July 11, 2018; Seven Days
Back in 2016, the publisher and co-owner of a Vermont weekly newspaper offered ownership of his paper as the sole prize for an essay contest. At age 71, and after 30 years of writing, editing, selling ads, and taking out the trash, Ross Connelly was ready for a break from the Hardwick Gazette but didn’t have any buyers. Referring to his rural area of Hardwick, Connelly told the New York Times, “Just because we’re not in the mainstream and not covering the national stories does not mean what we’re doing is not important.” He added, “I feel strongly that a newspaper is a critical building block for our democracy.”
Two years later, the Hardwick Gazette is still plugging along with new leadership, but daily newspapers across the state and nationwide have seen major cutbacks. In the midst of this challenging economic climate, Vermont Public Radio (VPR), Vermont PBS, and VTDigger.org, competitors at least in theory, somehow found a way to collaborate to ensure that Vermont residents continue to get the local news.
According to Seven Days, a Vermont independent weekly, earlier this year the three joined forces to “bring more local news to the small screen.” Now, weekly on Wednesday nights, a representative from VTDigger provides a one-minute overview of local news on Vermont PBS’s broadcast of the PBS NewsHour, while a representative from VPR provides additional coverage on Thursdays. Looking ahead, VPR and Vermont PBS are planning joint coverage of the state’s upcoming gubernatorial election, along with an opinion poll of statewide residents.
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The youngest of these three media entities, VTDigger, was founded nine years ago as a nonprofit. Anne Galloway, founder and editor, had been laid off from a daily paper and had a hunch that a nonprofit model would bring new opportunities. The publication has had steady growth in the last few years, which NPQ has covered, and was also highlighted in a recent Harvard study as a nonprofit model for acquiring corporate and individual support.
Reflecting on her publication’s status with the two older public media entities, Galloway told Seven Days, “Perhaps we’ve been the annoying kid sister or something,” but VTDigger.org has nevertheless come into its own and is getting attention on its own terms. In addition to steady growth in its annual income, it also recently received a pledge of $1 million from Lyman Orton, owner of the Vermont Country Store, which Seven Days reports it will use for an expansion.
The financial strength of VTDigger does not solve the larger problem of a dramatically changing print media industry, which means some small and rural areas risk losing coverage. Referring to these losses, both in media attention and in journalism jobs, Galloway told Seven Days, without mincing words, “People have no idea how much this has impacted the state. It’s fucking depressing.” Reflecting on the changes within the media industry as a whole, VPR’s president and CEO, Scott Finn, told Seven Days, “Now it’s up to the rest of us in society…to step in and say, ‘If these things are valuable for democracy and community, how are we going to continue them when newspapers are being forced to cut back?’”
Seven Days’ coverage of Vermont’s nonprofit media is part of a larger series called “Give and Take,” which looks at the impact of the state’s 6,044 nonprofits. The series also includes a fun “Mission Mashup Quiz” that invites readers to match mission statements with nonprofits and is worth a look.—Anne Eigeman