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Printing a new path
P.J. Francis, owner of the Hometown Herald, a weekly community newspaper in Albany, browses through the latest edition of the newspaper while dropping copies off at the local gas station. (Times photo: Anthony Wahl)
ALBANY - Sometimes P. J. Francis has to get ink on his fingers.

It's all part of a day's work to sell the weekly newspaper that he runs by himself.

Francis, originally from Ireland, owns and operates the Hometown Herald, a weekly community newspaper in Albany.

He didn't set out to be a reporter, let alone a one-man newspaper operation.

"When I came to the U.S. in 1994, I did not have anything to do with newspapers and I did not think I ever would," Francis said.

Francis emigrated with his wife from Ireland to a job in the oil business, or as he pronounces it, "ooyel."

"O-I-L, I say that for the young people because they say "what's ooyel?" Francis said.

While he was working in Illinois, Francis went to a British car and motorcycle show and was so enthused by the experience, he wrote about it and sent it to a local newspaper.

"Lo and behold, they liked it," Francis said. "I started writing more and eventually they asked if I was interested in going to meetings and I said "Man, this is getting serious."

Francis dropped in as a stringer to the Freeport Journal Standard right in the midst of the boom that sent many papers reeling as the internet was superseding a lot of their coverage. Francis said he knew what he was getting into in 1994, but it didn't stop him from trying.

"To have the courage to leave a job and start something new, that's what America is about," Francis said.

He said his father had an opportunity to move to Australia and raise sheep and he never took the chance.

"My dad once had an opportunity to do something like that and he regretted never doing it; maybe that had an effect on me," Francis said.

Francis resigned from working in the oil business, losing his benefits, and took a pay cut to write and have the freedom of a reporter. He joked that he at least was better off than earlier American immigrants, the Pilgrims.

"If it didn't work out, you couldn't go claiming Social Security. The Pilgrims never said "I'm giving this up, I'm going to draw Social Security," Francis said.

Francis acquired the Hometown Herald about 2 1/2 years ago from then-owner Daniel Hall. Francis said he was on assignment in Albany to cover a school event when he met Hall.

"Of course, we got talking about newspapers," Francis said.

He wasn't sure he wanted to take on the extra work of owning and producing a paper.

"I was comfortable with the amount of work I was getting," Francis said. "I kept thinking about it, and eventually thought I've been doing a lot of things in America for 20 years but that would be the coolest thing."

Francis said the writing always came easy, but all the other work - design, photography, filling space, finding advertisers - was difficult, especially when Francis admits he was never very computer savvy. He said his wife helped him through the first year and eventually things began to become more cohesive.

"Sending the paper to the printer, that drove me crazy. That went wrong so many times, mostly because I wasn't doing something right," Francis said.

When he took over the paper, he began writing a column titled "Dear Reader," and to date, it has been the thing everyone comments on.

"People kept telling me, "That's the first thing I turn to,'" Francis said. "Sometimes I do a whole page and that turns out to be the most popular item."

He said he can write about anything in his column, although most want to hear stories about Ireland. Francis doesn't want to be too focused on his background, so instead he usually writes about matters of a historical nature or Albany's past, which readers latch onto.

In a recent column from the March 12 edition of the Hometown Herald, Francis opines about the uselessness of "selfie" sticks - used to take cellphone pictures.

"Their use has become extremely annoying to other visitors," Francis wrote. "It is all fun and games until someone puts out an eye."

Francis said he loves the community of Albany but he lives in Durand, Ill., and tends to make it up about once a week when he drops off the paper. He said he would like to expand the paper by two pages, but the funds just aren't there.

"I squeeze in as much as I can. You won't find any vacant space," Francis said.

He's become a bit of a hometown celebrity and does talks occasionally about history in the area, though he said some introduce him as "that Irish guy."

"People will just phone me up to hear the way I talk," Francis said.

Francis said he plans on keeping the paper, but also finds time to take motorcycle trips around the country as well.

"In America, you need a lot of time to go back to the places you found, but you also want to discover new places," Francis said.