How alt-weeklies are surviving pandemic and recession

In late 2015 I traveled to Burlington and Montpelier, Vermont, to report on a heartening development: though Gannett had hollowed out the state’s major daily, the Burlington Free Press, several other news organizations had arisen to fill the gap.

VT Digger, a nonprofit website, and Vermont Public Radio were expanding. And towering above all was Seven Days, a thick alt-weekly with a vibrant website. As someone who had worked for many years at The Boston Phoenix, which closed in 2013, I was agog at the size of the staff and the number of ads. Somehow, Seven Days had become the largest news organization in the Burlington area. And it was turning a profit. As Paula Routly, the publisher, co-editor and co-owner told me in an interview for my book “The Return of the Moguls,” the paper had never lost money since its founding in 1995. She explained:

When the recession hit, we invested. That’s when we ramped up in news. And that is when the Free Press visibly diminished. They just made different business decisions. “Let’s make it smaller, let’s lay people off.” That’s where I think they made their mistake.

So it was great to see Seven Days get prominent mention by The Daily Beast in a round-up of alt-weeklies that are somehow surviving despite the pandemic and the recession. Sophia June reports in The Daily Beast on four — Seven Days, the Cleveland Scene, The Stranger of Seattle and The Austin Chronicle. According to June, Seven Days was able to reverse the cuts that it had made within six weeks, suggesting that the newspaper apocalypse that seemed to be upon us in the early days of the shutdown didn’t quite come to pass. Here’s a key excerpt:

The paper had to stop hosting events and printing several of their guides, but they reached out to businesses like the Department of Health, a local hospital, and banks to find new advertisers. They pitched new guides, including a travel guide for the Vermont Department of Tourism, encouraging safe travel in the state. They were also able to keep revenue-generators like monthly parenting and real-estate inserts.

Also getting a mention is DigBoston, which has kept the alt-weekly scene alive here in the post-Phoenix era. The Dig stopped publishing its print edition last March but then started up again in June, as Poynter’s Kristen Hare reported at the time. It’s notable that all of the papers I’ve mentioned are for-profit entities, although the Dig shares content with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, a sister organization.

Does this mean that happy days are here again? Of course not. But these stories are yet another sign that independent newspapers unburdened by corporate and hedge-fund ownership can find a way to survive. Once the pandemic is behind us, maybe they’ll even thrive.

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In Vermont, the rise of an alternative media ecosystem

The Church Street Marketplace in Burlington, Vermont. Photo via Pixabay.

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The Boston Globe’s Mark Shanahan today takes a look at two independent Vermont news organizations that have expanded to fill the gap created by the hollowing out of Gannett’s daily Burlington Free Press. (I’m quoted.)

It’s a topic of particular interest to me because I included a section on the media ecosystem in and around Burlington in my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls.” Though most of the book is about the rise of a new class of wealthy newspaper owners, I thought what was happening in Vermont was worth including.

Shanahan writes about the for-profit alt-weekly Seven Days and the investigative nonprofit VT Digger, both of which are doing great work. To those I would add a third — Vermont Public Radio, which has expanded its local coverage in recent years.

During my reporting trip to Vermont in late 2015, I got to meet the folks in charge of Seven Days and VT Digger, and connected with a former student who was then working for VPR. I also visited the Free Press newsroom. The impression I came away with was that the Free Press was trying to manage decline, whereas the alternatives were mission-driven and growing.

It’s phenomenon I’ve seen before, and it’s why I’m guardedly optimistic about the future of local news. My 2013 book, “The Wired City,” is primarily about the nonprofit New Haven Independent. Launched in 2005 and still going strong, the Independent provides paper-of-record coverage of New Haven in the shadow of the New Haven Register, the corporate-owned daily. (Now owned by Hearst, which has done a better job with its papers than most chains.)

Along with my research partner, retired Boston Globe editorial-page editor Ellen Clegg, I’m currently working on a book that will tell stories from across the country about entrepreneurial journalists who are rising up to compete with failing legacy newspapers. Our work was disrupted by the COVID pandemic, but we plan to get back to it later this spring.

As I have argued for years, the greed of corporate chain ownership is at least as damaging to the health of local journalism as the technology-driven decline of advertising.

There are no good guys in the battle between Gannett and Digital First Media

Ben Bagdikian had Gannett’s number (1976 photo via Wikipedia)

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

In late 2015 I paid a visit to Burlington, Vermont, to survey the damage wrought by Gannett Co., the newspaper chain that owns the Burlington Free Press. Paid weekday print circulation at the state’s largest daily had fallen from about 50,000 to 16,000. The editorial staff, which at one time was close to 60 journalists, had shrunk to around 25.

“Obviously it’s a little tougher and you do have to pick your spots,” the legendary Free Press reporter Michael Donoghue, who had just retired, told me. “We were always thought of as the newspaper of record because everything would be in there. I’m not sure there’s a newspaper of record technically in Vermont anymore.”

To be fair, what happened to the Free Press was not much different from what has happened to newspaper after newspaper across the country. Fortunately other media organizations in Vermont arose to fill the gap — Seven Days, a vibrant alt-weekly; VT Digger, a well-funded statewide nonprofit investigative project; and Vermont Public Radio, which had boosted its local coverage. Still, the Free Press and its corporate overlords at Gannett had failed at their mission of holding government and other institutions to account.

I offer this story because now we are being asked to save Gannett from the ravages of something much worse. And we should. The Wall Street Journal’s Cara Lombardo reported on Sunday that Digital First Media, the Death Star of newspaper chains, is seeking to acquire Gannett, which owns USA Today as well as about 100 other publications. Digital First owns about 50 dailies, including three in Massachusetts: the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell, and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.

Why should we care when Gannett has been doing such a poor job? Because things can always be worse. Gannett ownership has been awful in the usual way. Digital First, controlled by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, is uniquely awful. Its decimation of the papers it owns sparked what proved to be a futile insurrection last year at its flagship, The Denver Post. Newsrooms have literally been closed, with journalists forced to fend for themselves, from the Fitchburg paper to, most recently, The Record of Troy in upstate New York.

Executives at chains such as Gannett and GateHouse Media, hardly beloved at the local level, nevertheless seem to be trying to figure out a long-term plan. Gannett has remained committed to investigative reporting. GateHouse has set up a business-services and marketing division known as ThriveHive, which, if nothing else, suggests that the company is committed to staying in business. Digital First, by contrast, appears to be engaged in what economists refer to as “harvesting” — that is, taking as much money out of the shrinking newspaper business as possible before closing the doors and turning off the lights.

“The dirty little secret that DFM [Digital First Media] learned is that — at least for now — it can sell longtime readers an inferior (or, to use the technical term, crappier) newspaper and only 10 percent each year will cancel,” writes Philly.com columnist Will Bunch. “Do the math, though, and it’s clear that much of America outside the biggest cities will become news deserts by the early 2020s.”

And to think that at one time Gannett was considered the poster child for greedy corporate newspaper chains. In his classic series of books dating back to the 1980s called “The Media Monopoly,” the late media critic Ben Bagdikian labeled Gannett as “the largest and most aggressive newspaper chain in the United States,” noting that the profit margin at some of its local papers was an “astonishing” 30 percent to 50 percent. Bagdikian also described Gannett as “an outstanding contemporary performer of the ancient rite of creating self-serving myths, of committing acts of greed and exploitation but describing them through its own machinery as heroic epics.”

So here we go again. Gannett, as bad as it has been for the communities it serves, is being held up as an exemplar of local journalism that must be saved. Talk about defining deviancy down. The newspaper analyst Ken Doctor, writing at the Nieman Journalism Lab, reports that Gannett executives may seek to wriggle out of Digital First’s hostile takeover attempt by delivering themselves into the arms of Tribune Publishing, the company formerly known as tronc. Tribune, like Gannett, is known more for its cost-cutting than for its journalism. But anything is better than Digital First.

There is a certain irony in the dilemma now facing Gannett. The company’s model of downsizing newsrooms and driving up profits helped create the crisis that faces the newspaper business today. As newspapers became less comprehensive and less interesting, they lost readers, thus prompting repeated rounds of cuts to keep those profit margins up. Not to push this theory too far — the decimation of advertising-funded news at the hands of digital media is a much larger factor. Still, Gannett-style slash-and-burn management played a role.

Now Gannett is reaping what it sowed. We should all hope that Gannett’s board is successful in fighting off Digital First. But we should also understand that this is strictly a choice between the lesser of two evils. Democracy deserves better.

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