Sad, but entirely predictable, news from the world of Vermont media. The Mitchell family newspapers, the Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, will no longer be daily papers as of early next month.
Both organs are jettisoning their Monday through Wednesday print editions, and will publish physical newspapers Thursday through Sunday. Thursday and Sunday are the biggest advertising days of the week, with Friday not far behind. The news was reported first by Seven Days; a few hours later, both papers posted stories about the change online.
Many newspapers around the country have already abandoned daily delivery. My old hometown paper, the Ann Arbor News, publishes only on Thursday and Sunday. Which is a disgrace, because Ann Arbor is a prosperous city of more than 100,000 with masses of affluent suburbs on every side.
The Mitchells and their minions have been doing yeoman’s work in maintaining a daily schedule AND providing decent coverage of local news AND a two-person Statehouse bureau. The T-A and Herald do a lot more with less than, say, the Burlington Free Press.
R. John Mitchell, chief exec of the family firm, posits the change as a kind of last resort.
“I think we were at the place that all newspapers get to currently,” he said in an interview. “… We’ve cut, I think, all the jobs we can without really decimating the newsroom. This is an attempt to keep from having dramatic layoffs in the newsroom and to try and monetize the technical base we’ve built for social media.”
Which will be an uphill battle. No American newspaper I know of has found a way to replace lost revenue from print advertising. The online version is far less lucrative.
Not to mention that the online product of the T-A and Herald is clunky and archaic. Plans are afoot to improve the online outlets of both papers plus the Vermont Press Bureau; there’s a lot of work to be done on that front.
There will be short-term savings in not printing and circulating physical papers three days a week. Who knows what it means for the workforce; newsgathering will still be done every day of the week, but design, layout, and distribution will become part-time enterprises. Plus home delivery was already a sucky proposition, and it just got substantially worse.
In the longer term, however, the cutback is likely to hasten the decline of the enterprise. Mitchell makes hopeful noises about “expand[ing] online revenue so both sides are contributing about equally.” But he makes no promises, nor should he. That’ll be a heavy lift.
Still, if it helps them keep their current stable of reporters and gives them a puncher’s chance at sustainability, then I say Godspeed. Even in their current reduced states, both papers contribute significantly to Vermont journalism. The Vermont Press Bureau may be only a two-man band, but those guys work very hard and produce a lot of solid reporting. More than, say, that Gannett daily in the Queen City. The Herald does its best to cover Vermont’s second-biggest city, plus their reporters provide at least partial coverage of the state’s southern tier, which is not well served by The Incredible Shrunken Dailies in Brattleboro and Bennington.
The Herald and Times Argus are far from perfect, and they are nowhere near the journalistic force they were even a decade ago. But they’re working hard and trying something new. I hope they succed, but I’m less than optimistic.