Around Vermont, as municipal boards reorganize, set goals, and undertake housekeeping for the term ahead, one of the things every town and city has to do is decide its “Newspaper of Record.” The designation allows town residents to know where to look for proper notification of hearings, vacancies, delinquent tax sales, or other important municipal issues.
Vermont municipalities are required by state law to publish certain public notices in print in newspapers that serve their communities. Most or all of these newspapers also publish public notices on their websites, making them available in print and online.
This legislative session, lawmakers have been discussing a proposed change to the law that would allow communities to choose to publish public notices “online only” through an entity other than a newspaper. That would have a significant impact on print publications. And newspaper publishers across Vermont have let the Senate Government Operations committee know of their objections, starting with revenue and ending with relevance.
A move to “online only” would undermine democracy by migrating important public notices away from general interest newspapers, and replacing widely distributed newspapers with digital-only options in a state where reliable internet access is still a challenge for many is a recipe for disaster.
Consider our story: When Covid took hold, The Times Argus and Rutland Herald lost significant revenue in advertising. If you recall, overnight, we laid off about half of the employees, and reduced the number of publication days from five to three. The most expensive thing that we do is pay for printing and distributing. We could not have sustained had we not taken those initial steps.
Within days of those cuts in 2019, we made adjustments to our local coverage, packing the newspapers with resources and articles, including regular features about how readers were coping with the pandemic. While Vermonters were in isolation, we made sure they understood they had a community. We gave them familiar faces, and in turn, they gave us a noticeable bump in subscriptions.
Also during the pandemic, the weekly, Waterbury Record, folded. A local resident and journalist, Lisa Scagliotti, rallied a band of writers to provide that community with articles it was posting online. But they were not getting out to the entire community. The Times Argus stepped in, converting one of its free weeklies so that Waterbury’s news could be delivered by mail into every household. Due to that print publication, the Waterbury Reader, the market penetration in that community stands at more than 90%. Out of the gate, the tweak to our business model toward print was so successful through advertising and inserts, it was instantly profitable. We could sell advertising into The Times Argus and the free weeklies; and the Waterbury Roundabout could support itself as an online entity.
Within a month, local municipalities started using the Waterbury Reader for their public notices. This week, Waterbury renewed its commitment to The Waterbury Reader and The Times Argus. It is a partnership that works.
For months we have been looking at other markets where we can do the same thing. As long as there are advertisers and inserts, and access to local, meaningful content, there is no reason we cannot continue to push into news deserts and give communities across Vermont a local, printed newspaper.
Within a few months of the pandemic’s start, and the cost-savings that had to be taken, we returned to a five-day a week publication schedule. Our loyal, growing subscriber base allowed us to weather the Covid storm in such a way that it bought us time to come up with new promotions, products and a new revenue stream.
Facebook took away most display advertising long before Covid did. Craigslist and services like Front Porch Forum took away classified advertising and liner ads. Covid simply made marketing businesses irrelevant, because no one was out.
Then, when Vermont went into the state of emergency, the courts closed; lawyers offices closed; tax sales stopped; estates were not being settled; town offices were closed and started working remotely; municipal and school boards were put on hold; local committees stopped. So did public notices.
Prior to the pandemic, in 2019, The Times Argus and Rutland Herald published more than 800 public notices per year, bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue. In 2020, we published 400 or so public notices. That loss hurt.
Somewhere between local news, the most recent dean’s list, the ad for the bean supper, the weekly list of worship services, the quirky police log, the busy editorial page, and the local sports scores, there are public notices that inform and educate and fit within the pages of a community newspaper.
For now, communities with printed newspapers are better for having them. No doubt, readers love to hate their local paper. But readers also can’t live without them. It’s routine. It’s a record. It provides a sense of inclusion and community involvement. It’s empowerment through local knowledge and lore that can sit on the coffee table for a bit while you go do other things. It’s willing participation.
Our story is one of resilience and community building. We are proud of that. Communities that work with newspapers have better informed citizens. We are proud of our part in that, too.
It is foolhardy to dismantle institutions that support community. Print newspapers are at the center, where they should be.
Written by Steve Pappas at The Times Argus.