Schubart: The fragile state of Vermont media

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Schubart: The fragile state of Vermont media

Thu, 01/06/2022 - 8:56am -- tim

by Bill Schubart The oldest weekly newspaper in Vermont is on its last legs.” The Boston Globe reported in Mid-December of the Vermont Standard of Woodstock.

The Vermont media landscape is in turmoil. The technologies of news-gathering and presentation are merging and altering the economic support systems for hyper-local, statewide, and national media.

When I was young, we read the news on printed paper, heard it on radio, and watched it on a snowy TV. Today’s online news organizations offer text, audio, and video, and more traditional paper-print news is moving online as well, if not abandoning print altogether as the cost of paper rises.

Traditionally, all news was advertising- and subscription-supported. As online tech companies seduced advertisers with promises of more cost-efficient targeting and massive reach, paid advertising began abandoning traditional news organizations and left many with no source of income other than subscription revenue, which was inadequate to compensate for the lost ad revenues.

The economic basis for enterprise news is either for-profit as in Seven Days VTWDEV-Radio VermontThe Times Argus, Vermont Business Magazine and WCAX-TV, or non-profit as in VTDiggerVPR/VT-PBS, or The Commons. The distinction is largely a function of accounting rather than a survival strategy, as the principal factors determining a news media company’s well-being are its relevance and value to the community and the quality of its leadership and management. Organizational status is no guarantee of survival. The respected Barton Chronicle is a for-profit but is wholly owned by its employees.

Perhaps the most disturbing trend nationally, which affects Vermont as well, is the buying up and asset-stripping of major papers by financial firms posing as news organizations.

Even in Vermont there has been considerable ownership aggregation. The Vermont Community Newspaper Group publishes five formerly independent newspapers: Stowe Reporter, The Other Paper (So. Burlington), Shelburne News, News and Citizen (Morrisville), The Citizen (Hinesburg). The Manchester JournalThe Brattleboro Reformer, and The Bennington Banner are now owned by one newspaper group. The shriveled Burlington Free Press is still owned by Gannett but for how long is anyone’s guess. The Rutland Herald and Times Argus were sold in 2018 to the Sample News Group. In the same year, the St Albans Messenger was sold by the Champlain Valley News Group to Chicago businessman and former Vermonter, Jim O’Rourke.

The round-robin of ownership changes are an indicator of the fragility of the news business-sphere in Vermont and elsewhere and raises fundamental questions about whether news is just a business or a vital element of community and democracy.

The recent (and long overdue) merger of VT Public Radio and VT-PBS acknowledges the waning relevance of differentiated radio and TV broadcast technologies. The merger also makes possible one relevant news-gathering enterprise. Other than archival documentaries and interview shows, VT-PBS has never really tried to be a news site, seemingly comfortable with the national and international news presented by PBS.

But the real challenge in Vermont’s public media merger will be to develop and act on a content mission relevant to all Vermonters. Will the merged entity just be a source of information and entertainment for Vermont’s privileged, or will it become a true voice for Vermonters of all stripes?

Will it continue to serve up gurus pitching snake oil during its endless fund drives, or will it truly engage Vermonters in a dialogue about the past, present, and future of our state? Given its net asset value in excess of $60M, one might expect less pitch and more depth of discussion as to why we all must support Public Media.

And will it push back on the National Public Radio and PBS “clocks” that program the lion’s share of their day and develop locally relevant content?

The half of Vermont that doesn’t listen to VPR often listens to WDEV-Radio Vermont, one of Vermont’s earliest commercial radio transmitters.

I grew up listening on my old Emerson tube radio to the Pony Boys, Music to Go to the Dump By, The Green Mountain Ballroom, The Hermit of Hunger Mountain, and The Trading Post. WDEV, like many for-profit enterprises is requesting and getting donations to support their work, even as such donations are not tax-deductible. SevenDaysVT  is as well.

SevenDaysVT has positioned itself as the Atlantic, Harpers, New Yorker of Vermont. The richest coverage of arts and culture in Vermont is supplemented by deep-dives into long-form investigative news that rivals similar fine work by Vermont Digger. “Super-readers” support their work with voluntary contributions that are not tax deductible.

VTDigger is a registered non-profit. (Disclosure: I was a co-founder of the Vermont Journalism Trust, the current parent organization of VTDigger, and its first chair after it merged with VTDigger.org.) Digger’s news service is free to all. It’s membership and donations are deductible. Some 11,000 members support their work and about sixty times that number feel free to use the service without contributing. A similar ratio of supporters to freeloaders exists with VT Public Media. VT Digger is fast becoming the news organization of record for Vermont and after some early turnover among its reporting staff, a mutually successful unionizing effort, and establishment of reporting offices around Vermont, the paper has largely succeeded in its mission.

A relative newcomer on the scene is the hyper-partisan True North Reports which bills itself as “The other side of Vermont’s News,” implying presumably that most Vermont journalism is left-leaning in its coverage. An unapologetic liberal antagonist, True North comfortably blends news and opinion to purvey their belief that Vermont is rife with liberal political heresy.

There is a much discussion among the independent hyperlocal papers about whether to retain their for-profit status or convert to non-profit although neither ensures success. Discussion is also underway about creating a Vermont Media Foundation that would accept tax-deductible gifts for Vermont journalism and allocate them as needed to support the network of Vermont journalism enterprises — non-profit and for-profit. Many, but not all, local businesses value their local newspapers and continue to advertise and support them. And within such a foundation framework, while ensuring journalistic independence, might the foundation develop a program where businesses underwrite the development of stories that strengthen community?

Both UVM and Middlebury College have journalism programs that offer students the opportunity to intern in local and regional newspapers.

The lifeblood of our communities, towns like Woodstock, Charlotte, and Randolph are discovering just how vital their local newspapers are. We rely on them to record the lives and images of our families, the schedules and minutes of town government, the police blotter, the strategies, intent, conflicts, and occasional transgressions of our civic leaders, the triumphs and transitions of our citizens, local history and culture, natural resources, recreation — all with the sponsorship of local enterprises.

A good paper is not going to make everyone happy. Using facts and citing examples, it should raise issues both warm and chilling and issue corrections when a fact is misreported. But it should not amend its policy because a story makes some members of a community uncomfortable. The catchphrase for the work of journalism as it relates to community, is “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

Every town in Vermont must look to the stability of its local paper and come together to ensure its continued success. Our democracy depends on the daylight journalism provides.

Bill Schubart is a writer and author from Hinesburg. Copyright © 2022 Magic Hill LLC, All rights reserved. Schubart.com. This piece first ran on VTDigger.