Geddy Sveikauskas founded the Woodstock Times 40 years ago. He moved up to the area from New York City’s West Village in 1968 and was looking for a way to make a steady living. He felt his town could use a newspaper that covered what it was like to live there, and not just its meetings. And by 1972, when he was offered to front a start-up newspaper being funded by a Greenwich Village businessman and Woodstock second -homer who was looking to finance something newsy, he jumped at the chance. Sveikauskas thought the name Woodstock, buoyed by the massive 1969 festival of the same name, could end up supporting what he dreamed could be a rural version of the Village Voice. So he gathered some friends and started the Woodstock Times in his living room.
Over the years, Geddy—as everyone knows Sveikauskas—acquired the Huguenot Herald (now the New Paltz Times). He ran, and then suspended, the quarterly Ulster magazine and launched the still-thriving Almanac calendar and classifieds supplement to what became Ulster Publishing—a mini-empire that now includes weekly newspapers in Saugerties and Kingston.
It sometimes seems that every writer for every publication in the Hudson Valley has passed before, and been paid by, Geddy Sveikauskas. I’ve worked for him for 22 years. We’ve had father-son and mentor-protégé battles involving internal issues and my work for competing publications (including my attempts to start several, sometimes successful, but more often not). For years we’d spend Super Bowl Sunday together at Geddy’s simple farmhouse. I’ve watched his kids grow into adulthood. Geddy served as witness at my wedding a dozen years ago.
We interviewed each other over lunch on a recent Thursday, following Ulster Publishing’s weekly editorial meeting.
Paul Smart: Would you start a paper today?
Geddy Sveikauskas: I don’t know. I have serious doubts. Maybe not. I started doing it because there was no real newspaper in Woodstock.
PS: How old were you at the time?
PS: What had you been doing between Harvard and then?
GS: A variety of things—research, teaching courses at various colleges, working for the ad agency Young & Rubicam. I went up with several friends and liked Woodstock right away because I recognized people from the West Village on the streets. So I bought a house without my having any real sense of what I would be doing.
PS: What were the other papers covering the area?
GS: There was the Townsman, but it largely covered Shandaken because Marian [Umhey, its publisher and editor] had a political career based there. The Freeman had correspondents and there was this other paper, the Woodstock Review, that came out for a while and was more of an entertainment thing. Editor & Publisher [the news industry trade magazine] had a little blurb when we started up wondering which one of us would survive.
PS: Was there any radio around then? That was before Jerry Gilman started WDST, right?
GS: There was radio but I didn’t pay attention to it.
PS: Was there any television?
GS: There wasn’t any on a local level. Newspapers were the dominant form of media at that time and Woodstock didn’t have any that worked.
PS: What were you reading at that time? How did you follow news at the time?
GS: I didn’t. I had been an office boy at the Columbia School of Journalism and seen how journalism was taught. I guess I didn’t read much—the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, and some New Age publications such as the East Village Other, the Voice when it began. There was a place for writing that I wanted to do. Not so much to cover news as to write about places and people so they seemed familiar, so a reader could say, "I know that." I wanted writing to capture scenes. I wanted a range of writing.
PS: How did you go about actualizing that dream?
GS: Since I hadn’t written before, I wanted to see if I could do it. For the first issue, I interviewed Vern May, the just-elected town supervisor of Woodstock, and went out to his house in Zena to talk to him. That was the first thing I had ever written for publication and I found that people read it, were interested, and it was okay. So we just started doing it. Originally, we were in my living room in Mount Tremper, and then we were on the front porch of a business on Tinker Street.
PS: Was it paying for itself right from the start?
GS: No, it never has. We have a lot of experience making it continue under such circumstances.
PS: So when did the idea start hatching to expand beyond Woodstock?
GS: It was the hope that the name Woodstock was influential enough that like-minded people elsewhere would start reading the paper, but it never happened. We realized that the only way to reach other communities with like interests was to start another paper. I wish it wasn’t so; I would rather have everyone reading one newspaper.
Tom Geyer, who was the publisher of the Daily Freeman, was a great admirer of what we did, and at that time, he was trying to revive the Freeman by hiring some very talented people and expanding its vision. He had bought these weeklies in Ellenville, Walton [in Delaware County], and New Paltz—and he said to me, "Would you like to take a look at them for us," because he basically wanted, I believe, to stop the Times Herald-Record from making inroads on his market. But you couldn’t imagine three communities more different from each other. So I said, "There’s no commonality here." Ellenville was a dying community, Walton was a dying community, and only New Paltz showed some hope.
So we had this negotiation, which took about three minutes, where he said, "Do you want to run it for us"—meaning the New Paltz paper—and I said, "Well what would the relationship be?" And he said, "We’ll put all the money into it and you’ll manage it and we’ll own 60 percent and you’ll own 40 percent." I replied, "Thanks, Tom, this is very nice but I’m not used to working for anyone." So he said, "How about 50/50?" And I said "Deal" and that was it. That’s how I became publisher. [Sveikauskas later bought the stake he did not own in the Huguenot Herald for $1.]
PS: It seems there was more of a sense of camaraderie, and less competition, in the local newspaper industry back then.
GS: I’ve never found there to be much competition between the weeklies and the dailies. The dailies seem to think there’s an advantage to being a daily when it appears to be only a disadvantage; they have to come out every day. I still expect that the weeklies will stay in business a lot longer and a number of the dailies will go out of business.
PS: What about all these monthlies and quarterlies and guides? Has there always been as many?
GS: I’m not sure, but there seems to have always been a lot of people wanting to enter the market to compete and between 90 and 100 percent of them fail—you’re an expert at those things.
PS: What about the idea of the free publication? Is there a life for that in communities as small as ours?
GS: I don’t think so. It’s expensive and I don’t think there’s any way to have enough local advertising to do that. I don’t believe in the model, especially where there’s not a large enough advertising market.
PS: What about something like Chronogram? Do you feel competitive with it?
GS: Some within our company call it "eye candy." For me, there isn’t the content I’m used to. So we’re not competitive in the ways we want to cover a community, but we are in terms of advertisers’ limited dollars. I’m just not interested in putting something out like it. Because it’s expensive to produce, the aim seems to be for it to produce an illusion of a classier reality rather than that reality which reflects the communities it serves. My life is about finding the right way of expressing something; Chronogram’s view seems different.
PS: When you were starting did you ever foresee anything like the Internet?
GS: No, not at all. I think that inevitably, when you are doing what you are doing, you become fixed in time and space. You do what you do. You don’t say to yourself, "In 20 years something may come along and this will all be gone."
PS: Has the Internet affected what you do?
GS: So far, it doesn’t seem to have negatively affected my business. In terms of circulation, it hasn’t. In terms of advertising, it hasn’t. In fact, ironically, the biggest source in the loss of income is Craigslist because they do rentals fairly efficiently. I don’t anticipate the dollars we get from classifieds will ever go back to what they were two, three years ago.
PS: How do you make up for that?
GS: Our total gross has not changed. We’ve made up for our losses with slightly higher subscription rates, more classifieds in other areas.
I see the local content as shielding us, along with more modest production costs aiding us. Eventually there are two scenarios—one is that as the old people who read die, there won’t be any readership any more. So far, that hasn’t happened, but that doesn’t mean it won’t. The other is that you have to find more ways, and different ways, to keep yourself solvent and do your job better by utilizing the Internet. We are playing with that, and we are working with that, using, say, our special sections as the basis to build a new service-focused business around.
PS: Is there an underlying assumption that journalism isn’t doing its job as well? What is getting lost in this shuffle? What about that idea of reflecting one’s community through good writing?
GS: It really depends on the editor—many of whom are now news whores. I still think it’s important that whatever you do works. I always look for immediacy in what we communicate to people, but I recognize that a lot of my editors no longer feel like I do, and the kudos for the sort of reflective pieces I enjoy are diminishing in comparison to meat and potatoes reporting. It’s just a difference of values.
PS: But is that a cultural shift that we’re observing? Have the tastes changed out there?
GS: I don’t believe so. In fact, I retain my personal commitment to new forms of communicating reality and thinking and writing. Are people reading novels, are people reading poetry? Maybe fewer are but the ones that communicate the most directly are still recognized by those pursuing the worthy goals. So the means may change and the media may change, but the need for one-to-one communication where a reader can feel "This is important and it’s written for me," remains.
I believe we’d be able to do with less content, but better content. I wish we could run more longer, comprehensive stories.
PS: What kind of legacy do you see leaving with all this?
GS: I don’t care.
PS: What sort of role do you see your newspapers having had in the communities they’ve served?
GS: I think they’ve clearly been important but it doesn’t interest me. Basically, when I do a paper, it comes out and that’s what I had to say on that week. And then I start on the next week.
PS: How has all this newspapering affected how you see the worlds you live in?
GS: I don’t know. This is no "This is a fable that has a moral to it" kind of thing. It’s just a story.
PS: Are there areas you want to explore and write about?
GS: Every week. I start some and never finish them; I start others and do finish them. I’m so much in the present tense that I don’t have the kind of perspective on the past and the future that some have.
PS: So there are no memoirs coming?
PS: Finally, going back to where we started: If you had it all to do again, would you?
This June, when the nation was riveted by the escape of two convicts from a maximum security prison in the Adirondacks, Phoenicia author Jenny Milchman was astounded: her third novel, As Night Falls, (Ballantine, 2015) has the same storyline, right down to the physical size of the pair and their plan to cross uncharted woods into Canada.