Tag Archives: Bennington Banner

Lightning Round!

As the Legislature winds down, the political news is coming thick and fast. Got several items worthy of comment including Gov. Phil Scott’s generic condemnation of persons unknown, a better use for the state’s “extra” money, three potentially interesting House races, and a depressingly rote report on last night’s Congressional debate. Let’s GOOOO!!!

Scott condemns… somebody. Perhaps because of the killing of Fern Feather, the governor (or his comms staff) took to Twitter and amped up his language condemning hate speech in the political arena. He cited “disturbing hostility toward the transgender community” and lamented that Vermont “is not immune to this.” It was a good statement, as far as it went.

But he failed to mention the source of all the hostility: his own Republican Party. He also failed to name the two individuals responsible for bringing the hate home: VTGOP chair Paul Dame and Burlington Republican Committee chair Christopher-Aaron Felker. As long as the governor refrains from identifying those responsible and refuses to step into his own party and deal with this garbage, his words are sadly empty, In the vernacular, it’s time for him to grow a pair.

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Dregs of the Ballot: This Is How You Do It

In my pre-TMD series on far-right candidates seeking local office, I’ve criticized our news media for taking a cookie-cutter approach to the races. They often put in the absolute minimum effort, and thus fail to reveal the actual agenda of these hopefuls.

Well, I have to say the Bennington Banner hit this one out of the park. In a story profiling a school board race in Arlington, reporter Greg Sukiennik wrote all that needs to be written about the candidate pictured above: Luke Hall, who resigned from the Vermont State Police last year for social media posts in support of the January 6 insurrecrtion.

Posts like “Cheers to the great Patriots in Washington DC,” and “it might be war.”

Yeah, not a good look for a keeper of public order. (Although I suspect that if someone did a social media sweep of Vermont’s law enforcement community, they’d find a lot more Luke Halls.)

The agenda for his candidacy seems to boil down to one thing: He doesn’t like mask mandates.

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Will the Witness For Synthetic Turf Please Take the Stand?

Last month I brought you news of Michael Shively, professional “expert” on sex trafficking and staunch foe of decriminalizing sex work. He took the mic at Burlington and Montpelier City Council meetings, delivered his spiel, and got quite a bit of coverage in the media. More than he deserved. His credentials went unquestioned in press coverage. In truth, he represents an organization that sprung out of the religious right and has fought not only sex trafficking but also pornography, sex toys and birth control.

Well, now we’ve got another professional expert whose credentials should not be accepted at face value. Meet Laura Green, PhD., who has represented the synthetic turf industry and developers of synthetic turf athletic fields on numerous occasions. Her take is that synthetic turf is not at all harmful. It’s just a bunch of inert ingredients, nothing to see here, please move along.

Green does have solid credentials in the field of toxicology, but she has been a paid expert on only one side of the synthetic turf issue. Many experts and environmentalists do not agree with her view. Truth is, the necessary research on the safety of turf has yet to be done. It’s an open question.

Green recently paid a digital visit to Vermont, specifically the board of Mount Anthony Union High School down Bennington way. The board has proposed covering a dilapidated field with synthetic turf. Green spoke at a special meeting about the plan on October 25. Her expertise was taken pretty much at face value by trustees and the local press. (The Bennington Banner both-sidesed the hearing, which is always the shortest route to fake objectivity.)

Before proceeding any further, I should note that the plan has been derailed, at least for now. On November 3 district voters rejected the proposal, most likely over its cost. School officials are deciding what to do next; the field needs attention one way or another. Synthetic turf remains an option.

Back to the witness for Big Turf.

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Some Rich Guy is Buying Up Southeast Vermont

Until today, I’d never heard of Paul (nee Pavel) Belogour, a native of Belarus who’s made a fortune in international investing and related software. Now, he’s the incoming owner of three newspapers in southern Vermont: the Brattleboro Reformer, Bennington Banner, and Manchester Journal. The big prizes are the Reformer and Banner, the only two daily newspapers south of Rutland.

This is either a really good thing or a really bad thing. When an oligarch swoops in and buys media outlets, it may be out of a true sense of obligation to support journalism. The owner’s deep pockets can counter the effects of the news business’ decline. Or it might just be a matter of collecting trophies and buying influence with little regard to the health of the publications. On the rich-guy scale, this purchase amounts to spare change.

Oh, and his native country is a corrupt dictatorship which ranks… let’s see… 158th on Reporters Without Borders’ ranking of 180 countries. RWB noted that Belarus is “the most dangerous country in Europe for media personnel.” Let’s hope Mr. Belogour doesn’t practice his homeland’s approach to the press.

The Reformer and Banner have been circling the drain for some time. How they’ve survived the pandemic on top of all that, I have no idea. But it’s not surprising that Massachusetts-based New England Newspapers, which bought the papers a few years back with an eye toward enhancing the bare-bones operations, has now decided to sell out.

There is another dimension to this. Belogour has been buying up properties in southeast Vermont at a rapid clip. He’s well on his way to becoming a real economic force in the region. And now he’s going to control the daily newspaper? That’s troubling.

So let’s look at the available Google trail on Mr. Belogour, shall we?

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And the Hits Just Keep On Comin’

No sooner did I drop a post featuring five different stories about Vermont’s uneasy relationship with racial issues, than two more appeared in our media.

  • From the Bennington Banner, yet another unfortunate comment from a frequent offender on this subject. (No, not Kevin Hoyt.)
  • From VTDigger, Vermont’s racial equity director issues a damning new report.

The latter is the more impactful, but first let’s pick the low-hanging fruit.

UVM’s Designated Racism Detector, Prof. Stephanie Seguino, reported on racial disparities in Bennington traffic stops. Surprise, surprise, she found that Bennington cops were much more likely to pull you over if you’re black — a perpetual issue for the town’s police department.

The kicker was a quote from town manager Stuart Hurd, a steadfast denier that the P.D. has any racial issues whatsoever.

“Unfortunately the updated study may not have changed its analytics, continues to use census data that does not take into account people traveling in and out of Vermont on a regular basis, and continues to disregard the fact that many departments were incorrectly filling in the information requested on the ticket (no training had been provided by the state when the tickets changed).”


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State business grant gets flushed down the crapper

Bad news from down Bennington way, courtesy of The Banner:

With a two-paragraph note Thursday afternoon, a major Bennington employer for decades — Energizer — confirmed that the local factory will close.

Well, there go some nice manufacturing jobs in a community that’s taken more than its share of body blows. How many jobs is apparently a mystery; Energizer didn’t say, and The Banner couldn’t immediately find out. In 2015, the factory was downsized to an undisclosed extent (companies have learned to conceal the grim details of cutbacks and closings); at the time, per VTDigger, it employed “between 100 and 250 people.”

Sen. Dick Sears of Bennington learned of the plant’s closure — after the fact — in an email from a corporate stooge who offered hollow words of praise for “the years of productive engagement we have had with you and your office.”

That “productive engagement,” by the way, included a Vermont Training Program grant issued in April 2018 — only a year and a half ago. VTP provides taxpayer funds to cover up to 50 percent of training new workers or teaching new skills to existing workers.

I’m not sure, but I’m gonna guess here that Vermont had something a little more… uh, permanent in mind when it gave Energizer those dollars. Instead, the company didn’t even bother to inform state government until after it had publicly announced the plant closure.


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Southern Vermont: Journalism-free zone?

A while ago I was chatting with somebody from Seven Days, and I half-jokingly suggested that Vermont’s only financially healthy print publication should think about launching a Southern Vermont Edition. Or at least, including some southern Vermont content within the existing paper. (The Rutland Herald and Times Argus share stories, but what’s front page in one is often on page 5 in the other.)

Well, it might just be go time.

New England Newspapers Inc., has laid off 10 editorial employees in Vermont and Massachusetts.

The company laid off three newsroom staffers at the [Brattleboro] Reformer. Tom D’Errico, the manager of content marketing, Mike Faher, senior reporter, and Pat Smith, the newsroom clerk, were given notice on Friday. On June 12, Michelle Karas, the managing editor of the Reformer and the [Bennington] Banner left earlier to take a job at The Colorado Springs Gazette. The Banner laid off newly hired reporter Jacob Colone, and the [Manchester] Journal let go of Brandon Canevari.

Leaving two papers with “skeleton crews”: three reporters at the Banner and only two at the Reformer, whose coverage of Vermont Yankee has been invaluable to the entire state. And at the Journal, they’re facing a Zen question: what do you call a newspaper with no reporters? That’s right: zero.

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Sharks in the water, Vermont papers in the lifeboat

Further developments in the selloff of Digital First Media, the corporation that owns more than a hundred newspapers — sorry, media properties — nationwide, including the Brattleboro Reformer and Bennington Banner. And it’s not happy news.

Capital New York is reporting that a couple of slash-and-burn private equity giants have emerged as the front-runners. Apollo Global Management and Cerberus (ooh) Capital Management have similar investment strategies: buy up troubled companies, engage in ruthless cost-cutting, goose the profit margins, and then sell within a few years.

Previous reports had two newspaper chains involved in the bidding: Gannett and Gatehouse, discussed previously. Apollo and Cerberus have an edge, in that they are interested in buying all of DFM’s properties in one go, as DFM would like to do. Other bidders, it’s believed, want to buy bits and pieces.

DFM is the creation of a private equity fund, and has already engaged in round after round of cuts. As Capital New York puts it:

What could a P.E. purchase mean for the papers—and their “digital-first” operations—themselves? By standard practice, Apollo and Cerberus quickly apply reorganizations to find cost-cutting efficiencies. Layers of management and staffing are taken out, centralization of processes are put in place and technology is used to cut the costs of pesky humans.

… All newspaper companies have seen massive cuts… [but] the papers in this deal have seen more than their share of efficiency-wringing. Peer publishers will tell you tell that DFM looks “wrung out.”

Maybe we’ll get to find out if the three-headed helldog has a tighter grip than DFM. Which would be bad news for southern Vermont news readers, who are already underserved.

By the way, DFM itself is less than two years old. Its CEO, John Paton, sought to encourage journalism’s (supposed) next wave by pushing into multimedia digital content. The experiment hasn’t gone well; Paton’s primary backer, Alden Global Capital, has run out of patience with him. So much for the digital future; its only legacy at papers like the Reformer and Banner is shrunken papers and empty newsrooms.

The future: more of the same, at best.

Will somebody please hurry up and invent the future of news already?

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.

A heapin’ helpin’ of credulity at the Bennington Banner

The toughtest task for a daily newspaper — especially a small, cash-strapped one — is to fill the Monday morning news hole. Little or no staff over the weekend; a shortage of easy stories, like public meetings, official releases, and news conferences. So I can sympathize with the folks at the Bennington Banner for seizing on a story with a grabby header: Vermont ranks near the bottom in a national ranking of “parental input” into their children’s education.

Or, as the Banner ineptly put it:

Vermont recently ranked 45th out of the 51 states and Washington D.C. in a report designed to rank states based on how much power parents have over their childrens’ education.

Hey, congratulations to Puerto Rico! I guess they achieved statehood while nobody was looking.

There’s also the small matter of the double-plural form of “children.” But that’s not why I’m writing.

Why I’m writing is that the Banner swallowed, hook line and sinker, a bogus “study” from an ersatz “reform” group, the Center for Education Reform, which is part of the American Legislative Exchange Center (ALEC) web of innocuously-named astroturf organizations. And whose governing board is loaded with high-profile proponents of for-profit and charter schools.

If the Banner had spent two minutes on The Google, it could have uncovered that extremely relevant information, instead of regurgitating CER’s pregurgitated propaganda.

But really, you didn’t even need to go that far to realize that something was rotten in Denmark. Just take a gander at CER’s four — count ’em, four — criteria for evaluating parental input, thoughtfully entitled the Parent Power Index:

School choice, charter schools, online learning, and teacher quality.

Okay, the first two are gimmies. The only form of parental “input” recognized by CER is whether parents can choose their kids’ schools. Which kinda-sorta ignores the most important kinds of parental input available at every public school: teacher conferences, interactions with administrators, school board meetings, and school board elections.

See, public schools are, well, “public.” And members of the public can have just about as much input as they choose to have. Most teachers and administrators welcome parental involvement in their children’s education. And in my years covering school board meetings, I’ve seen countless examples of boards bending over backwards to accommodate the squeaky wheels among their constituencies.

If your idea of “parental input” is limited to one single act of choice, not unlike going to Walmart to buy a new microwave, then I feel sorry for your children. But that’s how CER sees it.

The other two criteria sound more benign, but not when you read the fine print.

“Teacher quality” isn’t a measurement of, oh, the actual quality of a state’s teachers. It amounts to this: Are there state-mandated annual teacher evaluations? Are tenure and retention tied to those evaluations?

In other words, have the teachers’ unions been whipped into subservience?

As for the fourth, “online learning,” CER advocates the availability of “a full-time online caseload.” Which is great, if you want your kid’s education supplied by the University of Phoenix or some other for-profit scam artist.

I’m not saying there’s no place for online learning in K-12 education. But is it really one of the four pillars of “parental input”? No freakin’ way.

In short, this CER report is pure ALEC-style horse hockey. And the Banner should be ashamed of itself for uncritically serving it up to its readers.