Southwest Corner: Banner celebrates 100 years in print

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(Host) Most mornings in homes and coffee shops around southwestern Vermont, the locals peruse the columns of the Bennington Banner. They’re looking for a reflection of sorts, and a thorough discussion of important community issues.

In our series on the Southwest Corner, VPR’s John Van Hoesen examines the role of the Bennington Banner as it celebrates its 100th anniversary.

(Sound of microfilm winding.)

(Van Hoesen) Microfilm transports us back to December 8, 1903, when the Bennington Evening Banner published its first edition. In the early days, the front page was full of news about the famous murder trial of Mary Rogers’, who snuffed out her husband’s life with a handkerchief soaked in chloroform. On the front page, Frank E. Howe admonished his readers: “Don’t expect the earth with a high board fence around it for one cent.” The Evening Banner was already selling 1,400 copies.

(Sound of microfilm winding.) Fast forward 100 years. It’s a morning paper now and part of a big media group. Circulation: 8,000. On the second floor, a traditionally cluttered newsroom with ’70s-style desks looks out over downtown.

(Sound of turning newspaper pages.) Editor Sabina Haskell, who’s been on the job since July, is full of energy for all things news. She’s flipping through today’s edition.

(Haskell) “We always try to pick a fun local feature photo and it worked out great that today we have national pie day. And we have Bennington Town Manager Stu Hurd enjoying a pie. To us, our best day is when all five stories on the front page are written by our reporters.”

(Van Hoesen) Haskell believes in coverage of the issues. She also says she wants to give voice to the community through the paper’s editorials:

(Haskell) “I’d say the biggest issue most recently is the status of Mount Anthony Union Middle School and High School. With the No Child Left Behind Act, this assessment testing has kept these schools on the state watch list and that’s a serious, serious problem. We took a very strong stand on how unacceptable it is that they’re still on that list and how angry we are for the parents and taxpayers, and how something better be done right away.”

(Van Hoesen) Like most editors, she expects some tension between the populace and the paper. Haskell says the community is passionate about local news and wants the paper to make sense out of complicated topics.

(Haskell) “They take great ownership of our little paper. They’re our partners. So when your partner isn’t doing the job you think you should do, you get frustrated.”

(Sound of people reading discussing the day’s news.)
“You don’t want the government to give you back any excess money, you want to spend it.”
“No, I’m saying…”
“Here we go, here we go…”

(Van Hoesen) Some of those partners are just a short walk up the street, having coffee at the All Days and Onions Restaurant. Say hello to the “The Rattlesnakes.” They’re about a dozen strong today, mostly retired, and they’ve been hashing over the town’s ups and downs for decades. The Bennington Banner is important to them, and they’re quick with a once-over:

“Oh do we go over it, sometimes we stomp it into dust. Used to be a paper that was a local paper because it was local people that owned it. Now you’ve got this corporation. The problem is that they don’t have their ear to the community as finely tuned as it used to be.”

(Van Hoesen) The Rattlesnakes say they hiss, but they don’t bite. And they also see the bright side:

“I think our editor is now writing some editorials, which is different. Last few have been pretty good. Then you go to the obituaries. Yeah that’s big with us. Their calendar of events is very helpful. My wife reads it at 5 o’clock in the morning. I thought their article yesterday on Dunkin Donuts and Wendy’s was very interesting. I even dry it out if it’s wet.”

(Van Hoesen) Rob Woolmington, now a lawyer from North Bennington, is a former reporter and editor who prepared the newspaper’s coverage of its 75th anniversary.

(Woolmington) “The paper’s been most effective when it’s tried to do a series of stories that look at things from a variety of points of view. They let the community focus on something.”

(Van Hoesen) Woolmington says the paper needs to shape issues and shoot meaningful local pictures. Woolmington thinks the jury’s still out on the shift away from longtime family ownership to the big MediaNews Group of Denver. He says the families served the community in ways that went beyond accounting strictly for a profit, which helped build local identity. And if you ask the locals, they’ll tell you that that’s what sells papers.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Van Hoesen in Bennington.

(Host) Publisher Mike Carvalho says the Banner will reproduce historical front pages to celebrate its centennial and plans to publish a book of historic photographs in December.

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VPR’s series, Southwest Corner, includes news stories, interviews and commentaries on issues that face the southwestern part of the state.

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