Tag Archives: Brattleboro Reformer

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.