Daily Archives: January 23, 2015

Theme from “Jaws” heard in southern Vermont newsrooms

Looks like the Vermont journalism scene is about to take another step into the abyss. Paul Heintz has a story on the Seven Days website, headlined by a bit of consolidation at the Brattleboro Reformer and Bennington Banner: both papers will now share a single managing editor, Michelle Karas. (When asked if she could handle both papers, her less than reassuring response was “I’m hoping so.”)

To me, though, the more important — and more worrying — news was several paragraphs down in Heintz’ piece: DigitalFirst Media, the corporate parent of both papers, wants to get out of the newspaper business. It’s in the process of selling its entire portfolio of more than 100 papers nationwide. It would prefer to unload the whole shebang in a single transaction, although it may wind up selling things piecemeal.

Newspaper Rd. Dead EndDFM’s stash includes such notable properties as the San Jose Mercury News, Salt Lake Tribune, St. Paul Pioneer Press, and Denver Post. Our southern Vermont dailies are afterthoughts by comparison.

And they are about to be thoroughly buffeted by the winds of corporate change.

Possible buyers include a passel of private equity firms, many of which have no experience in newspapers. That’s bad enough, but even worse are the experienced operators said to be in the running. They include Gannett, currently engaged in a slow strangulation of the Burlington Free Press; and GateHouse Media, whose name is poison in Massachusetts.

GateHouse is the creation of another private-equity firm, Fortress Investment Group. Fortress has seen its share of financial trouble in recent years; it nearly went bankrupt in the market crash of 2008. This caused it to default on a huge loan deal to fund construction of the athletes’ village for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. That forced the City of Vancouver to pony up $450 million (Cdn) to get the village built.

Oh well, you know what they say about eggs and omelets.

Even as it has struggled, Fortress has built a newspaper entity that seems to break all the rules of business. According to the Boston Globe, GateHouse “has never made an annual profit as a public company,” and in 2013 filed for bankruptcy “under the weight of nearly $1.2 billion in debt.”

Even so, Fortress finagled the finances in a way that allowed GateHouse to scoop up 33 more New England newspapers. After which, it immediately imposed draconian staff cuts. Poynter Institute media business analyst Rick Edmonds says GateHouse has a reputation as a “bottom-line, lean operator” that isn’t squeamish about making cuts. “In a case like this, they’ve probably looked at the numbers and said, ‘We can squeeze more [savings] out of this,’” he said.

Through its holding companies, Fortress controls “nearly every newspaper south of Boston,” and also “dominates Boston’s western suburbs.”

Brattleboro and Bennington, just a hop and a skip away. Looking at the two behemoths said to be in the running to buy DigitalFirst, I’d say GateHouse makes a lot more sense than Gannett. And if Gannett winds up buying all of DFM, I wouldn’t be surprised if it spun off the two Vermont dailies, which are teeny-tiny by Gannett standards but right in GateHouse’s comfort zone.

Either way, look for more slashing in southern Vermont’s already sad print-media scene. Which is a real shame; the healthier Vermont media properties, VTDigger, Seven Days, and VPR, all have a clear northern Vermont slash statewide focus. Very seldom does southern Vermont show up on their radar.

There is one thin ray of hope in Heintz’ story. As the Brattleboro Reformer has declined, he notes that an independent weekly, The Commons, has expanded its circulation in recent years.

This may be the next mutation of journalism: a Seven Days approach, including a single weekly print edition and a Web presence with more frequent postings. To be sure, there’s no sign that daily papers will do anything other than continue to diminish in size and quality.


Fear of a non-binding resolution

The anniversary of Roe v. Wade is an opportunity for a bit of political theatrics. Congressional Republicans famously muffed their attempt this year, with an anti-abortion bill so extreme that quite a few female congresscritters objected, leading to the bill’s abandonment.

In Vermont, folks on the other side of the abortion issue brought forward a resolution recognizing the anniversary. This happens every year; but this time, supporters asked for a roll call vote.

Which caused a moment of panic, captured by Seven Days’ Terri Hallenbeck:

Last seen heading for the cloakroom.

Last seen heading for the cloakroom.

The House roll-call vote clearly made some Republicans uncomfortable. In a pre-vote caucus, Rep. Bob Bancroft (R-Westford) asked how members could abstain. Only by not being in the room for the vote, House Minority Leader Don Turner (R-Milton) told him. When Bancroft’s name was called during the vote, he was absent.

Sudden attack of the runs, Bob?

Kudos to Hallenbeck for putting this moment of cowardice on the record. But it made me curious: why was Bancroft especially touchy about this?

Simple answer. He represents Chittenden 8-3, a district represented until this year by Democrat Martha Heath. In 2012 the Republicans didn’t even bother contesting the seat. When Heath announced her retirement, the district was in play. The Democrat, Liz Subin, was expected to win a fairly close race; but Bancroft was swept in on the Republican wave.

It’s likely to be different in 2016, with a Presidential election and Pat Leahy’s Senate seat on the ballot. Democratic turnout will be much higher, and Bancroft may face an uphill battle to win a second term. It’d be very inconvenient for him to be on the record opposing the Roe resolution; but if he supported it, the anti-abortion base would be outraged.

Faced with this dilemma, he chose expediency over exposure.

Well, here’s another good idea we’ll never hear again

Earlier this week, State Auditor Doug Hoffer issued a report suggesting that the state is getting shorted on leases of public lands to ski areas. The long-term leases were negotiated in the Good Old Days, when ski areas were not much more than trails, lifts, and lodges. And they reflect that; lease payments are based on lift ticket sales.

Simpler times.

Simpler times.

Today, ski areas are ski resorts — with myriad amenities and all-season activities. Lift tickets are a small part of the whole. You could argue that that’s because of investments by private-sector operators; you could also say that none of it would exist without the public lands. The AP’s Wilson Ring put it this way:

The [Auditor’s] report says that inflation-adjusted lease payments to the state declined by 14 percent between 2003 and 2013, but property near the ski areas increased in value by about 150 percent, and meals, alcohol and room taxes have increased by between 40 percent and 61 percent.

Parker Riehle of the Vermont Ski Areas Association scrambled to justify his industry’s bargain-basement leases.

“The better that those sales are and the better that the ski rates are on state land the better that the lease payments are to the state,” Riehle said.

Is he really trying to tell us that rock-bottom leases are more lucrative for the state than reasonably-priced ones? Like the supply-side assertion that lowering taxes will increase revenue? How well does that work, Sam Brownback?

Of course, Riehle was reaching deep into the bottom of his rhetorical barrel; he also claims that the leases have led to the preservation of land and wildlife.

Yes, big expensive resports are nirvana for the ecosystem.

Hoffer doesn’t necessarily recommend trying to reopen the leases; he just wanted to provide information and raise the question.

It’s a very good question, with the state’s budget circumstances so tight that Gov. Shumlin has proposed leasing prison space to the feds (which will keep more state inmates in out-of-state for-profit prisons) and placing a three-year moratorium on the Current Use program, among many other things, to generate new revenue. His administration is effectively searching all the sofa cushions for spare change.

Nonetheless, it’s safe to assume that Hoffer’s report will be quietly shelved. Michael Snyder, Vermont’s Parks and Recreation commissioner, says the state’s hands are tied until the leases expire.

That strikes me as an awfully defeatist attitude. The state does hold the ultimate hammer — it’s our land, after all — and could force the ski resorts to reopen the deals if it wanted to.

Of course, ski resort operators (Bill Stenger, come on down!) are very well-connected people with top-shelf representation at the Statehouse and deep pockets for campaign contributions. I can just hear Our Lawmakers issuing heartfelt paeans to One Of Vermont’s Iconic Industries, a Bedrock of Our Vital Tourism Sector, and pooh-poohing any talk of Reneging On Agreements Made In Good Faith.

Too bad, ’cause if Shumlin’s budget is any indicator, we could really use the money. The resort industry has it to spare. And I’d say we deserve a fair return for the use of public property.

But naah, it ain’t happening. Better luck with your next report, Doug.