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.

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