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.