Aug. 19, 2010By Greg Duggan Observer staff
Some 25 years ago, four local women, working out of their homes, produced the first issue of the Williston Whistle. The impetus, remembers Louise Ransom, was to inform the community about the local political scene.
“We started it because one of our friends was going to run for the Legislature,” Ransom said. “We realized there was no way in town to tell people about her.”
Ransom founded the paper in 1985 with Elaine Park — “she was the only one who had a computer in her house,” Ransom recalled — Ruth Painter and Sally Bryant; another woman soon joined the group. After operating for a short time out of Park’s house, Ransom said the paper moved to the downstairs of her home, where issues were laid out on a ping-pong table.
Ransom, who now lives in Shelburne, said she still has all the bound copies of the paper.
“It’s very interesting to look at the beginning of it, because we didn’t know how to do a layout,” she said.
Nowadays, the paper has a different name — it became the Observer in July 2003 — and an office in Tafts Farms Village Center. Layout is done on computers, using Adobe InDesign, before being sent electronically to a printing company each week.
The paper has grown along with the town. Ransom remembers documenting the events of a largely agricultural community, one that in the past 25 years has transformed into much more of a business community.
She recalls fighting Wal-Mart’s move to Williston. The paper initially supported Maple Tree Place, but lost its enthusiasm as plans for the mall changed.
“That’s what we in a sense were documenting was inevitable change, so-called progress, what it meant to be a rural town and what it became,” Ransom said.
As the paper grew, it moved into the Williston Coffeehouse, built by Ransom in Williston Village. Ransom and Bryant also bought out their partners and gained sole ownership of the paper.
“What was interesting in our paper, I think, was that we had lots and lots of columnists,” Ransom said, adding that she wrote an editorial for each edition.
One of those columnists, Ginger Isham, still writes for the paper.
Isham originally wrote a column called “Farm Tails,” which detailed various aspects of farm life.
“They wanted a farm wife to write something about farm life, because we were more of an agricultural community at that time,” Isham said.
Isham wrote the column for several years and then, after a break, she began writing Recipe Corner, which appears in the Observer every other week.
Ransom ran the Whistle for 11 years before she and Bryant sold the paper to current publishers Paul and Marianne Apfelbaum, a husband and wife team.
“By the time we left, we had a nice good looking paper, and the town was very enthusiastic about us,” Ransom said.
The Apfelbaums had been publishing Vermont Maturity magazine for almost a year before taking over the Whistle.
“It was the community newspaper for the town of Williston — where we lived — it was exciting from that perspective, and since it was a bi-monthly at the time, we saw an opportunity and a need within this community, for transforming it into a weekly newspaper, with more focus placed on hard news,” Marianne Apfelbaum wrote in an e-mail.
Besides transitioning the paper to a weekly and focusing on more hard news, the Apfelbaums also watched the paper adapt with the community.
“When we took over the paper, advertising tended to be mostly from businesses in the surrounding area,” Marianne Apfelbaum recalled.
Ransom, speaking about the early advertising in the paper, said she went to potential advertisers after the first issue of the Whistle came out and earned just enough money to fund the next issue.
“That’s the way we kept it going,” she said. “We never lost money, but we never paid ourselves until later.”
Now, the Observer has two paid advertising reps — and a third on the way.
“We now have advertisers from a much broader area, in addition to advertising placed by local, regional and national advertising agencies,” Marianne Apfelbaum wrote in her e-mail. “We also added local columns, more feature stories and photos, an expanded classifieds section, and of course, the Web site, which we recently upgraded.”
As Isham said, referring to new town committees, more stores and more town employees, “There’s a lot more going on in town now. … There’s much more to report on.”
The Apfelbaums want to see continued growth in the paper, through an expanded advertising base and more reader submissions of photos and letters.
“We hope to … continue to respond to the community’s needs by listening to feedback from readers,” Marianne Apfelbaum wrote.
Though content may have changed in the 25-year history of the Whistle and Observer, the paper has always documented the events of Williston, and will continue to do so.
“The Observer is a big thriving newspaper, which we’re delighted to see it become,” Ransom said.