that on a local level there are no real salaries attached to these jobs and the people that occupy them do it very thanklessly. That I do know from being a reporter. They work really hard on trying to fix very intractable issues and there’s often a lot of criticism and fire rod stuff and they’re just trying to do their best for the town. It’s a way to serve. It’s about collaboration and working with people you don’t agree with and at the end of the day still having civility rule and trust and community. That’s what we’re in sore need of.
So I started going to town meetings in January just to see what it was like. I was heartened by everyone rolling up their sleeves and working together. There was a lot of collaboration and good faith.
Republicans and Democrats work together here because the party politics don’t really matter on a local level. I found that energizing and exciting.
What office are you running for?
I’m running for Town Board. I’m running as an independent.
That’s great. We need more independents.
I’m a funny fish, because I grew up in a very Democratic household in Washington DC, but ever since I moved here to New York, I have never registered for any party. It’s kind of emblematic of my age. I’m 35. I was kind of disaffected by party politics and Democratic politics nationally, in 2010, when I moved here. So I do think it’s good to be an independent, but I’ve also worked with the Democrats locally because I would like to be on their party line. I would also like to work with Republicans. I attended the Middletown Republican Club dinner a couple of weeks ago and I think it’s important to talk to both Democrats and Republicans, like anyone else. The party affiliation is necessary mostly because I need help navigating the political process and joining with a party means you have help there, but I’m also proud to be an independent and not be constrained by the constraints of being just a Democrat or Republican. I’m down with Conservatives. I’m a small-C Conservative about a lot of things especially local stuff; I’m more culturally Democratic than everything else. But that’s the line I want to walk. That’s the exercise. Locally, let’s transcend this stuff. And our board is already doing that.
(I did request to formally change my affiliation from blank (independent) to Democrat, but that change won’t go through until after the election. I do very much want to be an independent-minded Democrat, and would like to change the party from within.)
What are your aspirations for the Catskills?
Well, I have a couple. My basic stance/platform is that I want to run for good governance. I want to work on building trust locally and having strong relationships on a local level. That’s my big theme. I have a couple of specific issues that I want to work on. Watershed stuff in Middletown is super important because that’s sort of the primary issue that’s hard to understand locally. New York City’s watershed politics have shaped this region for generations. It’s extremely arcane. New York has so much more power, money and expertise than we do locally. Working with our town officials to try and help our local communities get the best possible deal with the city in every realm is going to take a lot of work and a lot of time to understand. i want to work on that. Then taxes, flood/disaster and hunger issues. Working during Hurricane Irene affected my view of how communities should prepare for disaster but also how you can really only prepare so much. I’m really concerned about economic development and I’m pro-resort. It needs to be built. I had concerns like everyone else, but those concerns have been assuaged.
We really do need jobs up here.
Yes, and I don’t think the resort itself is a panacea, but I think that the hurdles that have been placed in front of it are onerous and ridiculous and should not be encouraged or rewarded.
I’m pro-resort too. There are not enough young people here.
That’s sort of a flagship project, if we can bury the hatchet on that and make it go forward, we can do some more encouraging and sustainable development up here in other sectors. There’s only so much a town can do. For example, we can’t have a town paying private businesses things, but you can work on making the playing field fairer for everybody.
What inspires you most about the Catskills?
The fact that you can never predict what somebody’s really like. This is a human universal, but it’s particularly true here. You’ll start to pigeon-hole somebody because of your list of cookie-cutter biases about people and then someone will shock you with something that you wouldn’t think that they would think. I’ve had that moment so many times interviewing people up here, that someone will clearly think X because of how they look and it’s just not true. People are really independently minded. They hate to be condescended to. I think that’s a real Catskills trait. They’re proud and quirky and completely unbutton-hole-able. I love that. The stories up here are so interesting. Covering this area as a journalist, there’s an inexhaustible well of fascinating people and I love it. It’s magic.