How two nontraditional newsrooms in Vermont are winning readers

Or any. All over Vermont, the story was the same: Newspapers were downsizing as readers

Or any. All over Vermont, the story was the same: Newspapers were downsizing as readers in ever greater numbers were getting their news for free on the Internet, and advertising revenue — which sustained print journalism for two centuries — had dwindled to a trickle during the recession between 2007 and 2009.

A newspaper comeback seemed unlikely, so Galloway did something audacious. She started a nonprofit, online-only news organization with the aim of doing deep-dive journalism statewide. Foolhardy, right? Wrong. VTDigger now averages 700,000 monthly readers and has a newsroom of 20 full-time reporters and editors.

And Galloway isn’t the only one bucking the trend in Vermont. As venerable papers including the Burlington Free Press and the Rutland Herald have shrunk, Seven Days, a Burlington-based alternative weekly, has upped its game, adding reporters — it has 12, including three full-time food writers — and doing more investigative stories, such as a prize-winning 2019 series with Vermont Public Radio about elder care in the state.

“The Free Press has declined dramatically over the 25 years we’ve been publishing,” says Seven Days co-editor Paula Routly, who started the alt-weekly in 1995 with Pamela Polston. “We saw that as an opportunity to beef up our news department.”

The success of VTDigger and Seven Days is a glimmer of good news for local journalism, which has taken a well-documented beating over the past 15 years. Since 2004, when print advertising, circulation, and staffing were at a high point, the United States has lost 2,100 newspapers, according to a University of North Carolina study, titled “The Expanding News Desert.”

The collapse has had consequences. There are now large swaths of the country without a local newspaper, requiring residents to rely on dubious sources ― Facebook, Twitter, and regional TV news stations in some places — for news.

“In small and midsize communities, newspapers are often the sole source of news and information,” says Penelope Muse Abernathy, of UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media. “Many residents now lack access to credible and comprehensive information that feeds our democracy.”

Vermont has so far survived the newspaper apocalypse. The second least-populous state in the country still has 10 daily and 33 weekly papers, but many are a shadow of their former selves — what Abernathy calls “ghost newspapers.” That includes the Burlington Free Press, which has been hollowed out by its corporate owner, Gannett.

This wasn’t lost on Galloway. When she found herself suddenly unemployed, she surveyed the media landscape in Vermont and concluded that the for-profit model, subject as it is to ad revenue and owners who prioritize profits over quality journalism, no longer worked. Instead, she scrutinized nonprofit news startups, including the New Haven Independent in Connecticut, to understand how they operate on grants, sponsorships, and reader donations.

“It was an experiment,” says Galloway. “I didn’t know if it would actually work.”

Her original plan was to periodically publish in-depth, investigative pieces online, but Galloway soon realized she needed to build an audience. So in January 2010, she and a few freelancers began posting daily dispatches from the Vermont State House, which the Free Press and the Rutland Herald rarely, if ever, covered anymore.

By May 2010, VTDigger had about 15,000 monthly readers. A year later, that number had tripled. Galloway was putting in exhausting, 80-hour weeks — she didn’t earn a salary until 2012 — but VTDigger was on its way to relevance.

As she was reporting and writing, Galloway, who’s married and has two children, was also on the phone trying to rustle up financial support from foundations, institutions, and business people who might see the value — to Vermont, if not to themselves — of her venture. Cabot Creamery was first. The dairy co-op made a $7,000 investment, and other contributors soon followed.

“Anne’s all in. She’s been all in since before she had two dimes to rub together,” says Lyman Orton, whose family owns The Vermont Country Store, a third-generation retail and mail-order business. “She keeps an eye on those rascals in Montpelier. If they’re playing games, Digger will find out.”

The story that put VTDigger on the map was a 2015 exposé involving developers and a Ponzi-like scheme at Jay Peak Resort in northern Vermont. VTDigger wrote dozens of stories about the scandal, which culminated in a federal indictment on multiple counts of securities fraud.

Not long after that, Orton and his partner, Janice Izzi, gave $1 million to start a “growth fund” to help entice others to invest in Galloway’s fledgling news site. To date, the fund has raised $3 million, which VTDigger continues to spend on staffing and technology.

“VTDigger is a solution to the black hole of no news,” says Orton. “And it’s not beholden to anyone because it’s nonprofit.”

Galloway, who’s been working from home during the pandemic, says the “secret sauce” of VTDigger’s success is generating a steady flow of stories — eight to 10 a day — that residents actually care about. Many of those stories, she says, come from the community itself via tips that VTDigger solicits on its website.

“We got more than 600 tips last year, and we follow those very carefully,” Galloway says. “We want to know what’s happening inside companies, inside institutions, inside government.”

Recent VTDigger stories that began as tips include a piece about abuse at the New England Kurn Hattin Homes for Children; a report on a COVID-19 outbreak linked to an ice rink; and an account of a chemical company using and storing hazardous materials without government oversight. (VTDigger makes content available to other newspapers in the state, an arrangement that generates $20,000 in revenue annually.)

“Clearly, there are stories that we’ve produced that aren’t going to please everyone,” says Jim Welch, a former executive editor of the Free Press who is VTDigger’s projects editor. “We do accountability journalism, pointing out where public servants have fallen short.”

The mission isn’t so different at Seven Days, the alt-weekly founded by Routly, a former ballet dancer and critic, and Polston, an arts editor who spent part of her 20s fronting a New Wave band. Seven Days has outlasted many well-established free weeklies — the Boston Phoenix, Baltimore’s City Paper, and The Village Voice, to name a few — by adding staff and special sections, making its online presence more dynamic, and supplementing robust arts coverage with stories that sometimes poke powerful people in the eye.

In June 2019, as the Democratic presidential primaries were gearing up, Seven Days political reporter Paul Heintz wrote a cover story detailing Senator Bernie Sanders’s record on gun control. Heintz reminded readers that Sanders was elected to Congress in 1990 in part because his predecessor, Republican Peter Smith, had endorsed an assault weapons ban and the NRA responded by saturating the state with anti-Smith mailings. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow mentioned the story during one of the primary debates.

“Bernie doesn’t like us,” Routly says with a sigh. “We’ve written about things he’s done, but they aren’t always the ones he wants to talk about.”

VTDigger also has been aggressive in its coverage of Sanders. In 2016, it reported that the senator’s wife overstated pledged donations to Burlington College while applying for a loan when she was the president of the school. The FBI and Department of Justice launched an investigation, which was later closed with no charges.

“Our stories were picked up by, like, Drudge Report and Fox News,” says Galloway. “We had a reporter in D.C. who was literally chasing Bernie around and he wouldn’t talk to her. He’s such a grump.”

Neither Sanders nor anyone from his office responded to an interview request for this story.

Unlike VTDigger, Seven Days is for-profit, relying largely on advertising to pay the bills. (It also accepts donations from readers — dubbed “super readers” — whose total contribution averages about $8,000 a month.) Over time, Routly and Polston have not only added staff — Seven Days has a full-time videographer — but they’ve also been inventive in their effort to keep and attract advertisers, creating a parenting magazine, dining and student guides, and sponsoring events, including Vermont Tech Jam and Vermont Restaurant Week.

Paula Routly, publisher and cofounder of Vermont’s weekly newspaper, Seven Days, at her desk in Burlington in 2016. Brett Simison

The pandemic has been painful; at one point, advertising revenue was down by nearly 50 percent, but Seven Days is coping. Compared with its inaugural issue in 1995 — a modest, 28-page spread that featured a best-pizza ranking headlined “The Pies Have It” — the weekly is downright weighty these days. The Dec. 9-16 issue was 80 pages, with several devoted to help wanted ads. (Naturally, there’s a Burlington business looking for a “craft beer delivery driver.”)

Seven Days has a weekly print readership of 108,000 and a weekly digital readership of 104,200.

“Seven Days used to be a traditional alt-weekly, but when the Burlington Free Press slashed its staff to ribbons, it started adding people and adding coverage,” says Northeastern journalism professor Dan Kennedy. “Honestly, if you combine what Seven Days does every day online and their weekly print edition, there’s more in it than the Free Press.”

The Free Press has indeed contracted. The paper, first published as a weekly in 1827, has been owned for 50 years by Gannett, the behemoth newspaper chain that recently merged with GateHouse, another large newspaper chain. Over the past two decades or so, the Free Press newsroom has been gutted, from nearly 70 full-time employees to just 11.

“It was the paper you always picked up or subscribed to because it was thick and had all the local, state, and national stuff,” says retired businessman Bill Schubart, a commentator on Vermont Public Radio. “But it’s moribund now. The newsroom has been cut ferociously.”

VTDigger has not been immune to the effects of the pandemic. In March, it cut a 10-hour-a-week editor who prepared stories for radio briefs, an events manager, and a full-time salesperson. And yet what’s happening in Vermont media continues to attract attention. Seven Days was just named a 2020 New England Newspaper of the Year by the New England Newspaper & Press Association, hailed for its “tremendous amount of content” relative to other large-circulation newsweeklies.

And last January, the philanthropic American Journalism Project announced it is investing $900,000 in VTDigger’s business operations over three years, calling it a model for nonprofit news nationally. The AJP was cofounded by venture capitalist John Thornton, who in 2008 founded The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, digital-first news organization covering public policy, politics, and government in Texas.

VTDigger and The Texas Tribune are similar, but not the same.

“My understanding is we’re the only online nonprofit that publishes breaking news, policy reporting, and investigative work,” says Galloway. “I believe all three are important for a statewide organization to gain the readership necessary to sustain operations financially.”

Ken Hartnett agrees with that assessment. A veteran journalist who worked at the Boston Herald American, The Boston Globe, and the New Bedford Standard-Times, where he retired as editor, Hartnett says he called Galloway a few months ago because he’s impressed with what she’s doing and is considering trying something of the sort in Massachusetts.

“Newspapers are what hold us together as a community, but there’s a serious fraying happening because, really, economics make the old model unsustainable,” says Hartnett, who’s 86.

Galloway says she gets calls from people like Hartnett a couple of times a month.

“It’s gratifying, but also a little bit troubling that we haven’t, as an industry, figured this out more quickly together,” she says. “I mean, there’s still nothing like VTDigger anywhere in the country — and I don’t say that out of hubris, but out of sadness.”


Mark Shanahan can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @MarkAShanahan.