Brattleboro questions priorities of local paper’s owners

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(Host) For almost a century the Brattleboro Reformer has been the spirited voice of Vermont’s southeast corner. Now it’s owned by one of the nation’s largest media chains. Recent firings by the Denver-based owner have raised questions about a local paper’s role – and obligation – to the local community.

VPR’s Susan Keese has more.

(Keese) At Amy’s Bakery in Brattleboro, coffee drinkers linger over the morning’s Reformer and talk about happenings in town. One of the big topics lately isn’t in the paper. It’s the Reformer itself and the unexplained firing of Kate Casa, its managing editor.

Casa was the latest in a series of firings by the paper’s owner MediaNews Group of Denver. She’s replaced by Kevin Moran, who was editing another, nearby, paper in the MediaNews chain. No one outside the company really knows why Casa was let go. No one at the paper is willing to talk about any of this right now.

Annie Boemig is a nurse at the Brattleboro hospital.

(Boemig) “We read one day that there was this new person on board and I remember thinking, why? And it’s on the streets that I have heard then that Kate was fired.”

(Keese) The article introducing the new editor, Moran, mentioned that Reformer editorials were known to ‘lean left.’ Moran said he was moderate. The newspaper did experience an unsuccessful union drive last year. Casa was known to sympathize with reporters’ complaints about low wages.

(Winnie Vogt) “I’m really concerned about it because this is a great little paper.”

(Keese) Winnie Vogt is a retired teacher. Her Reformer is open to the Op-Ed page, one of the paper’s most popular sections.

(Vogt) “The letters are good, wonderfully varied and interesting and I enjoyed reading it for that. The take on what people in southern Vermont are feeling.”

(Keese) Ellen Kaye of the Brattleboro Peace and Justice group collected more than 300 signatures on a letter of protest she wrote. Kaye says the shakeup is about more than Casa.

(Kaye) “It reminds us that a corporation owns this newspaper – a corporation 2,000 miles away – that they can come in and basically clean house at the Reformer. And it really forces us to look at whether this is actually a community newspaper like it’s called, or if it’s something else.”

(Rod Gander) “The bad thing is, they’ve lost their institutional memory.”

(Keese) Windham County Senator Rod Gander is a former Newsweek editor.

(Gander) “I don’t think there’s a reporter there who’s been at the paper more than a year or so. That doesn’t mean they’re not going to be good or not care about their profession. But they have to start all over, learning what the stories are and who the sources are and that can’t be good for the community.”

(Keese) Gander says a local paper is the glue that holds a community together. He says he’s watched the Reformer struggle to fulfill that role despite cuts in resources and staff.

(Linda DuCharme) “When I came to the Reformer, which was about 19 years ago , the paper had a nationwide reputation as a feisty New England daily newspaper with a feisty editor who tackled big issues.”

(Keese) Linda DuCharme, a retired Reformer editor, recalls when the passed from the Miller family to MediaNews in 1995.

(DuCharme) “First of all, everybody had to reapply for their jobs and take salary cuts, which was very demoralizing. And they cut people that had made things run smoothly before.”

(Keese) Former Managing Editor Stephen Faye left soon after MediaNews took over. While the Millers were happy with a modest profit, Faye says the new owners wanted more.

(Faye) “They were bottom line and looked upon newspapers as widgets, and widgets should be produced cheaply and sold dear. But newspapers are different.”

(Keese) Back at Amy’s Bakery, Dan Cassidy, a real estate manager, is willing to wait and see.

(Cassidy) “We haven’t had the new editor for a very long time, so we have to give him a chance.”

(Keese) Meanwhile the town continues to wonder what it can do to make sure a media giant serves the best interests of a small community.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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