Every reporter dreams of being the publisher — after all, the “suits” responsible for a newspaper’s bottom line are notorious for rankling the writing staff. But Ed Shamy didn’t think he would actually become one — certainly not at a small-town weekly paper in a far-flung corner of Vermont. And the way it went down for the 50-year-old journalist was more of a nightmare than a dream: “I didn’t see it coming,” he says of an unexpected job loss that hurtled him from the newsroom at Vermont’s largest daily to the creaky publisher’s chair at the County Courier on Main Street in Enosburg Falls.
Shamy still gets emotional when he recalls the day, last August, when he was laid off from his columnist job at The Burlington Free Press. Technically, his column was “eliminated.” After he got the news, he knows he went to City Hall Park and called his wife, but he still has no memory of what he said to her. One image stays with him: Free Press Publisher Brad Robertson held the door for him on the way out. “He was coming in with his cup of coffee,” Shamy notes.
Why did the paper let him go when his folksy column generated a steady stream of letters to the editor? “Salary,” Shamy claims. “It’s not what I was writing; it was what I was earning.”
Even before the economic downturn, daily newspapers across the country were targeting senior staff for buyouts and layoffs. Veteran reporters tend to be higher paid and are less comfortable with “new media” than are their younger, cheaper counterparts.
Shamy’s shock was compounded when he realized that all of his articles had been removed from the paper’s website — digital archives and all. “I just vanished,” he says.
But Shamy has since resurfaced in a spot that, for all its challenges, may be more appreciative of his métier. The irony is not lost on the seasoned newspaperman, who worked at papers in Pennsylvania, Virginia, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C., before he went to work at the Free Press almost a decade ago. He describes himself as a “populist” storyteller who embraces the “micro” view.
“Somewhere along the way, The Burlington Free Press lost its identity,” Shamy states. “It was a statewide paper; then it wasn’t a statewide paper. Then it was a Chittenden County paper, then Lamoille-Grand Isle. It looks to me like they’re trying to regain their local franchise, and it may be too late. The beauty of the County Courier is that it never lost its local franchise. It’s in touch with its readership and what’s important to them.”
Shamy believes people want to see their own lives reflected in the local newspaper. “You wanna hear about what’s going on with the Somali pirates?” he asks rhetorically. “CNN.com is the place.”
A longtime Georgia resident, Shamy is no stranger to Franklin County. He knew the 130-year-old Courier was for sale before he lost his job. But by the time he and his wife, Kim Asch, decided they were interested in buying it, the economy had imploded. And Shamy was ill prepared for tough questions about cash-flow projections when the couple went to see about a commercial loan. They ended up getting financed through the Economic Development Council of Northern Vermont.
“It’s the first newspaper we’ve funded,” says EDCNV’s Donna Reed. “Ed was such a prime example of the economic downturn, because he should have been able to get bank financing with what he had to offer.”
Shamy spent the first few months trying to get a handle on the iconic and ever-expanding role of small-town newspaper owner, editor and publisher. He still writes a weekly column, but now oversees every other aspect of the operation as well: ad sales, circulation, web management, accounting, human resources. “I’m trying to make sure I don’t get completely swallowed by the business side,” he says. “A lot of that minutiae was, and still is, keeping me from exerting my strengths.” He describes these as “talking to people and finding weird stories.”
So, Shamy is hiring people: In addition to two part-time ad reps and an “IT guy,” he’s brought on a “typist” for press releases and a high school kid to help with weekly subscription mailing. The Courier’s former owner, Alison Dubilier, still designs the paper every week.
“I’m the most rapidly expanding business in Vermont, by percentage,” Shamy says with a chuckle, noting he’s now looking for freelance writers. The newspaper’s no-frills, one-room office on Main Street could accommodate a few more bodies. Might make it warmer, too.
Shamy is definitely in much better spirits than he was two months ago, despite the fact that it’s January, and the nation is in the worst recession in recent history. Although the 16-page Courier is on the thin side these days, it boasts a healthy roster of advertisers, including local banks, markets, restaurants, sports shops, grieving families — even a St. Albans sex shop. From the birth and death announcements to the list of bills sponsored by the Franklin County legislative delegation to a variety of articles, the paper offers a community snapshot.
“I now understand why most publishers by Groundhog Day are disheveled and unkempt,” Shamy offers. “Because it is harrowing. I’m trying to keep the ad folks optimistic. But I’m pretty sure they are looking at me and seeing Captain Queeg.”
It’s not how Shamy imagined he’d end up. “I really thought I was going to play out the string in newspapers,” he says wistfully. “Now maybe I can, because I’m in the position of sustaining one.”