‘Explorer’ celebrates 10th birthday

Dick Beamish and Rachel Rice in front of the Explorer office. PHOTO BY SUE BIBEAU

Editor’s Note: This story ran in the 10th Anniversary issue of the Adirondack Explorer in 2008.

By Dick Beamish

The seed was planted back in 1972. That was when I signed on as the first communications director for the Adirondack Park Agency, the state’s new zoning authority in a region that didn’t know what zoning was. That fall and the following spring, I fancied myself a kind of Paul Revere for the Adirondack Park, criss-crossing the state and spreading the alarm (“The Developers are Coming!”) to the editors and editorial writers of newspapers fromLong Island to Buffalo. My message was simple and urgent: Please call on the governor and legislature to enactthe APA’s land-use controls before second-home development irreparably degrades the Park. (One of the many,mammoth development proposals at the time envisioned 10,000 units on 18,500 acres of wild land.)

In the course of my travels, I was surprised by how little the outside world, including the news media, knew about the Adirondack Park and, as a consequence, how vulnerable it was. (Unless the public is aware of the threats, the threats can’t be averted.) Few people, for example, had a clear idea of what the Park consisted of;many I spoke with thought it was all protected by the state as “forever wild,” unaware that the tracts of forever-wild Forest Preserve made up only 43% of the total. Others, including many Adirondack residents, didn’t think of it as a park at all. A dozen weekly newspapers and one tiny daily covered their own piece of the Adirondacks, while newspapers outside the Park rarely looked inside the Blue Line boundary, even though it encompassed one-fifth of the entire state— an area much larger than Massachusetts.

Fast forward 20 years. The APA’s development controls had been enacted in 1973, as hoped, and I had long since left the agency to launch Adirondack Ski Tours, a lodging and guiding service operated out of my old log cabin (upgraded to “lodge” for business purposes) in the Saranac region. At the same time, I pursued a career as an environmental PR man, first with the National Audubon Society, then the Adirondack Council.

The years passed and, despite the best efforts of the park agency, development pressures posed a growing threat to the region. More heat than light continued to be generated in the noisy flare-ups between preservationists and developers, local officials and downstate environmentalists, snowmobilers and cross-country skiers, seasonal and permanent residents. Misconceptions abounded. The need was more urgent than ever. By the early 1990s, as I approached the age of 60, it seemed now or never if I were to help fill the void.

Also keenly aware of the need was Bob Worth, who would become a close ally in this venture. Bob was the founder and president of a college textbook company in New York, and he was also chairman of the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake. We had talked often about the lack of accurate information about the Adirondacks and what could be done about it. One answer, it seemed to us, was to publish a monthly newspaper covering both the natural and human assets of the region. A tabloid format would lend itself to plenty of pictures, maps and drawings, with articles and commentaries by many of the writers I’d come to know. “Adirondack Explorer” seemed like a good name for it.

That settled, all we had to do was to make it happen. To turn the dream into reality would require a full-time effort on my part over a period of years, relying on help from old friends like Mike and John Quenell, lifelong residents of a nearby lake who brainstormed with me from Day One about the design and substance of the publication. And, of course, Lynne Poteau, a former colleague (and star fundraiser) for National Audubon and the Adirondack Council, who was now living nearby in Vermont and would prove indispensable in identifying and enlisting supporters.

Over the months and even years ahead, I would need to prepare prototypes, meet with potential backers throughout the Northeast, test the market, and finally set up an office, hire a staff and line up a printer. But how could I possibly do all this and still make a living? “Rachel to the Rescue” would be a recurring theme throughout the endeavor.

My wife and I realized that the Adirondack Explorer could happen only if she found a job that would pay well enough to support the two of us. Before she moved north to become an Adirondack guide in my ski-touring (and later canoe-touring) business, Rachel had been a buyer for Macy’s and Bonwit Teller in New York City. Hers were valuable skills in the fashion world, but as there was little demand for such expertise in Saranac Lake, we would have to relocate. We zeroed in on Vermont, where Rachel eventually landed a job with an international chain of boutiques that were headquartered in Burlington. We sold our backwoods paradise and bought a house in the village of Bristol, a reasonable commute for Rachel and a good place for me to pursue the dream. (For inspiration, I could glimpse the Adirondacks from my second-floor office.)

With Bob’s help I prepared a mission statement and business plan, then set up the Adirondack Explorer as a nonprofit, educational, 501(c)(3) organization, enabling us to receive tax-deductible contributions that would get the project started and keep it going. Then we began meeting with prospective supporters who, we hoped, would see the value of this newspaper to the Adirondack Park. It looked like we needed to raise $400,000 to launch it properly. One challenge was to persuade potential donors that I was qualified to undertake such a project. In one respect it was a natural, since my entire working life seemed to lead to the Adirondack Explorer. After attending Columbia Journalism School, I started out with a news service in San Francisco. Later I worked as a publicist, editor, fund-raiser and membership builder for various conservation groups.

But my background also raised questions about my objectivity. Considering my reputation as an environmental advocate (some would say “zealot”), would I be capable of producing the kind of balanced coverage needed for the Explorer to be a credible voice for the Adirondacks? Could I present all sides of controversial issues while maintaining an editorial position that called for better protection? I thought so, though only time would tell.

As start-up donations came in, the next step was to produce a prototype to show just what we had in mind. I got busy writing, assigning and gathering a mix of editorial content along with some typical ads, then drove to Maine to work with the designer for the Maine Times, a weekly tabloid similar in appearance to what we wanted. In two days we put together a sample issue that would help with our fund-raising.

More support materialized, but we were still well short of what was needed. Then came a make-or-break meeting. Bob and I visited a prospective donor in New Jersey, a man known for his philanthropy and commitment to the Adirondacks. We hoped he would make one of the major gifts we still needed. After a cordial lunch, and a discussion of our plans and financial needs, he handed me an envelope when we said our goodbyes. As we drove off I opened it. Inside was a Christmas card and a check for $100.

“That’s it,” I said, not knowing whether to laugh or cry at this latest twist of fate. “I think it’s time to throw in the towel.” We’d been at it now, on and off, for more than three years. “Not yet,” Bob said. “Let’s give it a little more time.”

Fate was kinder than I thought. The potential donor we had launched with did send a major gift. With a few more donations in hand, we decided to prepare to launch the Adirondack Explorer despite warnings from some experts— people who really knew the start-up publication business— that we still didn’t have enough money for a reasonable chance of success in a field littered with failures due to “undercapitalization.”

On weekends, Rachel and I began the hunt for rental space, preferably in or near Saranac Lake. I wanted an office that would comfortably accommodate a publisher, editor/designer, office manager and, as we grew, a customer-service director. No luck—until I spotted a forsale ad in the Free Trader that pictured an old, semi-abandoned apartment house that had once been a TB sanatorium.

When the real-estate agent showed us what had originally been the ground-floor dining room for the tubercular residents, I realized it was just what we needed. With new paint, carpeting, heating, lighting and some good, used office furniture, it would do nicely.

The selling price seemed incredibly low—even when we factored in the rehab costs for the office space and the 16 rundown apartments. Rachel, who was appalled by the condition of the building, had to admit that the old dining room had potential. After much soul-searching about what we were getting into (in addition to starting a newspaper), Rachel agreed to the purchase, but on one condition.

“We’ll buy it and set up an office, but I will never, ever, live there.”

As the renovations began on the “news room,” I found an editor/designer by placing an ad in Editor & Publisher. He was an ex-Marine who’d spent his service years on Stars and Stripes as a reporter, designer, photographer and editor. One drawback was his unfamiliarity with the Adirondacks (he was from Michigan), but I signed him up anyway and then hired an office manager from Saranac Lake. It was all coming together.

By early summer we had a computer system in place. When the August 1998 issue was completed, we sent it to a printer near Albany, and from there it was mailed to 100,000 prospective subscribers. But we didn’t have much time to admire or critique it, as we were now scrambling to put together the September issue. (This hectic month-to-month pace would continue until we came to our senses and went bimonthly a few years later.)

What’s most striking about that first issue is the contrast with later efforts. The first one was 28 pages long, compared to 72 pages today, and black-and-white throughout, compared to all-color now. It was printed on standard newspaper stock (30 pound) compared to the heavier, brighter newsprint we switched to later. The cover pictured a moose calf that was barely distinguishable from the dark leafy background (we had converted it from a beautiful color photo whose appeal was 90% lost in black-and-white).

Our inaugural issue was admittedly crude, yet the basic ingredients were there: the emphasis on wildlife (in this issue it was the moose); the fine nature writing, in this case by Curt Stager, a local college professor; the delightful cartooning of Jerry Russell; the triumphant tale by Michael Larabee of his search for a moose in the company of a state wildlife biologist; a feature story about Nancy Bernstein, the builder, musician, artist, cartographer and outdoors woman who had constructed her own energy efficient house in the woods, and whose maps have been gracing our pages for 10 years; a story by Jim Gould about the Long Lake High School class of 1990, the smallest in the state, and what had become of the eight graduates. There were pro-and-con essays (precursor to “It’s Debatable”) on a controversial topic, this one on whether jet skis belong in the Adirondacks. Environmentalist Bill McKibben said “No” and called them a “rich boy’s toy,” while a jet-ski lobbyist said “Yes” and argued that they were a “boon for business.” There was a humorous essay by Neal Burdick (“In praise of the Low Peaks”), news briefs, a centerspread on fire towers with a wonderful, two-page panoramic photograph taken by Alan Cederstrom from the tower on Goodnow Mountain (turned dark and muddy due to printing limitations); a story by Will Nixon on the state’s acquisition of prime Whitney lands, including Little Tupper Lake; and reviews of Stager’s Field Notes from the Northern Forest, 25 Bicycle Tours in the Northern Adirondacks, and Kids on the Trail!— the first of more than 150 books we’ve covered so far. And there were short editorials that denounced jet skis (“Irreconcilable conflicts”), encouraged Governor Pataki to continue fullspeed ahead on land acquisitions (“Golden opportunities”), cheered on the returning moose (“Success story”) and explained our intentions (“Exploring”). “We’ll cover the people and places, fauna and flora, woods and waters, and the forces at work that are shaping the park’s future,” I told readers. “The Explorer will carry a conservation message in its editorial pages, but we will strive to be fair and open-minded, to explore all sides and all points of view, to provide a public forum for rational discussion and debate.”

Later we would expand our roster of talented freelance writers, artists and photographers to more than 30, and add more analysis, investigative reports and such features as Viewpoints, Questions for Clarence, Talk of the Towns, Birdwatch, Inside Scoop and Brief Bio. But even without such improvements, the reception to the first, bare-bones issues was positive, and by the end of the year we had enlisted some 4,000 “charter subscribers.”

Staff wise, however, there would be much sorting out. Our editor/designer, for example, returned to Michigan after three issues (his wife didn’t want to move here) and his replacement had a similar change-of-heart after he and his family experienced their first (and last) Adirondack winter. It was unrealistic, I realized, to expect one person to double as editor and designer. We needed a full-time editor who knew and loved the Adirondacks, and we needed a separate, part-time designer who would work in tandem with the editor. We also needed an office manager who would stay with us and keep the complicated operation running smoothly. We had gone through three office managers in the first 18 months, and I was beginning to despair.

“I don’t want to go on like this,” I told Rachel one evening. “It’s just not worth the hassle. ”Once again, it was Rachel to the rescue. “Well, maybe I can fill in for a while,” she said, but added pointedly,“until we find a suitable replacement.”

As it turned out, Rachel was virtually irreplaceable, and she would continue as office manager, solving endless production, accounting and personnel problems in her calm and cheerful way, for the next six years. (Rachel’s determination never to live in our venerable building had also softened considerably after the apartments had been renovated and proved to be bright, pleasant and uniquely convenient—we’ve been residing over the Explorer office, in true mom-and-pop style, for a decade now.)

The second breakthrough came in response to our help wanted ad for an editor. It was answered by Phil Brown, someone I’d known in years past as the environmental writer for the Albany Times Union. Phil later became copy-desk chief for the TU, wrote an Adirondack guidebook in his spare time, and then, after a stint with the Chicago Sun Times, realized what he really wanted to do was live in and cover the Adirondacks. The editor job seemed a perfect fit. By phone from Chicago, he told me he would like to “take the Explorer to the next level.” And in short order that was exactly what he did, and continues to do with almost every issue.

Another milestone was reached in 2002. Publishing monthly didn’t allow much time for planning and in-depth reporting, nor did it give us enough time to get out and explore the Adirondacks ourselves. So why not produce one meatier issue every two months, instead? But if we did make this big switch, we wondered, would readers object? There was only one way to find out. We went bimonthly at the start of 2002—and there was only one complaint. Circulation and advertising continued to grow, and our sanity was preserved. Fund-raising was and continues to be of critical importance, since one-third of our annual expenses must be covered by tax-deductible contributions. Each year it’s a challenge to meet our budget (so far, so good!), but it was truly touch-and-go in the early days.

During our second year of publishing, it appeared that the warnings against starting out with insufficient capital were justified. We needed more money than we were taking in if we were to pay the bills and continue publishing over the next two years, clearly the critical years in the life of the Explorer. With some anxiety, we applied for a two-year grant (by far the largest gift we’d ever requested) from a foundation that believed in independent journalism and had already given us a very generous boost. In the grant application I pointed out how crucial this support was for our future. The word “crucial” was no exaggeration; we had indeed reached a crossroads, though I didn’t go so far as to admit that our survival was at stake. As the day of decision approached, Rachel put a bottle of champagne in the refrigerator. If the foundation came through, we would uncork the bubbly and toast to the future of the Explorer. If the application was rejected, we would celebrate our return to normal lives with time to do all the paddling, hiking, bicycling and cross-country skiing we wanted to do before decrepitude set in.

The letter arrived, and we held our breaths as I opened it. There was no Christmas card this time, but there was the first payment of a two-year grant in the amount we had requested. “We got it!” I announced, waving the check. “We’re here to stay!” We hugged, then broke out the champagne and drank to a long and useful life for the Adirondack Explorer.

More breakthroughs. Five years ago, the latest in a long line of designers announced his plans to head west. “Where in the world are we going to find a good replacement?” I lamented over dinner. “There’s probably not a single person in or near the Adirondack Park—within a hundred miles of us—who’s suited for the job.” “What about Sue Bibeau?” Rachel said, rising to the occasion yet again. She was referring to our new, next door neighbor. “I think she does computer graphic designing at home—CD jackets and that sort of thing. Maybe she’d be interested.” I called and Sue stopped by the next day. She seemed intrigued with the idea of designing a tabloid, and the prospect of a part-time job, at the building next door, appealed to her.

“I’ll give it a try,” Sue said, and in no time the Explorer was looking better than ever. This trend was accelerated when we finally went to full color throughout just a year ago. Finally we were able to do justice to the beauty of the Adirondacks and the artistry of our photographers. From the start, it was obvious we would have to depend on advertising to stay afloat. But it was also essential for the ads to complement the editorial content and not conflict in any way with our mission. And that, our readers assure us, is how our advertising has turned out. Ad revenue has consistently grown, but instead of clogging each issue with a lot of commercial claptrap, the advertising has added interest and visual appeal to the publication.

“I enjoy reading the ads,” is a typical response from readers.

Much of this compatibility may be traced to our good fortune in hiring Betsy Dirnberger, a Saranac Lake resident with a Big City background in national media, as our associate publisher and advertising manager. In three years, Betsy has doubled our ad income as she travels around the Adirondacks, soaking up the scenery and making friends with just about every entrepreneur, business owner and nonprofit executive in the Park. That the ads now appear in color has added enormously to their effectiveness.

So, too, has the collaboration between Betsy and Sue, who have helped our clients create ads that make the Explorer more interesting. Yet the success of our advertising has presented an interesting challenge when it comes to fund-raising. When I solicit contributions for our annual appeal, it’s hard for readers (and for me!) to accept the fact that the cost of producing the Explorer exceeds income from subscriptions and ads by $200,000—the amount we need to raise each year in charitable contributions just to stay alive. (As advertising and subscription income has grown, so too has the cost of paper, printing, mailing, promotion and the need to pay decent salaries and benefits.)

Another milestone: Three years ago Andreas Mowka became our customer service director. A native of Germany who arrived in this country as a teenager, Andreas lives near Rainbow Lake with his wife and three horses, two dogs, three cats, and until recently, a pet boa constrictor named Link. As well as answering the phone and solving subscriber problems, Andreas maintains our data base of 13,000 subscribers, supervises fund-raising mailings, processes nearly a thousand donations and many thousands of new subscriptions a year, keeps the Explorer index up to date, and recently compiled a list of more than 100,000 Adirondack landowners to whom we mailed subscription solicitations. Through it all he somehow remains calm, efficient and good-humored!

Looking back, what’s been most gratifying about this undertaking? Perhaps it’s the comment we often hear from subscribers we might run into at a social gathering or even on a mountaintop: “I read your magazine from cover to cover,” they tell us. And we’ve heard that often enough to believe that people aren’t just being polite. Wherever they may stand on a controversial issue, it’s also gratifying that readers of all persuasions consider the Explorer to be reasonably balanced. The most popular feature in the magazine, for example, is “It’s Debatable.” And our reporting is usually credited with giving a fair shake to all sides of the endless controversies swirling around the Adirondack Park. At the same time, it’s encouraging to get high marks from the Park’s environmental groups, who feel that the Explorer helps to reinforce their good work Our mission, in a nutshell, is to inform and influence, to identify problems and solutions, to help shape public opinion and public policy. It was the Explorer, for example, that first publicized the widespread mercury pollution in Adirondack lakes, forcing the state to issue a blanket advisory for waterbodies throughout the Park and putting added heat on the federal government to halt mercury emissions from power plants. By championing land acquisitions and conservation easements, the Explorer helped strengthen the state’s commitment to the greatest surge of land protection in Adirondack history. The Explorer revived efforts to protect more Adirondack waterways by adding them to the state’s Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers System and, through its Campaign for Quiet Waters, helped to inspire the Department of Environmental Conservation to launch a Quiet Waters Initiative of its own to identify lakes, ponds, rivers and streams that should be free of gas-powered motors. By calling attention to the growing cancer of upland development—the conspicuous, ill-sited houses on ridges and mountainsides— the Explorer is also exposing the need for better development controls and a stronger Adirondack Park Agency.

But we who live here full-time face problems other than environmental, problems that urgently need to be understood and addressed. The Explorer has been at the forefront in getting these stories out. In dozens of interviews with community leaders, we’ve spotlighted trends that threaten to tear apart the social fabric of the Park and destroy the small-town character that is so rare (and prized!) in 21st century America. The Explorer has looked at the “hollowing out” of communities from Keene Valley, Lake Placid and Wilmington to Ticonderoga, Indian Lake and Speculator, where second homes are replacing primary homes, local residents are being forced out by soaring real-estate values and property taxes, school enrollments are shrinking, the local population is aging, and poverty appears to be on the increase. How widespread are these problems and what can be done about them? This regional news magazine is committed to finding the answers. After five years of preparation and 10 years of publishing, it appears that the Adirondack Explorer is here to stay as a voice for wise use, lasting protection and a healthy, sustainable economy for the Adirondack Park.

Thank you, dear reader, for helping to make it so.

About Adirondack Explorer

The Adirondack Explorer is a nonprofit magazine covering the Adirondack Park's environment, recreation and communities.

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