At my daily paper, questions are many and answers few

You know what I think? I think daily newspapers, even in this era of shrinkage, have an obligation to their “consumers” and the communities they serve. It’s an obligation more honored in the breach than in the observance, as a smart guy once said.

In my opinion, daily papers have a duty to be as transparent in their own operations as they expect other institutions to be.

They aren’t, of course. Oh, they have an excuse: they are private entitles, not bound by the same standards as public organizations (plus whoever they choose to hunt down with their journalistic blunderbusses). But to my eye, daily papers are a different animal. They occupy a unique and valuable parcel in our public common. This is especially true of the daily paper, but it’s also true of, oh, say, VPR, for instance.

If you don’t like the way a retail store does business, you go down the street. But a daily paper, even a failing one, occupies an unassailable position in its community. It is a de facto monopoly. In the way it operates, it is more like the Burlington Electric Department than, say, Walmart.

Plus there’s the principle of the thing, that newspapers expect others to abide by standards they themselves ignore.

Which brings us to today’s Mitchell Family Runaround at the offices of the Rutland Herald.

Livelihoods are at stake, communities are on tenterhooks. But the information provided was vague and incomplete. Boil it all down, they basically said ‘Trust us.” This, from a company that just bounced a bunch of checks.

I really hate to write this, because I have a lot of respect for the Mitchell family’s efforts to maintain publication in a difficult environment. They’ve done far better with far fewer resources than, say, the Burlington Free Press.

But if they are nearing the end of a long, noble struggle, they’re doing it in a thoroughly ignoble way. Bounced paychecks, long-delayed payment to writers and delivery people, lies* and excuses to staffers, mouths worn tightly shut. It threatens to undo all the good will they’ve created, and leave their reputation in tatters.

*Employees were told that paychecks bounced because the business was changing banks, which turned out not to be true. 

Today, after many a canceled confab and countless unreturned messages, the management finally met with staff. But from what they’ve chosen to release to the public, all they had to offer was a canned statement full of vague assurances and a refusal to comment to other media. The key line from Editor-in-Chief Rob Mitchell:

While it may look bad from the outside, it’s not as bad as it looks.

Well yeah. It could hardly be worse. Also this:

At this point, there are still things we can’t talk about, for a variety of reasons. Rather than focus on what we can not yet openly discuss, I am going to try to focus today instead on what we can talk about – the overall direction and the future of these newspapers. There is a future for these newspapers.

Okay, well, up until today we didn’t know if there was a tomorrow for these newspapers, much less a future.

Mitchell declined to answer any questions about the situation at the Herald because he has “a lot to focus on in the next couple days.”

Imagine a public figure — a governor, say, or a school superintendent or the head of Vermont Gas — trying to get away with that. I expect Rob Mitchell would be all over it like white on rice.

I’m sorry, I know times are tough, but the Mitchells need to do better. They owe it to Rutland, Barre, Montpelier, and all the communities in their catchments. You know, the communities that have fueled their family business for lo these many decades.

I’ve been a Times Argus subscriber since I moved to central Vermont ten years ago. I have seen the paper shrink steadily, and yet I welcome its presence and would mourn its passing. I expect more consideration and more openness from the folks I’ve been paying regularly for a decade.

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7 thoughts on “At my daily paper, questions are many and answers few

  1. walter h moses

    *lies. Hell, the governor lies and gets away with it. Why shouldn’t the (whatever Mitchell’s title is) of a private enterprise? Everyone is doing it.

    Reply
  2. Bud Haas

    Unfortunately, the RH and TA missed the digital boat by about 4 years. Too late now. A comparison with the steady state, profitable, and now c0odigital Valley News would be interesting.

    Reply
  3. Dave Katz

    I wonder if the 20+% ROI newspapers traditionally enjoyed for all those years we were giving them our money rendered them not prepared for changing markets that require they take chances and might even hafta setttle for, y’know, a little less than that. Or, so sorry, was that greed, complacency, and bloat that just capsized over there? As an admirer of the Valley News, I scoffed at the TA as their content was mostly AP and their editorial stance was Pecksniffian conservative burgher. Didn’t that segment of reader-volk all age out of Barre and move to Florida? Stay relevant, if ya can’t quite get to classy, there, Mitchells.

    Reply
  4. newzjunqie

    Summer of ’09 Eagle times of Claremont NH suddenly filed for ch. 11. Recollection from those connected is that there was no warning, our paper driver claimed they showed up at the dock only to be told there was no paper, drivers did not get paid. NH unemployment laws unclear but don’t think any employees got paid. Lasted three months but seemed much longer.
    Other bankrupt companies show the same symptoms as the T-A/Herald. Many ppl of all
    income levels live paycheck to paycheck as does our household. Who doesn’t.
    Newsflash: Any issue related to compensation is *gravely serious*.

    Troubling is the extent that top management will go to conceal the truth whilst managing an entity, duty of which is to inform public by making transparent what we have a right to know. And challenged in court crucial information on our behalf. That they think a “newspaper” for godsake can hide an elephant in the lobby quite the head-shaker.

    Another response to a headline-grabber becoming a pattern following failed attempt to conceal unfortunate circumstance befalling Ms. Nelson a number of months ago. Again, keeping newsroom in the dark. Treatment of which would not have been nearly so charitible from LE, court system or employer had it been any of the public watching these antics unfold.

    Don’t seem to have learned much. Once story hits the radar, Herald leadership has a duty to say at least *something*. If it’s too complicated to explain, is it misguided for public, eps employees & readers to expect more than tight-lipped averted-gaze silence, or presumption that something is very wrong?

    Multiple cancelling of scheduled meetings then backhanding staffers as misbehaving children when answers are sought shows the little regard this organization appears to have for loyal consummate professionals *all* have proven themselves to be. Subscribers receiving surprises such as an ever-slimmer, now half the time, product for the same or higher price over many years of seatbelt-fastening changes. Rudely dismissing inquiry of staffers per Ms. Nelson, height of arrogance.

    T-A/Herald is *still* the best paper in VT & it is because of the dedicated workers in all depts. Newsroom, despite editorial board increased following of lockstep-march to the left still second to none.

    Great to see VT media esp online, writers & blogosphere coming to the aid of fellow news makers, starting with Seven Days Paul Heintz who deserves a H/T for measured response exposing the injustice. Hoping a favorable outcome for Alan Keayes who along with Gordon Dritschillo are heroes, placing long careers on the line in an uncertain environment, exemplifying truth, justice & upholding high calling of journalistic standards. And better days for the Mitchell familys’ unenviable hardship.

    Reply

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