Stephanie Kelley, originally from Florida, almost single-handedly runs the Blackfly Gazette in Perth-Andover, New Brunswick. The Blackfly Gazette aims “To Inform, Educate and Entertain!” Kelley’s work is a courageous example of citizen journalism in our province. The NB Media Coop had a chance to sit down with the editor to explore her work and decided to ask her to share her thoughts on her experience and the larger media context in NB.
NBMC: What is your background and why did you start to write?
SK: I’ve always been an avid reader, curious about many subjects, but most of my writing was confined to keeping journals and making copious notes on the fascinating human foibles one is confronted with when one works in the adult beverage industry! I spent over 30 years working in the restaurant and bar industry. After bartending at several neighbourhood pubs in Colorado for nearly 20 years, I moved to New Brunswick to join my family in 1996. We opened Kelley’s Pub in Perth-Andover in 1998.
While we were ran the pub, I began writing “The Blackfly Gazette,” a newsletter to help bring greater public awareness to our business. I ran it off on a printer once a month, but soon switched over to building a contact list so I could email the newsletter and connect with customers electronically. I sent it out on Monday mornings and I’d always include any amusing or interesting tidbits of news and information I’d stumble across as I indulged in my own promiscuous reading habits, along with the more prosaic lists of specials and upcoming events at the pub. I got quite a bit of positive feedback from folks about that original gazette.
When we sold the pub, I stopped sending out the newsletter. A number of people told me they missed it, information I filed away. I had discussed doing some kind of local newspaper on a number of occasions with Jonathan Gagnon, my brother-in-law. The Victoria Star is our local weekly, but the office for it had been moved to Grand Falls some years ago and many people in our village were upset about that. They said they wanted “their own” paper.
In the meantime, I still needed a job and ended up getting a position selling advertising for the corporate-owned weekly. While it was interesting to learn something new, I was always hyper-aware of how expensive advertising is for small businesses. I’d experienced it myself when I had the pub. But, I soon realized that I was not really hardwired to put up with corporate rules, regulations, tracking devices and endless drivel.
So, Jonny and I began planning the Blackfly in earnest in February of 2012, and were preparing our business plan when the flood hit in March. Everything got put on hold. My home escaped major damage, but my sister and Jonny’s home required major clean-up and renovation. I kept plugging away at the project, though, and our first issue came out on May 9, 2012. It was 10 pages and we titled it “The Flood Issue.” It sold well, we got great feedback, and we’ve put out an issue every two weeks ever since.
NBMC: Why did you decide to start a bi-weekly publication?
SK: We decided on a bi-weekly publication for a number of reasons. It takes time to write, format, take photos and solicit ads; a weekly publication would simply be too much for one person to handle. Plus, the little local independent print shop we use prints their own bi-weekly paper, in the same 11 x 17 tabloid format, so the Blackfly is printed in the week opposite. Also, small business owners are very cost conscious; two ads per month rather than four keeps them on as regular advertisers.
NBMC: What needs does The Blackfly Gazette serve in the Perth-Andover region?
SK: When my brother and I ran the pub, I was dumbfounded by how expensive advertising in any medium was. Word of mouth is important, but people need to know a business exists, and what it offers, before they will come in. There’s also a strange dearth of curiosity in these here parts, it seems. So, when we started the Blackfly, I wanted to tell people stories of our local businesses, as well as feature ads. This would give me content and help to spread the word about some fantastic independent businesses, to give my advertisers more results. A business doesn’t have to buy an ad from me to get a story, although it is certainly appreciated!
I tell local stories, business and otherwise, as a kind of “Be a Local Tourist” initiative. Sometimes, we get so distracted, we do not see the wonderful local attractions and businesses that are in front of our very own eyes. I include articles on a number of topics, all subjects that interest me. Health, living green, food, movies, books, pets and so on, all receive coverage as well as topical news stories. But I am also determined to do my part to help write a new narrative for our province, and the world. I keep the articles balanced because of the audience demographic, but our articles include many alternative ideas and theories about energy, history and politics.
We live in a Bible Belt, a concept I was unable to understand around until I moved here. I don’t want to alienate potential readers and customers, yet I do want to help open people’s eyes to the many challenges facing our planet today. I’m seriously alarmed when people enthuse about big box stores in my presence, but I generally control myself and save my attitude for editorial commentary! My own views and opinions are skewed quite left of center so I try to keep my paper accessible for local “poutine” appetites, but I include an assorted menu so the more adventurous palates are kept entertained as well.
NBMC: How is your publication different from others in the province?
SK: Mainstream media is ruled by the elites, so everything that most people see, hear and read is utter rubbish and propaganda that is being promulgated to promote the campaigns of corporations and financial elites. Too many people are still slaves to a system they don’t even see has trapped them, so I try to do my part to wake folks up! I was dismayed recently after reading that some oil industry flack actually said that oil spills were good for the economy because they create jobs for the clean up crews. Where is the balance?
For example, hemp agriculture could bring jobs in every sector into NB, an idea we promote. I don’t have the wherewithal to build a factory or start a hemp plantation myself, but I want to put the idea out there into the public discourse. People have got to stop believing that the government and their rulers, the corporations, are going to save our economy or do anything constructive or progressive to create prosperity for the citizens of NB.
NBMC: Would you have any advice for anyone wanting to start an independent publication?
SK: In order to thrive again as communities we need to look to the past; there were lots of small independent businesses serving their own neighbourhoods. Small, local and independent papers are part of this. People are realizing that the mainstream media is not being truthful; it is deliberately working to keep them in fear and ignorant of many truths about our world. Look at the Internet explosion of information! As more people wake up there will be a greater demand for local and independent news.
I’m not making a fortune with the Blackfly, but it is producing an income and providing appreciated services for my community. I’m learning on the fly. The Blackfly Gazette is online now; that has increased exposure. I’m not producing revenue yet, but I’m working on it! I love what I’m doing. I get to meet people and hear their stories. I’m sharing ideas about ways to help revitalize our rural communities, and what happens at the micro level is reflected in the macro.
You can read more of Stephanie Kelley’s articles at http://blackflygazette.com/.
Interview edited for length by Sophie M. Lavoie.