Vermont newspapers rethink business strategies

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(Host)  All over, the newspaper industry has been hard hit by the recession.

In Vermont, The Rutland Herald, the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus and The Burlington Free Press have reduced staff.

And, as VPR’s Nina Keck reports, they’ve had to rethink how they do business.

(Diner sounds)

(Keck)  At Rutland’s Midway Diner, Woodstock resident Bud Futschik reads a copy of the Rutland Herald while finishing his breakfast.  The paper got a budgetary makeover last week.   The price jumped a quarter  – it’s now a dollar – while the paper shrank an inch and a half.   It’s now 11 inches wide.

(Futshik)  "Oh absolutely, I noticed when she brought it over.   I thought, wow – but I like it.  If it’s the same amount of news – it’s less paper right?   Less trees.   (Laughs)   

(Keck)   . . . twelve percent less paper.   For the Herald and its sister publication, the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, that’ll save $200,000 a year.  Publisher R. John Mitchell says that while the size of the newspaper has been cut, the news content has not.  

But readers aren’t so sure.   Debbie Lamothe, a waitress at the Midway Diner says the paper’s new look has generated a lot of talk among customers.

(Lamothe) "And they read the paper and they do comment on how small the writing is. …. And now it’s a dollar." 

(Keck)  According to the Poynter Institute – a nonprofit journalism school in St. Petersburg, Florida, newspapers have been facing a long list of problems, starting with the fact that readership is down and has been for years.   With free information available on the Internet, many people balk at paying for a newspaper.   Classified ad revenues have plunged, thanks to the growing popularity of Internet sites like Craig’s List.  This past year, the dramatic rise in the cost of gasoline and newsprint added even more strain.   John Mitchell says the combination forced the Rutland Herald and Times Argus to rethink every aspect of their business, from their delivery routes and sales to customer service.  

(Mitchell)  "We had gotten sloppy over the years and we realized particularly with the loss of classified advertising – houses, jobs and cars – that we were going to reduce the size of the paper.  We also had a lot of unpaid space in the paper – promotional, house ads that were being used.  So we got very stingy with our unused space, but our news hole stayed the same." 

(Keck)   The Burlington Free Press no longer runs its classified ads every day. And last month the paper announced there will be fewer sections midweek. David Mindich, a journalism professor at St. Michael’s College, says these sorts of budget cuts are understandable, given the economy.   But when you have fewer reporters and less space for news, you have fewer in depth stories about local issues and local events and local leaders. And that, he says, should worry everyone.

(Mindich )  "Ultimately journalists are in the democracy business so we have to be really concerned for the health of journalism because it ultimately will affect the health of our democracy."

(Keck)   The struggle now he says is how to develop a business model to support that. 

For VPR News, I’m Nina Keck.

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