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IN THIS ARTICLE, DISCOVER:
- What we learned as an attendee of the conference
- What to look out for as community journalism continues to adapt to constant disruption
- How to stay updated on community journalism moving forward
Writers, editors, publishers, and media fans gathered recently in a University of Vermont (UVM) conference room to brainstorm ways to support Vermont journalism—and in the process—strengthen democracy. Lofty goal? Yes. But there was deep enthusiasm for the mission, along with recognition of the challenges facing local news outlets.
“No pressure, but the fate of democracy is on your shoulders,” said Meg Little Reilly, deputy director of the Center for Research on Vermont, to the crowd of about sixty. Local news consumption correlates with higher voter turnout, and good reporting helps keep an eye on government, so that it works better for the people, said Reilly.
The conference, titled “Vermont Journalism Exchange: Sustaining Community News,” featured short talks by media leaders and small-group strategy sessions where reporters, editors, publishers, and philanthropists brainstormed about ways to buoy the industry.
The event was sponsored by the Community News Service at UVM, in collaboration with the Vermont Journalism Exchange. The Community News Service pairs UVM student reporter-interns with local news outlets to provide content at no cost.
Discussions touched on the growing potential of nonprofit news organizations and philanthropy to support quality journalism, digitizing content, and legislation that could potentially stabilize a newspaper industry battered by declining circulation, hemorrhaging ad sales, and shifting reader habits.
Total U.S. newspaper weekday circulation declined from 55.7 million to 24.3 million between 2000 and 2020, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center. Many newspapers have shuttered or contracted nationally, and Vermont also has felt this trend.
Among the refrains at the conference was the challenge of funding newsrooms in an era when advertising dollars have migrated to social media sites and many readers expect content to be free.
Interns, such as those who are trained through UVM’s Community News Service, can help provide temporary staff in newsrooms and give young people an appreciation for journalism as well as training, should they decide to make it a career. But they are not a substitute for a professional press corps, several speakers reiterated.
The old model of journalism may be permanently disrupted but the picture isn’t all gloomy. New approaches that incorporate philanthropic resources have cropped up all over the U.S.
Nonprofit Report for America helped to underwrite the cost of placing 300 reporters in local newsrooms last year and hopes to place as many as 1,000 by 2024. The American Journalism Project, another national nonprofit, has fundraised and given millions to established and startup, nonprofit, local news organizations.
Recipients include the Vermont statewide digital news website VTDigger. Anne Galloway, founder and editor of the nonprofit, was among the speakers at the UVM conference. VTDigger has grown from a small startup in 2009 to a large news gathering operation with more than 700,000 monthly readers and a team of more than 15 reporters. VTDigger has expanded as newsrooms at many of Vermont’s daily newspapers have shrunk.
“We formed to fill gaps in the media landscape at a time when things started to fall apart," Galloway said. "Things haven’t gotten better, I’m afraid. That’s why we’re all here today."
She talked about sharing content with smaller publications and collaborating with new startups in a variety of ways. Recently the Vermont Journalism Trust, the parent organization of VTDigger, agreed to be the fiscal agent for the Waterbury Roundabout, a paper that formed in 2020 after the demise of the weekly Waterbury Record. The arrangement essentially means that the Roundabout’s donation tab is “hooked up to our bank account,” Galloway said. VTDigger is piloting the service and may expand it.
VTDigger wants to support smaller news organizations and has no intention of crowding them out, including those that produce “hyper local” news, Galloway said.
“Because that’s the real community work that’s essential, and how we figure out together how to keep these organizations sustainable is just critically important to the future. Not only of journalism but of our state.”
Others urged the audience to think broadly. Dan Smith, president and CEO of the Vermont Community Foundation, thanked journalists for the work they do and highlighted the connection between strong local economies and strong local journalism.
Local news exists in the context of the community and economy of a place, which makes it important to think broadly about the revitalization of Vermont’s small cities and towns as a factor in the health of local journalism, Smith said.
Democracy relies on an informed electorate and without that, democracy is in peril, said another speaker at the conference, Rebecca Ellis, state director for U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt.
The congressman is co-sponsoring the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, which would provide tax credits to local news subscribers, businesses that place ads in local media, and local print and digital media outlets that hire reporters.
The bill has bipartisan support in the House but not in the Senate, Ellis said, so it’s unlikely to pass this session. She hopes the proposal will gain traction as discussion continues.
Two Vermont newspaper publishers talked about a new nonprofit fund that is forming to help direct philanthropic dollars to local journalism in Vermont. The Friends of Vermont Journalism would create a tax structure that allows for-profit newspapers to receive tax deductible donations more easily. It’s difficult now under IRS rules.
Paula Routly, publisher and editor-in-chief of Burlington-based Seven Days, talked about the challenges of surviving the pandemic as a free alt-weekly newspaper. A “Super Reader” voluntary subscription program has helped, along with donations, but being organized as a for-profit business has made it complicated to accept some potentially large gifts.
What matters in journalism is responsible reporting, not legal structure, Routly said. For-profit structure doesn’t guarantee a publication is making money and nonprofit structure doesn’t mean it isn’t “rolling in dough,” she added.
She urged other journalists and charitable individuals to support the creation of the Friends of Vermont Journalism fund.
Angelo Lynn, editor and publisher of the Addison Independent, seconded that. The Friends of Vermont Journalism can make a real difference and provide the template to help papers around the state, Lynn predicted. Meanwhile, he urged staff at struggling news outlets in Vermont to reach out for help.
“If you need help, ask for it," Lynn said. "Don’t shut down. Don’t create a news desert. It’s much easier to keep something going than it is to have to start something new."
STAY UPDATED ON COMMUNITY JOURNALISM IN VERMONT
See a video of the March 10, 2022, conference on Town Meeting TV .
See updates related to the event from the Center for Research on Vermont.
Watch for an upcoming briefing paper on how philanthropy can support Vermont media, which will be posted on our Insight Hub.