A staff juggling more than journalism produces the INNformer newspaper in Sistersville, W.Va. (Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

 

SISTERSVILLE, W.Va. – The newsroom of The INNformer is a place of keyboard clicking as stories take shape for the next issue. It is where locals stop by to chat up publisher-owner Charles Winslow, dropping morsels of news about the town of some 1,300 people hugging the Ohio River.

Eventually, the phone rings and the reporter at the keyboard answers.

“Thank you for calling The Wells Inn,” says Lea Ann Butcher, 23.

As fast as Clark Kent spinning into Superman, the reporter becomes a front desk clerk, the newsroom a hotel lobby.

While reporters fret over getting facts right and making deadlines, the staff at The INNformer has to worry about keys and keeping guests happy, too.


Lea Ann Butcher takes a call at the front desk of The Wells Inn in Sistersville, W.Va. in between writing a story. (Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

For U.S. print journalists, in an industry riven by layoffs and all manner of indignities (no pay during a furlough week! No more free newsroom coffee!), this may seem like a new low.

Instead, it is a bi-monthly miracle.

Winslow is a 49-year-old, brutally direct transplant from New York State. In 2010, he and his wife, Kim, bought The Wells Inn. The paper published its first issue last January.

It all started with a hotel flier delivered door-to-door.

“One night when I was stuck covering a shift that I didn’t want to be on, I was writing my flier up and I said, ‘Geez, I wonder if I could hire a reporter or a journalist to write the stories to include in the flier?’” said Winslow from behind a desk in a lobby corner supporting laptops and a police scanner.


The front of The Wells Inn in Sistersville, W.Va. (Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

That flier became a newspaper and The Wells Inn gained some staff, in an area where help is hard find.

If the newspaper’s job is about holding people accountable, Winslow’s employees have to hold reservations, too.

The Wells Inn is not a big-city Marriott, with guests streaming in and phones jangling.

“It is kind of boring,” Winslow says. “So when you don’t have anything to do, why not write?”

Butcher, the reporter-turned-clerk on duty, graduated last year from West Virginia University. She gets two days away from the desk to do interviews and reporting.

Another staffer on the overnight shift does final editing before the INNformer goes to press. The inn’s advertising budget covers printing costs.

“When we’re here at the desk, we get to see everybody in town and everybody has got a story,” Butcher says. “They’re all saying, ‘Oh, I want you to write about this.’ ”

A continuing story — and a big one — is the region’s transformation by shale oil and gas; The INNformer is covering it. Energy workers getting the stuff out of the ground also keep Tyler County’s only hotel full.

Winslow tries to stay out of local politics and shies away from sports, leaving that to the county’s weekly.

The paper is, though, the place to see the menu from the inn’s restaurant (“Full American Breakfast, $6.99”).

Winslow drives his 2003 Jaguar X-Type to pick up 1,500 copies from a printer about 20 minutes away. Then the paper is folded and delivered, on foot and by Jag.

“Yes, I use my Jaguar for a pickup truck,” Winslow says. “Yoo-hoo!”

Hotel employees make door-to-door deliveries around Sistersville, tucking a 16-page-plus-insert issue under doormats or in gates.


Charles Winslow prepares The INNformer for delivery in a banquet room at The Wells Inn. (Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

Readers say they like the coverage.

“Well, the stories are interesting. And they go in depth, generally,” said Dave Miller, 82, a retired pharmacist and lifelong Sistersville resident who stopped by the hotel for dinner.

“We are a professional paper,” Winslow says. “We are serious about my little venture.”

If small town journalism The Wells Inn way appeals, Winslow is looking for another reporter. He just lost his first hire to a daily paper.

“I loved it taking half an hour to walk three blocks to the post office, because people would stop and talk,” wrote Daniel Tyson, the departing staffer, in a farewell column.

An online job ad Winslow created includes enticements like “long hours, bad pay” and “no boozing on the job (without prior permission).”

“We are in West Virginia,” he says. “And getting people to move here can be a little challenging.”

He can help with housing. Also included: meals from the inn’s kitchen during shifts.

And all the free coffee a reporter can drink.

Follow Lee Powell on Twitter: @leepowellTV