Courtney Lamdin was at the Milton Veterinary Hospital, just home from a badly needed vacation, when a local resident walked up to her and asked, "Can I talk to you for a minute?"
Lamdin had heard rumors about troubles within the Milton High School football team. But thanks to the tipster, and Lamdin's drive, the Milton Independent was first to report on an investigation into a serious hazing incident involving the team. As other Vermont media outlets seized on news of the ritualized abuse — which led to one player's suicide and criminal charges against five others — the Independent broke its share of stories, including exclusive interviews with some players and their families.
It was a defining moment for a scrappy free weekly paper produced by two young Vermonters who have found career fulfillment in community journalism: In February, executive editor Lamdin, 29, and Abby Ledoux, a 24-year-old associate editor, won an award from the New England Newspaper & Press Association for their coverage of the sports scandal.
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Abby Ledoux and Courtney Lamdin at the NENPA awards
At the Milton Independent, where the two women joke about "sharing the same brain," they plan and report the stories, take photographs, edit copy, lay out the pages and update the website. One of them seems to show up at every community event and selectboard and school board meeting in Milton and neighboring Georgia.
"Work-life balance is always on the work side," Lamdin explained.
The Independent grew out of Milton Matters, a monthly newsletter that was penned by volunteers that included former New York City journalist Lynn Delaney. Some of the publication's writers served on the selectboard and soon began asking to review articles before publication. Anticipating censorship, Delaney quit.
Delaney hired Lamdin as a reporter in 2009, when the Barre native graduated from Saint Michael's College with a degree in journalism; she was a star student of former Burlington Free Press staffer Mike Donoghue. When Delaney retired in 2010, Lynn promoted Lamdin, then 23, to run the paper. Lamdin hired Ledoux in March 2014, just a few months after the young woman graduated from Emerson College in Boston.
Their job is to understand Milton and explain the town to itself.
Some visitors think that the town is in Franklin County, not Chittenden County, Lamdin said. Few believe her when she tells them that Milton, population 10,827, is the eighth-largest community in Vermont.
"I think Milton is a growing community that doesn't know what it wants to be yet," Lamdin said. "There's a lot of longtime families here and there's a lot of young families who want their little slice of the American dream. It's not an identity crisis, but it's an identity search."
Lamdin has written about robberies and local zoning. She has ridden shotgun with a plow driver and followed a group of local schoolchildren to a ceremony at the White House.
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As the result of a February promotion, Lamdin now serves as editor of the Sun and the Reporter and oversees a combined staff of seven while rotating between the company's offices in Milton and Colchester. She's also responsible for hosting Independent events: Lamdin threw a Prom for Grown-Ups for Milton residents at Higher Ground nightclub and, with the help of some friends, chopped down Milton's community Christmas tree for an Independent-sponsored holiday ceremony.
Lamdin saves both the thank-you cards and the hate mail she receives from readers.
"I always told myself I'd move when things got too repetitious and boring, and I wasn't learning anything, but I feel like I've made this job what I've wanted," Lamdin said. "I feel that's something I could not duplicate at a larger paper. Maybe I'm selling myself short. But I feel like I can see the impact of my work here. That's what keeps me here."
Growing up in nearby Georgia, Ledoux had dreams of being a journalist but never pictured doing it in her own backyard. Hometown intel is a huge advantage for the associate editor, who can't stop in the market on her way home from work without bumping into someone she knows. Once again a Georgia resident, Ledoux often finds herself writing about the parents of her childhood friends.
Recently, Ledoux has been immersed in covering a controversy at the Georgia Volunteer Fire Department. In March, six volunteer firefighters were dismissed — and another resigned — in what they claim was retaliation for attempting to unionize and raising safety concerns with the selectboard.
Their departures and subsequent legal appeals provoked a flurry of media attention, but other media outlets soon lost interest in the story.
Ledoux has stuck it out, attending selectboard hearings on the issue that sometimes run five hours long, sitting in the crowd alongside curious citizens and family members of the firefighters.
"I don't think our towns really consider us the media. They always talk about the media in front of us and forget we're included in that," Ledoux said. "TV will fly in and out, and we are always the ones left standing there. People will come to us with things that matter to them, and we're in a position to explore all the little things that the rest of the media don't have the resources to care about. I think people appreciate that and know we care about them."
That may account for the staying power of the Independent and many other small-town newspapers that have survived the digital revolution better than their urban daily counterparts.
In 2010, Emerson Lynn talked about consolidating the Independent and Messenger offices in St. Albans. Lamdin pushed back, convincing him to lease office space on Main Street, across the street from a seed and fertilizer store.
Moving the HQ would not have gone over well with the people of Milton, according to Lamdin, who resides in Winooski. "You run into people at the post office. 'Hey Joe, hey Bob, how's it going?' You don't always get a story out of it, but it's important to be part of the community."
Correction, August 12, 2016: An earlier version of this story misstated the year that Emerson Lynn talked about consolidating newspaper offices.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Independent Thinkers"