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The Incredible Shrinking News Hole 

Fair Game

Bernie Sanders

Published August 20, 2008 at 5:17 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

The already thinning ranks of Vermont journalism will get a little thinner this week, thanks to newsroom cuts at The Burlington Free Press, the state's largest daily newspaper.

In all, six staffers at the Gannett-owned broadsheet will get the axe. Among the first to go was columnist Ed Shamy, who joined the Freeps as a metro editor in 1999.

The remaining five employees will be let go from several departments, Publisher Brad Robertson told "Fair Game." He declined to be more specific because not all employees had been notified. Robertson first alerted the paper's 213 workers of the impending layoffs Friday in an email.

In a prepared statement, Executive Editor Mike Townsend said, "Although the six employees represent less than 3 percent of our employee base, we are cognizant of the financial and emotional impact of this decision. The layoffs are a result of economic trends that are impac-ting advertising revenues. Unfortunately, we anticipate these trends to continue through 2008."

Those let go will be given one week's severance pay for each year with the company, with medical coverage continuing through the severance period, Robertson said.

The news of the layoffs comes just a week after the Free Press hiked its newsstand price for the first time since 1995. Citing rising production and distribution costs, the paper's Monday through Saturday editions went from 50 to 75 cents (the Sunday price remains $1.75).

I guess it wasn't enough for the Freeps to move its circulation call center to Kentucky, and then outsource some of its graphic design to India, cost-cutting measures Seven Days reported on earlier this year.

It has not been a good year for Gannett Company Inc., which announced Aug. 15 that it would cut a total of 600 newspaper jobs and trim another 400 positions through attrition. The nation's largest media company owns 85 daily newspapers, including USA Today, nearly 900 non-daily U.S. publications and 23 television stations.

According to company filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the slumping national economy has caused a steep drop in advertising revenue, and in particular classified revenue. In the first six months of 2008, Gannett's net income of $424.5 million was down more than $25 million from the first six months of 2007.

According to a company memo posted by media critic Jim Romenesko, Gannett gave each of its U.S. "sites" a specific dollar amount to cut from payrolls, based on previous staff cuts and past financial performance.

Gannett's share price initially rose to nearly $22 at news of the job cuts. But on Monday, the stock fell to below $20 a share. A year ago, a share in Gannett was worth almost $50.

Gannett's continuing financial difficulties could lead to future cuts. According to the internal memo: "We must keep expenses in line with revenue. If advertising and circulation revenues continue to decline, further payroll reductions may be necessary."

Earlier this year, McClatchy Co. announced it was laying off 1400 workers, and MediaNews Group - which owns the Brattleboro Reformer and Bennington Banner, among other Vermont papers - laid off hundreds in California.

At this rate, could independently owned papers such as the Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus be far behind?

According to a recent report by the Pew Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, 57 percent of 259 newspapers surveyed have reduced full-time newsroom staff in the past three years. Roughly the same number (61 percent) reported a drop in the amount of space they set aside for news.

Meanwhile, staffing to produce digital content has remained stable.

David Mindich, a journalism professor at St. Michael's College, said he anticipates "more and more layoffs and more and more contraction."

"Newspapers today are making more modest returns on their investments," Mindich said, "and it may get even more modest, as we have yet to figure out how to monetize the Internet."

Mindich said that, as staffs and news holes shrink, readers lose not only international and national news, but statehouse and city hall reporting as well.

"All of these things might be less sexy than celebrity news and 'news you can use,'" he said. "But they are part of what makes democracy work."

There's no "W" in Vermont - As more and more Americans are becoming aware, the people's republic of Vermont is the only state in the union Pres. George W. Bush has not visited.

Ken Herman of Cox News is the most recent reporter to probe the story. He captured some great video of his Vermont travels, along with a story published in the Herald and Times Argus.

Dubya did send his wife here, twice - First Lady Laura Bush, accompanied by his mother, former First Lady Barbara Bush, came in 2006 to stump for Republican congressional hopeful Martha Rainville in her race against Democrat Peter Welch. We all know how that turned out - Welch eked out a victory and now stands unopposed by the GOP.

The First Lady returned to Vermont earlier this summer on an official visit to the Billings-Marsh-Rockefeller National Park in Woodstock. She handed out a $50,000 national parks grant and visited friends and local dignitaries.

While Laura Bush may have the courage to step foot in Vermont, a former top aide to Dubya says the prez shouldn't bother. Ari Fleischer, a Middlebury College grad and former Bush spokesman told Herman that Vermont is "essentially a socialist state."

Ah yes, the old socialist state of Vermont. I love my cradle-to-grave health care and paid family leave, don't you?

Fleischer also told Herman that Bush should avoid any overtures to visit Vermont. "It would make the protests in Europe look small," Fleischer said. "I don't see any good purpose other than to check the box to say he was in all 50 states."

Current Bush spokesman Tony Fratto told Herman: "Well, one state always has to be the last one visited. Vermont is a great state and if the president goes, I hope to go with him. But I don't have a schedule item to announce right now."

Not even the state's top Republican is rolling out the green carpet for the president. In the Cox report, headlined "Where's George W? A Vermont Mystery," Herman asks Douglas if the governor would ask Bush to campaign on his behalf.

"Vermonters don't care what outsiders think, they want to meet the candidates," said Douglas.

The guv admitted that Bush isn't too popular in Vermont, but was quick to point out that Ronald Reagan never visited, either. Bush's father, President George H.W. Bush, made it to Vermont three times. Despite being heckled by antinuke activists on a vice-presidential visit, he came two more times while president.

The reporter then asked Douglas if he considers Bush a successful president. Douglas answered, somewhat matter-of-factly, "I think it's too early to tell."

"So," Herman pressed, "you're a Republican governor not willing to say this Republican president has been successful?"

"I think, uh, history will judge," Douglas replied.

Ouch. No more Lincoln Bedroom visits for you, governor.

Herman also got a chance to get UVM professor and pundit Garrison Nelson and Democrat Gaye Symington on camera, as well as a few folks from Brattleboro - one of two communities in Vermont (Marlboro being the other) that issued a warrant for Bush's arrest should he set foot in their town.

When the dapper Nelson was asked what Vermonters disagree with Bush on, he replied: "Pretty much everything."


Vermont Ds Head for Denver - By this time next week, a group of Vermonters, from top elected officials to grassroots activists, will be in Denver for a historic Democratic National Convention.

Sen. Barack Obama will be the star, but Sen. Hillary Clinton will be able to seal her place in history by having her name placed into nomination by her delegates.

Presiding over it all is former Gov. Howard Dean, the party's chairman.

The Vermonters represent one of the most diverse group of delegates in terms of age and background. And it was one of the first to be a certified "green" delegation, thanks to Taylor Bates, an 18-year-old Obama delegate. One of five Vermont delegates under the age of 30, Bates purchased carbon offsets for the group's travel, and is raising money locally to pay for it.

Former Gov. Madeleine Kunin said the decision to allow Clinton's name to be entered into nomination was wise. It will encourage party unity and further dispel the myth that Clinton supporters will not vote for Obama.

"I will vote for her simply because it's an important moment in history, not to cause mischief," said Kunin, who, along with Symington, chaired Clinton's losing bid in Vermont.

The 24-member delegation has already met for a potluck supper in recent weeks, and the group will meet each morning at the convention for breakfast before heading their separate ways, said Kristina Althoff, the party's executive director.

On the day before Obama's acceptance speech, the entire delegation will perform a community service project, building a playground and painting a mural in a low-income neighborhood.

Sen. Patrick Leahy will address the convention Tuesday. Although Leahy has attended in the past, this is Sen. Bernie Sanders' first national Democratic convention. He's come a long way since his mayoral days railing against the two corporate parties.

How times change.

Cash Is King - We'll see how busy Douglas, Symington and independent Anthony Pollina have been this month when the next campaign-finance deadline for gubernatorial candidates arrives Monday.

Pollina, more than the other two, needs to show some sign of life. He had only $22,000 in the bank as of July 31. Sym-ington needs to show she's gaining momentum against Douglas' huge fundraising lead: $349,832 to $134,394.

Problem is, August is a horrible month to raise money. Progressive Party Chairwoman Martha Abbott sent out a plea this week to help Pollina, saying "[W]e can run some terrific ads."

Keep the campaign doors open is more like it.

Maybe Pollina's having second thoughts about leaving the Progressive Party. A bit of advice for the Bernie wannabe: Stay away from political BBQs -someone may stick a fork in you to see if you're done.

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About The Author

Shay Totten

Shay Totten

Shay Totten wrote "Fair Game," a weekly political column, from April 2008-December 2011.


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