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Pennsylvania’s smallest daily newspaper finds success with happy news, sports rivalries, and hordes of feral cats

Just about everything in Tyrone, a town of 5,700 in Blair County, 215 miles west of Philadelphia, seems to be a throwback, including its 152-year-old newspaper, the Daily Herald.

Downtown office at Tyrone Daily Herald.
Downtown office at Tyrone Daily Herald.Read moreJason Nark / Staff

TYRONE, Pa. — On the second floor of City Hall, tall windows capped with green glass panes offer views of the Allegheny Mountains, and when council members rock back and forth in their old, wooden chairs, the quaint creaking makes it tough for reporters to take notes.

Just about everything in Tyrone, a town of 5,700 in Blair County, 215 miles west of Philadelphia, seems to be a throwback, including its bustling downtown, home to a beloved candy shop, a few antiques stores, and its 152-year-old newspaper, the Daily Herald. With a staff of about a half-dozen, including one very busy intern, the paper is Pennsylvania’s smallest daily, circulation approximately 1,700. It sends a writer, sometimes two, to every council and school board meeting in the communities it covers.

“We definitely don’t have trouble finding stories," managing editor Julie White says. "Sometimes I have too many stories and can’t get to them all.”

Subscription growth, Daily Herald publisher John Cook said, is always a challenge. The paper, which dates to 1867, sells on the street for 75 cents. On Saturdays, a free copy is mailed to every non-subscriber in northern Blair County, bumping circulation to nearly 8,000.

In recent years, reports on the state of newspapers in rural America have read like a bad diagnosis at the doctor’s office, or in many cases, a eulogy. The turning-away from print products, kicked into hyperdrive by the ever-present bark of “fake news” from masses who’ve tried to make “journalist” a dirty word, has whittled away at readership and staffing. In Youngstown, Ohio, the Vindicator was slated to close until a recent deal was struck to keep it publishing as an edition of a nearby daily. Close to home, the Reading Eagle warned employees of deep job cuts this year after it was purchased by a media group.

The Daily Herald is owned by the Sample News Group, a Pennsylvania-based media company that’s now in five states, strategically buying up smaller daily newspapers, mailers, and weeklies in the Northeast. George “Scoop” Sample was born into the newspaper business in Corry, a small town in northwestern Pennsylvania, and when he takes over a new publication, he tries to revive the micro-news model, focusing on immediate surroundings.

In 2009, NiemanLab, an online enterprise focused on the future of news reporting, chronicled the impending death of the Claremont Eagle Times in New Hampshire. Sample purchased the paper shortly afterward and took it out of bankruptcy, and it’s still publishing today.

“We love this business. We love telling a good, small-town story,” Sample, 67, said. “We still think that in small-town America, there is a niche for the news we serve.”

A 2018 report on “news deserts” by the University of North Carolina found that 1,800 local newspapers had folded since 2004, including 500 in more rural areas. It also discussed the rise of the “ghost newspaper,” one in which “routine government meetings are not covered, for example, leaving citizens with little information about proposed tax hikes, local candidates for office or important policy issues that must be decided.”

The Daily Herald is the opposite of a ghost. At the August council meeting in Tyrone, a block from the newspaper, retiring staff writer Chuck Banas gave a special presentation about the high school’s fabled 1999 state championship run. Intern Joe Miller sat a desk reserved for the Herald in the corner, taking notes. Managing Editor White kept notes, too, tallying up all the stories the afternoon paper would turn into copy the following day.

“There’s at least four stories,” White whispered at the meeting.

White had already anticipated one of the stories, a recurring and somewhat controversial issue the paper has written about often: The town is wild with feral cats. Resident Bridget Gill of Bald Eagle Avenue apologized in advance for bringing it up again.

“This is the busiest time of year for cats,” she told council. “It’s kitten season.”

In other news, the town library installed a new water cooler. One councilman suggested there was “nothing in this town for kids” and proposed chalk art on the streets as a solution. Another wondered whether the borough could put American flags on all of its 184 telephone poles for the “wow factor.” Afterward, Gill hung around to talk about cats with White, as well as a reporter covering the meeting from Altoona, and more council members. She said the Herald has been more than receptive to the public’s cat concerns.

“Oh God, yes,” she said.

Miller, 30, in his last semester at Penn State-Altoona, said he routinely writes a half-dozen stories a week, more than other students he knows who interned at larger newspapers. A Tyrone native, he said his first byline was a big deal for his family.

“My mom, the first thing she did was renew her subscription,” he said.

In Tyrone, crime news rarely makes it above the fold on the front page. More often than not, the headlines are happier stories or items directly from meetings, like “Tyrone man starts mobile food business" or “Supervisors support hospital contingent on road completion.” Downtown, at its office, people come in to purchase papers, place ads, and even hand off a news tip or two.

"They very much feel connected to our newspaper,” Cook said.

Folks in Tyrone tend to agree with Cook’s assessment, from the younger clerks at the Brew Coffee & Taphouse to those sipping beers amid the black-and-white photos of the VFW.

“Oh, my God, they’re wonderful. They cover everything,” said Brew co-owner Shannon Rice, 30, on a recent afternoon. “Running a coffee shop, we don’t have time to watch the news really anymore, so the Daily Herald provides anything we need, in terms of community.”

Outside, Hal Isenberg, 68, said he loves the paper because it’s unbiased and covers local sports “like crazy” It’s part of Tyrone, as much as the paper mill here that employs about 240.

“These people are your basic, basic Pennsylvanians,” Isenberg said of Tyrone. "If you’re not right here in town, you’re out there farming or up in those mountains, logging.