News website offered alternative to Liberty Hill’s traditional print newspapers

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In 2009 it was Radio Free Liberty Hill, an online news startup business, that shook the status quo in local news delivery and also changed the dynamic between the two local newspapers, The Liberty Hill Independent and The Leader.

Instead of focusing on a traditional business model of generating revenue through advertising, then reporting and printing the news, Radio Free skipped all the steps and went straight to the heart of what the creators felt was missing in local journalism.

Those with a professional journalism background could see the local news wasn’t really being reported. The two existing newspapers had developed along a fault line in the community, and both seemed to have a focus on local sports. The Leader was openly focussed on offense in opposition to much of what was happening in local government, opposing the direction of community leaders and much of what could be identified as the status quo.

The Independent, owned at the time by Dan and Diane Pogue, dug in on the other side and saw itself as the retailer of what it deemed to be legitimate news, openly a “chronicler and cheerleader.” Local readers sometimes observed that certain news events were being reported in totally opposite ways by the two newspapers.

The name for the third local media outlet was a nod to the collection and dissemination of the truth behind enemy lines, like Radio Free Germany during World War 11.

When Radio Free Liberty Hill was launched as an online news source, the concept was new to Liberty Hill. There was a noticeable difference in the way the news was presented because of the professional journalistic standards. RFLH didn’t have a cause, a political axe to grind, it didn’t cost the reader anything and for the most part there were very few ads on the site. Word spread quickly that this news page was the real deal. It was not being controlled by an agenda and the articles were factual and balanced.

Equally important, Radio Free Liberty Hill served as a real-time teaching tool for local high school students interested in pursing an education in journalism and website design.

At the time, Liberty Hill High School had no journalism program. Students wrote stories, took photographs and updated the website — working alongside professionals to learn more.

Without subscription costs to the reader or seeking advertising dollars locally from businesses, RFLH quickly wedged the two newspapers in an unorthodox way. RFLH opened a news office like a traditional business in Liberty Hill just down the street from The Independent.

Shelly Wilkison, now owner/publisher of The Independent, created and managed the website and wrote the majority of stories posted there.

The Wilkisons, who had moved to Liberty Hill in 1999, believed in their idea that real news is part of democracy and citizenship whether you live in Moscow or Liberty Hill. With a business model aimed more at community service than profiteering, RFLH didn’t accept certain kinds of advertising and focused on assisting those in the community who were trying to do good things, especially for children, schools, churches, and those who were attempting to make the community better for families.

The personal investment in a startup that looked like a regular local business but didn’t have a cost associated with it was a big sacrifice and a business gamble for a family, but as RFLH gained viewers and local fans, the demand grew to bring the online publication into print. It was an outgrowth of the idea that more senior members of the community didn’t navigate online publications as well.

The Wilkisons began exploring the idea of going to a print version of RFLH. That would require a retooling of the startup idea. Investors or advertisers would need to become involved if a professional staff were to be assembled to take RFLH into a traditional print publication phase.

Then in 2010 as personal health and financial issues gathered for the owners of The Independent, word spread that the newspaper would be sold to a newspaper chain with no history or knowledge of the Liberty Hill area. The Wilkisons decided to make their own bid to purchase the publication and attempt to convert it to a professional, award winning newspaper.

In October 2010, Free State Media Group purchased the newspaper and kept the Radio Free Liberty Hill website running another year until it was rebranded under The Independent.

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