My relationship with Brattleboro and its daily newspaper, the Reformer, and its weekly paper, The Commons, has been a complicated one.
Norm Runnion, the now-legendary managing editor of the Reformer hired me in February 1989 to fill a vacancy in the sports department with the retirement of longtime sports editor Ken Campbell.
I had only one year of working with Norm, but it was a year that I treasure. The Reformer was hitting on all cylinders then, with a talented staff who put out a paper that was must reading not just in Windham County, but all over Vermont.
We had just passed 10,000 copies in circulation in August 1989, and we celebrated with steaks on the grill cooked by Norm and the other editors in the backyard of our plant off Black Mountain Road.
At a gathering of the Vermont Press Association that year, Tom Winship, the longtime editor of The Boston Globe, called the Reformer the best small newspaper in New England.
I landed on the Reformer’s doorstep after losing my job the year before as part of the sale and consolidation of the Worcester (Mass.) Telegram & Gazette.
The T & G had been sold two years before, and changes were in the works. As a junior member of the staff who lashed three part-time jobs into something of a living, I was thrown overboard immediately.
But I was struck by how many people, the elders of the paper whom I looked up to and learned from, chose to take a buyout and leave rather than stick around and face an uncertain future. Most of that generation left, and I got my first education on the harshness of the newspaper business.
Little did I know when I arrived in Brattleboro that I would go through the same thing, only more painfully, six years later.
* * *
A perfect storm of bad business decisions, recession, and hubris drove the family that owned Eagle Publishing Co., the owners of the Reformer, to the brink of insolvency.
And so, in 1995, the Reformer and its sister papers were sold to Media News Group (MNG), a Denver-based chain owned by Dean Singleton, a man notorious for cutting and slashing the properties he acquired to maximize profit so he could buy more newspapers.
With the sale, we were all effectively terminated and forced to reapply for our old jobs — on MNG’s new terms.
Since Singleton said our pay was not in keeping “with industry standards” (corporate speak for “you guys are making too much money”), everyone’s pay was cut between 10 and 37 percent, and everyone’s seniority was rolled back to day one.
There were two choices: Take it or leave it. I refused to sign.
It was nine years before I would return to the Reformer.
* * *
In the interim, I worked at the Claremont Eagle Times as a part-time sports reporter, went to the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University to get a master’s in public administration, returned to the Eagle Times as a full-time sports reporter and, later, news editor.
I went to the Patriot Ledger in Quincy, Mass., to be an overnight editor, and I returned to the Eagle Times as managing editor. I was let go a month after 9/11.
By 2004, I was working at Vermont Bread Company running the oven when Reformer Managing Editor Kate Casa rescued me, hiring me as a night copy editor.
I looked forward to working with Kate. She was a good editor in Norm Runnion’s mold but with the edginess and activism that was a good fit for an edgy and activist town like Brattleboro.
As it turned out, I had only two months with her.
On Patriot’s Day 2004, I found out that she had been fired abruptly and replaced by Kevin Moran, the editor of the North Adams Transcript.
He had no idea what he was walking into.
A few days after Kate’s dismissal, a group of local activists (with a BCTV cameraperson in tow) marched on the Reformer, went up to the front counter, and demanded her immediate reinstatement.
I wasn’t there, but I saw the tape. The combination of the stridency and self-righteousness of the protestors and the deer-in-the-headlights look on Kevin’s face made it cringe-inducing to watch.
We had no idea that we had just witnessed the spark that would create The Commons.
* * *
At the Reformer in the years that followed, the door kept revolving in the corner offices, with a new managing editor approximately every two years. I worked with four publishers in six years.
The revolving door kept spinning in the newsroom, too. Low pay and long hours drove many of the young reporters on to other jobs — not always in journalism. Continuity and institutional memory were both in short supply, save for the sturdy survivors like Night Managing Editor Josephine Howard and News Clerk Pat Smith.
For nearly six years, I wrote five editorials a week for the Reformer, and the Vermont Press Association awarded me first prize for one of them. Some of my editorials drew national attention, and Bill O’Reilly denounced them on his Fox News program.
I made the Reformer’s Opinion section one of the strongest in the state. Yet inside the building, no one cared. The unspoken secret of Media News Group’s ownership was that they did not give a fig about what was in their newspapers. I could put together the most liberal op-ed section in America, and as long as we delivered the requisite profit, it didn’t matter.
But the freedom to print whatever we liked (except for pro-labor stories, given Singleton’s hatred of unions) was increasingly tempered by one important reality: We would never again have the resources to make the Reformer a truly great local newspaper.
We would have to do more and more with less and less, with no possibility of improvement.
No newspaper ever got better by giving its readers less. No newspaper ever cut its way to prosperity. And I was convinced that in a town like Brattleboro, where readers are savvy and still had memories of Norm Runnion’s Reformer, the MNG strategy would be doomed over the long run.
* * *
When The Commons started publishing in 2006, it was easy to make fun of. To us at the Reformer, it was a strident, smeary mess, a paper that spoke to the activist community.
I remember hearing Jeff Potter interviewed on WKVT shortly after he was hired as the paper’s first permanent editor in 2008, his earnestness pouring out of the radio.
I thought he would be quickly devoured by the activist community. Instead, he created a new Commons. The paper became visually attractive. The writing and reporting got better. And it looked more like a community newspaper.
Then Jeff brought in Olga Peters and Allison Teague as reporters, and the quality shot up like a rocket. It was clear that The Commons was growing up with every issue. It was a paper that crackled with life.
When I met Jeff in 2009, I told him in no uncertain terms that The Commons could and should be a weekly, and I predicted it would be both a financial and journalistic success if that happened.
I also told him that I wanted to join the team.
I knew my days were numbered at the Reformer, and I wanted to leave ahead of the hanging party. I also wanted to have what I thought would be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be part of a startup — a new weekly community newspaper for a town that was clamoring for it.
* * *
So that’s how, after two tours and more than a dozen years at the Reformer, I landed here at The Commons.
And it was like Dorothy landing in Oz.
I had the freedom to do multiple jobs and not be chained to a copy desk. My work would benefit the paper and the community, not a faraway press baron’s bank account. I would never hear the words that have killed many an enterprise: “We’ve always done it this way.”
Some of the stories I’ve worked on have been epic, like the Brooks House fire, the Co-op shooting, Tropical Storm Irene, the closure of Vermont Yankee, and the rebirth of the Brooks House.
Some of them have hurt like hell, like writing the goodbyes to friends like Melinda Bussino, Darryl Sawyer, Richard Guthrie, and Susan Keese.
Mostly, it has been fun, from the many happy afternoons spent on a baseball diamond or soccer pitch, to the artisans, farmers, teachers, shopkeepers, politicians, and just plain folks who passed before my lens and my notebook over the past five years.
We all share a vision in this newsroom: to build a paper like Norm Runnion’s Reformer — lively, fearless, informative, and filled with life and creativity.
And that paper can only be created here in Brattleboro, and can only be created with the model that the founders of this paper chose — the nonprofit model.
I’ve always seen journalism as a public service. Unfortunately, journalism is now seen as a profit center, and serving a community is not nearly as important as keeping the bankers, shareholders, and hedge funds happy.
The Commons still believes in journalism as a public service, and that’s a big reason why I’m here. We’re not beholden to the big money. We are beholden to you, our readers. That’s how it should be.
Ralph Ingersoll, the founder and publisher of PM, a short-lived daily New York newspaper from the 1940s, once said that his paper was “against people who push other people around.”
I like to think that’s also the unofficial motto of The Commons. That was the spirit behind its founding. That is the spirit that drives us forward.