Monday’s print edition of the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus had no mention of the Marshfield Dam, which the whole preceding night had been poised to flood the capital area as a result of Tropical Storm Irene. Since last May, when a flash flood destroyed its press, the state capital’s daily paper has been paying to print at the Burlington Free Press. That means an earlier deadline: Everything has to be wrapped by 7 p.m. instead of 1 a.m. For a reporter, that’s six fewer hours of potential news gathering.
Unfortunately for the TA, their print edition missed the biggest story of the day.
The family-owned media company has been disadvantaged since spring flooding inundated much of Barre, including the paper’s offices, racking up a total $4.5 million in damages. In addition to the printing press, the deluge “basically wrecked everything that was less than three-and-a-half feet off the floor — computers, desks, everything,” says state editor Rob Mitchell. Insurance is going to cover only $1 million of the loss — the maximum allowable coverage, according to Mitchell. An ancillary insurance policy, which would have covered the difference, doesn’t apply to “acts of God,” such as a flood.
The Rutland Herald, the TA’s sister publication, also used to print in Barre. Now it’s going to Upper Valley Press in North Haverhill, N.H. — and from an 11 p.m. deadline to a 7 p.m. one.
In an earlier era, the flood might have been seen as a disaster from which the paper would eventually recover. But in 2011, the Times Argus is beset by longer-term existential threats that are making the future scary for almost every newspaper in the United States. The Internet has been steadily draining away the advertising and circulation revenues of national dailies. Some small-town dailies are feeling it, too.
The added expense of outsourced printing is the most recent on the TA’s long list of woes. Between 2008 and 2011, the Times Argus lost 12 percent of its Sunday circulation, from 8963 to 7849; average weekday sales dropped 14 percent, 8360 to 7216. In 2009, the paper laid off 14 workers — four of them from the newsroom. After the flood, the TA eliminated another 25 employees with printing responsibilities.
Mitchell, the son of the papers’ publisher, John Mitchell, says it’s not clear when — or if — the TA’s own press will be restarted. “We’ve been in figure-it-out mode for the past three months,” Rob Mitchell comments. “There’s no deadline for deciding what to do.”
Mitchell is proud of the fact that when the TA newsroom was under water, “we didn’t miss a single print edition.” But, given the challenges, will the TA still be publishing in print form a year or two from now?
Maybe not. Since the spring flood, both the TA and the RH have relied increasingly on their web editions, which are constantly updated. The paper’s blog, Vermont Today, covered the Marshfield Dam and other Irene-related damage around the state. Mitchell says the website got a record 100,000 unique visitors on Monday. Taking the online product into consideration, he says he’s completely satisfied with the TA’s coverage of Irene.
It now costs $2.99 a week to read the online versions of the Mitchell family’s papers; the Times Argus and Rutland Herald put their stories behind a “pay wall” almost a year ago. The Brattleboro Reformer and the Bennington Banner, both owned by the Denver-based MediaNews Group, joined the trend earlier this month. The Caledonian Record, the Valley News and the St. Albans Messenger also have paid-access systems in place or post only a portion of their content online.
“From a revenue standpoint, it has helped us tremendously,” Mitchell says. As of early August, the Times Argus had attracted about 1000 online-only subscribers in addition to 6000 print subscribers who have registered for free access to the web edition, Mitchell says.
But he acknowledges that the pay wall has turned away some readers. The TA averaged 4 million “page views” per month before it walled off its content; that number had dropped to 2.4 million as of July, he reports — a 40 percent loss. The effect on online advertising revenue has been “negligible,” according to Mitchell. Apparently, a smaller number of loyal readers represents just as good an investment for advertisers.
Gannett, the owner of the Burlington Free Press, appears to have come to a different conclusion. The Virginia-based conglomerate has conducted a few local experiments but still has not committed to charging readers for online access to any of the 82 daily papers it owns. Burlington Free Press publisher James Fogler did not respond to questions about whether a pay wall is planned for Burlington.
The Freeps’ fate will be of great consequence to the Times Argus and Rutland Herald, suggests St. Michael’s College media studies professor David Mindich. He says pay walls prove less successful when readers retain free access to a local paper that carries at least some of the same news. If the Freeps started charging, the theory goes, it could help both the TA and RH.
There’s also the question of how many readers will pay for a newspaper that — even with unique, daily online content — is widely viewed as a much-diminished version of its former self.
Veteran newsman Jon Margolis, for example, is one of the TA’s former page viewers who declines to pay for content that was previously free. “I didn’t think it was something really worth the money,” says Margolis, a Barton resident who worked as the Chicago Tribune’s national political correspondent and who now contributes to Vtdigger.org.
Vtdigger.org’s founder, Anne Galloway, is a former TA editor. Although she describes the 114-year-old paper as “a very thin operation for a long time,” she insists, “We need the TA. It’s a shame that they’re having such a hard time.” With a news staff that’s been cut roughly in half during the past 20 years, Galloway says the Times Argus seems to think shrinking is a survival strategy. “You can’t weaken your product and expect sales to increase,” Galloway says, noting that “every paper in the country is wrestling with the same issue.”
To Nat Frothingham, publisher of a Montpelier biweekly, the Times Argus is “a paper that’s fading.” He sees “a vacuum here” that his paper, the Bridge, might one day fill.
Frothingham recently hired a news editor — John Odum, publisher of the Green Mountain Daily political commentary website — with the aim, the publisher says, of “attempting to fill the gap in hard news coverage.”
The Bridge’s ambitions are otherwise “pretty modest,” Frothingham adds. He says it’s “conceivable” that the paper will go to a weekly schedule, but cautions that such a move is not now being planned.
Maria Archangelo, publisher of the Stowe Reporter, offers a perspective similar to Frothingham’s. Her paper did spawn a Waterbury weekly a few years ago, but it has no intention “at this time” of moving into Montpelier to compete with the Bridge and Times Argus. Archangelo adds, however, that “it’s always in my mind to have there the kind of community paper we have in Stowe and Waterbury” — the implication being that neither the TA nor the Bridge measures up to such a standard.
She does say the Bridge “tries to fill that need” but leaves gaps in coverage of Montpelier and surrounding towns. And, Archangelo continues, “I don’t think a daily paper with the resources of the Times Argus can cover a region of that size.”
Washington County’s roughly 60,000 residents “are going to be served news somehow, whether it’s print or online,” Frothingham adds. “I don’t know what the mix will be, but I’m sure it will emerge.”
Mitchell insists it will include a print version of the TA. “There’s still too intense a demand for the print paper,” he says, and notes that in the immediate aftermath of the pay wall’s installation, the TA received about 1000 phone calls and email messages from subscribers urging retention of the traditional newspaper.
Archangelo, who worked as the Times Argus’ editor from 2003 to 2006, takes a more agnostic position. “I don’t know the answer” to the question of whether the TA will remain available in print form, she says. “It isn’t the first paper to have to make these sorts of difficult choices,” Archangelo notes. The Christian Science Monitor, for example, now publishes only online, as does the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
It’s hard to imagine traditional journalism receding into history in Montpelier, St. Michael’s Mindich remarks. “Montpelier is the only state capital in the country without a McDonald’s, but let’s hope it doesn’t become the only state capital without a daily newspaper.”