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The What, When and Why of this site

I wrote the original version of this piece on Nov. 9, 2006. My brother Bob in Florida told me on Christmas Day 2008 that it needed updating, and so what you read below is in fact that updated version.

By Charlie Haeffner

ODESSA, December 2008 -- This article originally began with a reference to a movie I had recently watched -- "Shopgirl" with Claire Danes and Steve Martin -- about the delicate nature of interpersonal relationships.

"And as I sat there watching," I wrote, "I thought how little the theme applies to my life."

I went on to write:

"I mean, relationships? Of the complicated, man-woman nature? I have none; haven't had one for a couple of years now...

"And so the movie didn't really resonate with me. It was low-keyed and sweet, but left little in the way of residual emotion.

"But then, pondering it afterward, I started thinking that the life that has been handed me is actually full of relationships -- just not of the romantic kind.

"No, the relationships I have -- the people with whom I've connected -- are fairly widespread. I have, through this website, found friends of all ages, from students to teachers to administrators to government officials to ... well, to a lot of other good people.

"There are relationships, too, of a faceless variety, with folks I never see. They are this website's outside readers, a composite group of worldwide residents who turn their eyes, with some regularity, to the little county of Schuyler.

"Some of them write me, and some of them send money to help me keep this site afloat. Most seem to depend on me being here with the news and the photos. Anonymity is their prevailing identity. I know nothing personal about them ... and they know only snippets about me. And sometimes they seem to know little about the website itself -- its workings, its origin, its philosophy.

"Several times in the past few days, I've received comments by phone and e-mail to the effect that 'you guys' are doing a nice job producing The Odessa File. Another person, overhearing a conversation in which I mentioned the unsettling truth that 'if I go down, the site goes down,' asked rather incredulously: 'It's just you?'

"Well ... yeah. Pretty much. I print an occasional guest column ... and I receive press releases that require only a little editing, but ... yeah, it's just me running things."

I then went on to explain who I am and what it is I try to do on this website.

From this point on, I will address those issues from a fresh perspective, circa Christmas 2008.

So, here goes.....


WHO: I'm a fellow who has always liked writing, ever since I was a kid. I wrote poetry as a pre-teen -- verse, really. And I sometimes construct verse stories now, some of which appear on this site, and some that are a little too politically incorrect to publish.

Anyway, verse is just a hobby. Prose is my primary mode of communication. That -- when mixed with photography -- is invaluable in bringing you the news of the area. Long before I started The Odessa File, I had wanted to produce a Schuyler-based printed paper -- to take advantage of my writing abilities and my propensity to tell stories. But the presence of a weekly in our midst, and of a couple of dailies distributed here, convinced me not to pursue that printed goal. This website seemed to be an easier course to follow -- with much less overhead -- if I could only get people to visit it. Which they have.

Journalism has been my major career path since college -- with stops at the Pontiac (now Oakland) Press in Michigan during college summers, the Watertown (NY) Daily Times, the Elmira Star-Gazette, The Corning Leader, and a stint at USA Today. I've won various awards at the state level -- I'm proudest of one proclaiming me best columnist among small-circulation dailies in New York in 1997 -- and I've managed to write and publish four novels, along with a non-fiction book about the Odessa-Montour girls basketball state title run.

I first took up photography while working at the Watertown paper, utilized that skill in a limited way at the Star-Gazette and moderately at The Leader, and now employ it extensively to help tell the ongoing story of Schiuyler County. Along the way I switched from film to digital, and learned how to shoot sports.

As for the personal area of my life, I'm a widower with three grown sons. My wife -- Susan Bauman Haeffner, who loved the website and was an exceptional photographer for it -- died nearly two years into its operation. (The site is, as of this writing, almost 6 years old.) So when I say it's pretty much just me, that wasn't always the case, but certainly has been for quite a while. .

WHAT: The website originated, really, during a conversation I had with my Dave, then a college student, during Thansksgiving break in 2002. When I said I couldn't quite see starting a print publication, he said the solution was easy enough: I should start an electronic one. I was stunned by the simplicity and common sense of the idea, and six weeks later published the first story and photos on the site.

After that, I needed readers -- and created a press release that the Star-Gazette subsequently used in printing a story about what I was doing. That helped jump-start the word-of-mouth necessary to the success of any such venture as this one. From three readers the first night (I was two of them, and a friend was the third), the audience grew. Before long, there were several hundred visits a week, and then several thousand, and eventually 20,000.

While the news is an obvious draw, the photos -- especially from sports -- are imperative, and popular if for no other reason than their downloadable nature. A reader can right-click on a photo and choose from a menu whether to print or save it. I encourage that.

While I sidestepped a lot of overhead by avoiding a print publication (paper, ink, distribution etc.), there still are costs. There is equipment -- I've bought seven or eight cameras during my venture, along with fairly expensive lenses -- and transportation and, above all, there is the time that the effort takes away from other potential money-making ventures.

WHEN: The first story and photos were published here on Dec. 29, 2002. I intended the site as a part-time operation -- maybe a story or two added a day, along with some photos. But it's turned out to be a seven-days-a-week job, with an occasional vacation. I usually take along my laptop on those breaks, though, so I keep adding things -- press releases, columns, photos from the road, obituaries and so on -- even when I'm not in Schuyler County..

The workload some days is intense, and the hours long. What with covering meetings and feature stories and high school sports, I often find myself sleep-deprived. That was not a significant issue when I started The File, but age has a way of creeping up on you and sapping your reserves. I confess I've lost a step in the six years of operation, But by occasionally doing a split-shift on sleep, I've managed to get the work done, for the most part, by the time readers start rising at about 5 a.m.

WHY: This county -- and for that matter any county -- needs a solid base of communication. It needs a way to find things out quickly and easily ... a way for its people to connect to what's going on in their midst.

That's the basic philosophy here. Beyond that, there's the positive reinforcement the website gives the students in our schools -- a place where they are recognized for achievements that might otherwise be ignored by media.

Really, this county is often overlooked by the regional news organizations. They come in here once in a while, for a race weekend or when something bad happens. That's the way it's always been.

HOW: This venture lost money in the first two years, low overhead and all. Then, with the death of my wife -- who had been earning a significant wage as a Special Education teacher -- the website teetered on the brink of oblivion. A surge in advertising kept it afloat, but donations started sliding. Folks just didn't want to contribute, didn't want to help support that which they tended to utilize with some regularity.

But I somehow managed to stick around. I've had an occasional advertising defection, but the tendency has been toward growth in that area. That is imperative, as are donations -- which have never been huge but help keep this effort going.

If there is anyone out there thinking about trying a similar venture, keep in mind that you'd have to be a fast writer, a competent photographer, at least moderately savvy in the ways of computers, fairly thick-skinned (to withstand the inevitable potshots aimed at the messenger), and willing to forgo sleep on a regular basis.

In other words, you'd have to be a little nuts.

Which is what I probably am.


Want to help this site continue? There are Paypal buttons near the top of many pages on the left, or you can send a check along to The Odessa File, P.O. Box 365, Odessa, NY 14869.

Photo in text: Charlie Haeffner (Photo by Dave Haeffner)


© The Odessa File 2008
Charles Haeffner
P.O. Box 365
Odessa, New York 14869