Want to own a newspaper? A Vermont contest has trouble finding takers

Ross Connelly, the owner of ‘The Hardwick Gazette,’ works on the week’s edition in Hardwick, Vermont, August 16, 2016. Connelly announced in June that he was holding an essay contest to find a successor to take over the paper. Unfortunately, the contest has not generated the interest. — Picture by Jacob Hannah/The New York Times
Ross Connelly, the owner of ‘The Hardwick Gazette,’ works on the week’s edition in Hardwick, Vermont, August 16, 2016. Connelly announced in June that he was holding an essay contest to find a successor to take over the paper. Unfortunately, the contest has not generated the interest. — Picture by Jacob Hannah/The New York Times

HARDWICK (Vermont), Aug 26 — Like most people who work for small newspapers, Vanessa Fournier wears many hats.

A photographer, she shoots pictures for The Hardwick Gazette, the weekly broadsheet that has been documenting life here in Vermont’s hardscrabble Northeast Kingdom since 1889.

On Wednesdays, she serves as the paper’s local distributor. With bundles of the freshly printed Gazette tucked into the trunk of her Honda Civic, Fournier, 61, makes her way through town, plunking down papers on countertops, slipping them into wire racks and keeping up a cheerful patter with shopkeepers.

Now, she worries that both jobs could end.

The Gazette’s editor and publisher, Ross Connelly, announced in June that he was holding an essay contest to find a successor to take over the paper. He said that he still had the passion for newspapering, but that at 71, lacked the energy.

Unfortunately for him, the contest has not generated the interest that he had hoped would make his plan financially viable. So he has extended the deadline to September 20 from August 11.

When asked if he had a Plan C if he had still not received enough entries in a month, he offered a blunt analogy: He could extend the deadline again, he said, but that would be “like pounding your thumb with a hammer — it’s not going to stop hurting.”

That could sum up the newspaper business these days, at least for many big dailies, which have been upended by the internet and are in a frantic race to reinvent themselves to stay relevant in today’s crowded and fragmented media environment. The New England landscape is dotted with papers of significant lineage, many of them going through upheavals in ownership as they struggle to survive.

“It’s not a great time to be in the community newspaper business, but it’s the sector that has survived the shift to digital the best,” said Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard, which studies the future of journalism. “Very small papers don’t face much in the way of local online competition, the ad base is almost entirely local, and they have advertising and reader relationships that go back decades.”

Vanessa Fournier, a photographer for ‘The Hardwick Gazette,’ delivers bundles of the paper from the trunk of her car in Hardwick, Vermont, August 16, 2016. — Picture by Jacob Hannah/The New York Times
Vanessa Fournier, a photographer for ‘The Hardwick Gazette,’ delivers bundles of the paper from the trunk of her car in Hardwick, Vermont, August 16, 2016. — Picture by Jacob Hannah/The New York Times

But, Benton cautioned, the ad base can dry up, especially in the era of Amazon and big-box stores.

The Gazette has been operating for 127 years, growing along with the town’s granite industry. Work at the quarries peaked in 1910, as did Hardwick’s population, hitting 3,200. The town then retrenched as it returned to its agricultural roots.

It has emerged in recent years as a centre of the local food movement, in which farmers, entrepreneurs and consumers buy and invest locally to support one another and help the local economy. Still, this section of Vermont lags behind the state in some economic indicators, and the population has slipped below 3,000.

Connelly, a trim man with close-cropped white hair and a steady gaze, who has carved out a small sitting space in front of piles of paper on his overstuffed wooden desk, has been The Gazette’s steward for three decades. He is determined to find someone to whom to pass the torch.

But when the contest closed August 11, he had not received the 700 essays that he said was the minimum needed to make the contest financially viable. He would not say how many he had received, nor would he share the contents of the entries, saying he did not want to skew the judging.

He did say that the paper, which has a paid circulation of 2,200, grossed US$240,000 last year (RM960,000). He had figured that, with a contest entry fee of US$175, 700 essays would yield enough, US$122,500, to cover The Gazette building, computers and taxes and send him on his glide to retirement.

Ross Connelly, the owner of ‘The Hardwick Gazette,’ where he lives on the second floor with his family, in Hardwick, Vermont, August 16, 2016. — Picture by Jacob Hannah/The New York Times
Ross Connelly, the owner of ‘The Hardwick Gazette,’ where he lives on the second floor with his family, in Hardwick, Vermont, August 16, 2016. — Picture by Jacob Hannah/The New York Times

He has a few guesses about why not enough entries materialised.

“Maybe the people who have experience know that you’re not going to get rich 'and you’re going to work your butt off,” he said. “The hours are long and the pay is not great, and so they were smart enough to say, ‘I don’t want any part of this.'”

“And,” he added, “there’s a generation and a half now of people who don’t even know what a newspaper is.”

What it is not, he said, is social media. “For someone to hold up a Facebook post as journalism is kind of an affront,” he said.

Journalism at The Gazette consists of keeping track of local government and the goings on here and in a few surrounding towns: With milk prices falling, for example, dairy farmers are banding together to increase their clout. The nearby town of Craftsbury, a Gazette reporter wrote, is “joining the 21st century” with high-speed internet.

Connelly says he has also covered topics that some readers objected to, including a big bank scandal involving a local resident and the harassment of a transgender police officer by a town official.

The paper, running 10 or 12 pages, is filled with the staples of community weeklies: local sports, calendars, birth announcements and obituaries, the police blotter and reviews of artistic endeavours. In the August 17 edition, one correspondent, Michael Bielawski, wrote five of the seven front-page stories.

The Gazette has plenty of ads. In addition to serving as editor and publisher, Connelly is the ad salesman, since his wife, Susan Jarzyna, died five years ago. He said he has learned the importance of developing relationships with local retailers.

“You have to keep going back and become a familiar face to them, and then they begin to understand that we’re a local business just like they are,” he said. “And if you have to spend four hours to get two ads, that’s what you do.” — The New York Times

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