Gannett’s latest press closing will have a huge impact on its daily in Burlington, Vt.

Photo (cc) 2015 by Dan Kennedy

From the Department of You’ve Got to Be Kidding: Gannett has announced that it will close its printing plant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and move the work to its presses in Auburn, Massachusetts, and Providence, Rhode Island. The daily papers that will be affected are the Portsmouth Herald, Foster’s Daily Democrat and — are you ready? — the Burlington Free Press, located not far from the Canadian border.

Word of the switch was published in the Portsmouth Herald on Wednesday. I have not been able to find it in the Free Press, either in print or online (my USA Today digital subscription gives me access to the replica editions of every Gannett daily in the country, which is why I was able to check). But assuming that Gannett’s own story is accurate, that is really a breathtaking move. According to Apple Maps, it’s a three-and-a-half-hour, 240-mile drive from Auburn to Burlington. Providence is even worse — about four hours and nearly 270 miles. And that’s right now, without any traffic to speak of.

The Herald offers this statement from Gannett:

As our business becomes increasingly digital and subscription-focused, newspaper printing partnerships have become standard. We are making strategic decisions to ensure the future of local journalism and continue our outstanding service to the community.

Ah, yes, digital subscriptions, Gannett’s standard answer to everything. Well, let’s look at the Burlington Free Press’ latest filings with the Alliance for Audited Media, shall we? For the six-month period ending last Sept. 30, the average weekday print circulation was 4,000, with another 6,012 on Sundays. Meanwhile, paid digital replica circulation was 1,051 on weekdays and 667 on Sundays. Nothing is listed for straight-up digital subscriptions, but in March 2021 the Free Press reported about 1,400 on weekdays and about 1,200 on Sundays for digital nonreplica. So, roughly, that’s a total of around 2,000 digital replica and nonreplica subscriptions. Not impressive, and clearly the Free Press’ print product is still what its readers are looking for.

Then again, Gannett has long since ceded the Burlington market to a terrific alt-weekly, Seven Days; a leading digital nonprofit, VTDigger; and Vermont Public Radio. I wrote about that in my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls.” We also recently interviewed VTDigger’s founder, Anne Galloway, on the “What Works” podcast.

Nancy West talks about her entrepreneurial journey and the state of journalism in N.H.

Nancy West of InDepthNH

On this week’s “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Nancy West, executive editor of InDepthNH.org. 

Nancy was an investigative reporter during her 30-year career at the New Hampshire Union Leader. Nancy founded the nonprofit New Hampshire Center for Public Interest Journalism in 2015, and has taught investigative reporting at a summer program for students at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting.

Ellen has a Quick Take on a recent article by Dan Froomkin in Washington Monthly. Froomkin, who is now editor of Press Watch, used to work for The Washington Post and has been critical of owner Jeff Bezos. Froomkin is taking aim at the content management system developed by the Post under Bezos. The Post licenses this system to other news outlets around the country. That kind of market power worries Froomkin.

My Quick Take is on the state of journalism in Vermont, a subject we talked about on a recent podcast with Anne Galloway, the founding editor of VTDigger, a well-regarded digital startup. Dan’s topic is about a good piece of media criticism. Bill Schubart, a journalist who writes a column for VTDigger, wrote a column critiquing a recent New Yorker piece by Bill McKibben on Vermont journalism. But Schubart also looked inward and wrote that Digger itself is having problems.

You can listen to our latest podcast here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

How Anne Galloway built VTDigger into Vermont’s largest news organization

Anne Galloway speaks at VTDigger’s 10th anniversary celebration in 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell, courtesy of VTDigger.

On this week’s “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Anne Galloway, the founder and editor-at-large of VTDigger in Vermont. Like many journalists, she was laid off in 2009 from her job as Sunday editor of the Rutland Herald and The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus.

VTDigger, which is a nonprofit, started with a $16,000 budget with no employees. As Galloway put it in a recent letter to readers, it has grown beyond her wildest dreams. It’s the largest newsroom in Vermont, with dozens of employees and more than 550,000 monthly readers. Galloway not only built the organization, she also wrote notable investigative pieces. Among other issues, she broke open a fraudulent scheme that involve developers at Jay Peak. I visited Galloway and wrote about the newsroom in my 2018 book “The Return of the Moguls.”

Earlier this year Galloway stepped aside from her management position in order to concentrate on investigative reporting.

Ellen has a quick take on a study about the state of U.S. democracy from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The study says it’s critical to fight disinformation, and advocates rebuilding trusted local news sources.

I report on a promising merger between public radio station KERA and the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily newspaper that covers the suburbs north of Dallas. This move was facilitated by the National Trust for Local News, which raises money and connects legacy newspaper owners with possible buyers in order to keep them from either shutting down or falling into the hands of corporate chain owners. Our podcast with Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro, CEO and co-founder of the trust, can be found here.

You can listen to our latest podcast here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

Kara Meyberg Guzman talks about her Santa Cruz start-up and life after Alden

Kara Meyberg Guzman

Our latest “What Works” podcast features Kara Meyberg Guzman, CEO and co-founder of Santa Cruz Local in California. Before the Local, she was managing editor of the Santa Cruz Sentinel. In 2018 she left her job at the Sentinel, which is owned by Alden Global Capital’s MediaNews Group, citing differences with the company’s management.

Kara then connected with another former Sentinel reporter, Stephen Baxter, and the two of them hatched a plan for the Local. They focus on public policy issues that affect the whole county, like housing, development and public health. The Local is a private company, owned by the co-founders. The revenue model is a mix of memberships, business sponsorships, grants and advertising. But the mission is simple. As the website puts it: “We strive to understand Santa Cruz in all of its complexity.”

Santa Cruz may turn out to be the most talked-about community on our podcast. Not long ago we interviewed Ken Doctor, the longtime media analyst who launched a high-profile, well-funded project called Lookout Santa Cruz. It is encouraging to see that in a region whose legacy newspaper has been hollowed out by vulture capitalism, two digital start-ups are working to fill the gap.

I’ve got a Quick Take on a new report by LION Publishers that contains some really positive findings about funding and sustainability for local news startups. Anyone who’s thinking about starting a community news project ought to take a look at it. Ellen Clegg highlights the work of Katherine Massey, a columnist who was killed in the racist massacre at the Tops grocery store in Buffalo.

I also tip the hat to Anne Galloway, the founder and executive editor of VTDigger, who has announced that she’s giving up the editor’s position and is returning to the reporting ranks. She’ll be an editor-at-large focusing on investigative reporting. Galloway started Digger 13 years ago as a one-woman operation after she was laid off by the Rutland Herald. Today, Digger has 32 full-time employees and is regarded as one of the leading digital sources of regional news in the country.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

Anne Galloway steps aside at VTDigger and will return to the reporting ranks

The Vermont Statehouse in Montpelier. Photo (cc) 2015 by Dan Kennedy.

There is mega-news to report in the world of nonprofit digital journalism. Anne Galloway, the founder of VTDigger, is stepping aside as executive editor, taking on a new role as editor-at-large. She’s staying at Digger and will focus on investigative reporting. Here’s part of the official announcement from the Vermont Journalism Trust, the nonprofit that publishes Digger:

In the 13 years since Galloway launched VTDigger, it has grown from one reporter — Galloway herself — to become the largest newsroom in Vermont, with dozens of employees and more than 550,000 monthly readers. During that time, Galloway not only scaled up the organization while spearheading daily news coverage. She also wrote many investigative pieces that explained complex issues and uncovered corruption, most notably the EB-5 fraud scandal involving developers at Jay Peak. In her new role, Galloway intends to continue following that important story for VTDigger.

In a letter to readers, Galloway writes: “Today, VTDigger is Vermont’s newspaper of record, and the only online nonprofit news organization in the country that has replaced daily print newspapers in a local market. We have developed a sustainable funding model that is the envy of our competitors in print and broadcast.”

In late 2015 I traveled to Vermont to report on the media ecosystem that had grown up to fill gaps left by the Burlington Free Press, which had shrunk considerably under the not-so-tender ministrations of Gannett. This was the original, pre-GateHouse Gannett; but despite having a reputation that was better than the current iteration, the company had taken a chainsaw to Vermont’s paper of record. In response, the alt-weekly Seven Days, Vermont Public Radio and VTDigger had all stepped up. (I wrote about my findings in “The Return of the Moguls.”)

I visited Digger at its offices near the Vermont Statehouse in Montpelier. At that time the site had 13 full-time employees, seven of whom were journalists. That has since grown to 32. Galloway told me what it was like when she started the site in 2009 shortly after being laid off by the Rutland Herald.

“I didn’t have money to pay myself for two years, but I basically decided that I had to start a daily,” she said. “I started writing about the legislature. I went into the statehouse and I started covering the state budget in a very serious way. I started covering a few other issues. So it was me every day writing one to two stories.”

Now VTDigger is among the most respected nonprofits in the country covering state politics and policy. Congratulations to Galloway, and best wishes on whatever comes next.

Regional news projects are no substitute for local coverage

For reasons that I can’t quite grasp, there seems to be an irresistible urge on the part of news entrepreneurs to think regionally rather than locally. Maybe a regional focus makes fundraising easier. Maybe folks think it makes little sense to build out a digital infrastructure for a project that serves just one community.

There’s no doubt that some of the best journalism start-ups are regional or statewide, with The Texas Tribune leading the way. Yet truly local projects such as the New Haven Independent, The Batavian, The Mendocino Voice and, closer to home, The Bedford Citizen, The Provincetown Independent and Ipswich Local News provide a service that just can’t be replicated by a regional project that might be focused on, say, state politics and policy.

The latest to argue for a regional approach is Christopher Baxter, the executive director and editor-in-chief of Spotlight PA, which produces investigative reporting in Pennsylvania. Writing in Nieman Reports, Baxter says his site uses a “hub-and-spoke” model to provide statewide stories to local news organizations, which in turn feed local stories back to the hub. He writes:

This “hub-and-spoke” model using statewide entities like Spotlight PA, VTDigger, Mississippi Today, Mountain State Spotlight, and many others provides a ready pathway to scale coverage to local cities and towns without building new organizations in every location. The hub provides the organizational support and wide distribution platform, maintaining a focus on Capitol and statewide stories, while the spokes focus on local stories, always with an eye toward what might be of interest to a statewide audience.

So far, so good. But then he adds: “To be clear, this approach won’t replace the heyday of local journalism, when every town council meeting, zoning meeting, and school board meeting was covered.” And yet that’s what’s desperately needed — and it’s exactly what’s being provided by the local projects I mention above.

Back in 2015, I interviewed Anne Galloway, the founder of VT Digger, a statewide site based in Vermont’s capital, Montpelier. At that time Digger was just beginning to expand into local coverage in Chittenden County, where Burlington is located, and Windham County, in the southern part of the state.

Digger has been grown considerably since then. But in perusing the site, it seems clear that it’s stuck mainly to its original mission of providing first-rate investigative coverage of statewide issues, while occasionally branching out into local stories like the recent newspaper battle in Charlotte.

That’s as it should be. But real local journalism of the sort that covers “every town council meeting, zoning meeting and school board meeting,” as Baxter puts it, is perhaps the greatest unmet need today. Let’s let the regionals do what they do best — and keep pushing for local coverage of community life.

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Still more on The Berkshire Eagle and the racist column

The fallout from The Berkshire Eagle’s decision to publish a racist column by “conservative activist” Steven Nikitas continues. Today The Boston Globe weighs in with a story that is currently ranked second among the paper’s top trending articles. (My earlier posts, with links to Nikitas’ column and editor Kevin Moran’s response, are here and here.)

The story, by Callum Borchers (a former student of mine), includes a misguided interpretation of the First Amendment by a journalist and blogger named Dan Valenti:

Dan Valenti, an adjunct professor of journalism at Berkshire Community College, said the Eagle made “absolutely the right call” when it chose to print the Nikitas column. If anything should have been withheld, it was Moran’s defense, which Valenti contended was unnecessary.

“The Eagle had a duty to publish it to start this very debate that has followed,” said Valenti, who runs a news and commentary blog called Planet Valenti. “We have to decide in this case whether we believe in the First Amendment or we don’t.”

The first of these two paragraphs represents Valenti’s opinion, and though I strongly disagree with him, he’s welcome to it. But the second paragraph is just plain wrong. All of us enjoy the protections of the First Amendment — including The Berkshire Eagle, which had an absolute right under the First Amendment to publish Nikitas’ column, reject it or (my preferred option) use it as the basis for reporting on racism in the community.

Following Valenti’s logic, I shouldn’t be wasting my time on this blog post — I should be emailing Andrew Rosenthal, the editorial-page editor of The New York Times, demanding my First Amendment right to a regular column. Once a week would be fine; I like my day job and wouldn’t want to have to give it up.

Valenti expounds on his views of the First Amendment at some length in this recent post on the Confederate flag. As you might guess, he believes its display is protected by the First Amendment. And it is! Anyone can fly it on his or her private property. And everyone has a First Amendment right to urge the state government of South Carolina to remove it (or not) from public display. (For some reason Valenti is also very excited about the difference between various types of Confederate flags.)

By the way, Eagle editor Kevin Moran, whose column defending his decision to publish Nikitas’ column has been controversial in its own right, has been a busy guy lately. Anne Galloway of the nonprofit news site VT Digger reports that New England Newspapers Inc. — part of the incredible shrinking Digital First chain — laid off 10 editorial employees last Friday. Among the papers affected were the Eagle and Vermont’s Brattleboro Reformer, Bennington Banner and Manchester Journal. Moran is regional vice president of the papers.

No snark. Though I disagree with Moran’s decision to publish Nikitas’ column, his explanation shows that he did so with the best of intentions. And I’m sure he’s devastated by the cuts at these once-thriving newspapers.