The decline of the newspaper continues apace

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.

5 thoughts on “The decline of the newspaper continues apace

  1. Robert Haskins

    This move acknowledging decline has been telegraphed for years. John, you’re being generous with your praise, agree the Mitchell family has made the most with their skinny team covering the Statehouse, but covering the news at the local level is and has been scraping the bottom for years. As a “moderate” in today’s politically polarized world, The Herald has veered so far left in its day-to-day coverage of local events and politics, the ownership has turned off at least half their potential readers and advertisers (it is Rutland County by-the-way, home to all us knuckle dragging neanderthals). I’d argue the combination of economic realities coupled with their hard left slant has narrowed their audience to unsustainable numbers. It’ll be a Sunday print only in a year or two if they don’t adapt or they’ll close shop.

    Years ago they upgraded their websites to meet the needs of a 21st century publication or that’s at least what they told themselves. The pubs used to have a robust comment section on stories a la Digger, but when they switched over to the new format, it became dauntingly impossible to comment or see others comment. Note to Mitchell family, if you want people under 30 to view your content, take a page from Digger.

    I’ll hold off sending a bottle of wine over to the publisher to celebrate their new beginnings.

  2. Brooke Paige

    Echoing John’s take on the sad news !

    Vermonters to Lose Full-Time Coverage From Their Most Competent Daily Print Media Source !

    Print media in general is on its death bed. The Mitchell Empire has already outsourced their printing and combined much of the newsroom operations. Their product is still far superior to that of their Gannett=owned competitor, however the BFP has the advantage of a larger population base, cash support from the home office and still own their own printing presses. Further the BFP “management” has hollowed out their newsroom in a cost savings move, and satisfied themselves with being a wrap-around for USA Today content.

    Print Media, nationwide, has not figured out how to monetize the on-line end of the business as younger citizens have left the printed page for the electronic screen of their laptop, I-pad or Smartphone.. The Mitchells have already attempted to use a paywall to create a revenue source with little success. I believe that their demographics (older and less tech savvy) make them an ill-suited candidate for such a bold move. They have already: cut staff, shut down printing operations (after the Barre flood destroyed their pressroom), reduced the number of pages to the bare minimum and reduced the size of their pages, they may not have had any other options left.

    Time will tell if this is a brilliant move or suicide. I hope they survive, they do have worthwhile content and their Vermont Press Bureau does a competent job of covering the State House.

    H. Brooke Paige

  3. newzjunqie

    Sources from the grapevine express say: Herald has been in slo-mo decline since Mitchell the younger took the helm after owner Bob Mitchell, a true news-man who created a legacy of journalistic accomplishment spanning much of the state, made it what it was & is, passed around ’93.

    Following Catherine Nelsons arrival around ’06 a noticeably steadier decline due to missteps & mismanagement. May have served the company bottom line, with each incremental change also a loss. Mystifying that a company would keep someone in such a crucial role as corresponding decline continued.

    Local news all but vanished almost overnight. Springfield is a major hub which includes all surrounding towns in any direction, also had its own columnist who left around the time CN arrived. The editorials & dept, columnists, writers, reporters are across-the-board outstanding & the real reason decline has been slower. Following John Van Hoesen leaving for VPR, Randall Smathers never measured up.

    At a time when all other papers had long since gone to skeleton crews, Herald still had a full slate of various functionaries which were later cut-but a five to ten-year gap before changes were made. Many readers in Springfield area switched to the competition, Eagle Times, a Claremont NH paper that is kinda crappy *but* all the

    local dirt, police reports & local sports. Although the loss of the press @ the Herald was blamed for moving operations to Barre, cost cutting effort caused a lot of upheaval & have heard press was sold & still operating in Germany.

    Though Barre was damaged during Irene still a choice to move production to N.Haverill NH rather than making reparations & caused a lot of logistical problems also. All companies who outsource esp major operations will face a loss but it’s a cost/benefit analysis calculation as to what is in the company best interest. Small companies simply do not have the customer base to absorb steep losses.

    Rutland residents are livid about the plan to bring 100 Syrian & Middle East refugees to Rutland. Some see the Herald as failing to keep residents informed or siding with Mayor Louras.
    Though the Herald has always been left-leaning, some are claiming it is too left. Rutland is one of the conservative pockets in VT.

    Mr. Mitchell haunted the halls of the statehouse a few years back when legislation was being proposed to allow contractors to collect unemployment. When the plan was scrapped, contracts of delivery drivers were not renewed. Company simultaneously advertised for drivers who would work for less, then systematically pulled the routes out from under their drivers. Whenever a driver goes, at least some customers will leave also.

    This is the way they roll. Companies who operate to the detriment of dedicated human resources are shooting themselves in the foot. Although fitness plan of cutting off a limb or two achieves rapid weight-loss, a poor choice, the results are permanent & nearly impossible to recover.

  4. newzjunqie

    All papers have been struggling since mid-’80s, which continues but manage to remain viable by proportionately downsizing, mostly at the managerial level. In stark contrast, all of the others continue to publish the same days they always have & none of them are even as good.

    There is only one type of news that everyone wants which has weak to nonexistant online presence and that is a daily that is local & hyper-local. There are free weeklies but they are ad-driven & very limited, do not cover breaking news or have good sports coverage.

    Constantly changing is not good for any business. Reason, ppl are creatures of habit, if they subscribe to a paper they are mostly older & want it daily. Very few are Sunday or weekend customers, so risking another exodus going to other papers, there are at least three.

    Guessing employees or business in VT is costly which is why I suspect big papers don’t publish here, probably the only one is BFP which is conglomerate-owned.

    Both the Eagle in NH, Reformer/Banner publish six days, Sunday paper is published on Sat so can be sold both Sat & Sun. Reformer/Banner along with sister papers is published in Pittsfield MA. Both Eagle & NENI, owner of Reformer & Banner, do other publishing-an additional revenue source. None of them have the numbers of the Herald or T-A.

    BFP & NENI papers including Reformer/Banner put *all* of their paper online. Even following major blunders still publishing the same days. Foolishly tried a model which subscribers had to pay for both digital, calling it “enhanced content” plus print whether they wanted both or not, doubling the price for an already crappy paper followed by another round of cancellations.

    Some papers limit online content, showing like a paragraph, which maintains revenue source of site traffic & their print editions have still fared better.

    Reformer has been conglomerate-owned since mid ’90s. There are no neckties, that is managerial who do not perform a daily hands-on function, and of those, wear several hats. Recently sold building to town of Brattleboro for municipal-police are moving there I think & papers to an investment group of professionals committed to local news. Everyone in the area seems excited. What has kept the Banner/Reformer alive is that they cover every nook & cranny of the backwaters in their county, school news, meetings, police reports & sports.


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