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The Commons
Voices / Viewpoint

When business principles are turned upside down

The small newspapers I worked for were founded not to make money but to fill a need — and the bond they had with their readers was amazing

Jeff Potter has worked as editor of The Commons since 2008 and, for the better part of the past year, he has also directed the newspaper’s operations.

Originally published in The Commons issue #300 (Wednesday, April 8, 2015). This story appeared on page C1.



In 1983, I walked through the doors of my first newspaper job in western Massachusetts. When I was first permitted to shadow the staff as this weekly paper was assembled on deadline long into the still of the late fall night, I was drawn in by the energy and the adrenaline as I witnessed something I can only compare to beautiful jazz improv.

In front of my eyes, a reporter took copy submitted to the paper on the back of paper napkins, and crafted lean, elegant, and readable prose. I watched as a typesetter immediately re-keyed the news into a primitive computer phototypesetting system with the memory of alarge calculator and the grace of R2-D2. Black-and-white Tri-X film and photo prints from the enlarger flowed rhythmically from the tiny darkroom.

The managing editor, a presence of calm in barely controlled mayhem, trimmed and positioned scrolls of type on grids with adhesive wax. The production manager followed close behind him, assembling this visual jigsaw puzzle with an impatient growl and a flourish of her razor blade and a metal ruler.

In the background, cigarette smoke mingled with the vinegary smell of the cheap photographic process for the type, the acid of decomposition from an ill-maintained Industrial Revolution storefront and the stacks of newspaper housed within, and the steam from the mugs of coffee we’d get from the greasy spoon a few doors down.

I get an ache of nostalgia when I remember that acrid odor, like nothing else in the world. I get a tinge of grief when I realize that that production manager, a mentor and dear friend, died from cancer.

By the time I was 18 and went off to college, I had worked for three small newspapers of similar size and structure.

Many of us who work in the newspaper business have wistful memories of the way newspapers used to come together. We all have stories — oh, the stories! — ranging from newsroom legend to firsthand experience.

Poignant, vivid stories about the cantankerous and deliciously weird professionals who were too strange and wonderful for the corporate world and wound up in journalism after detours in making knives or teaching or waiting tables or any number of other professions. Stories about the characters who would gravitate to the newsroom as our confidantes. Stories about the professionals who could wield an X-Acto blade with confidence and grace, who could put a scrap of type on the page straight just from eye, without needing a T-square. Stories about brassy advertising salespeople, stoned darkroom technicians, alcoholic editors, and crazed bookkeepers.

* * *

I write with this level of detail not to be self-indulgent but to explain just how easy it was to fall deeply in love with this crazy profession — and how that love and commitment are absolutely essential to creating any newspaper that captivates and engages readers.

It’s taken a full career and the perspective of middle age to understand the real, more nuanced, story: the connection of readers who used to come through the battered screen doors with the publications to which they were bringing their obituaries, their Cub Scout announcements, their sports achievements.

That relationship was transactional in the sense that readers bought advertising and paid for the paper, but it was mainly emotional. Just as I fell in love with creating newspapers, these readers fell madly in love with reading them. They developed routines and rituals for these weekly dispatches. They had expectations of us that were often not quite grounded in business reality.

The small newspapers where I worked in my youth were never fully perceived as actual businesses. They were entities that sprang organically into being not from a business plan but from a visceral sense of need, supported in many cases by people who understood at a gut level how important those publications became to the life of a small town and a rural region.

Make no mistake: the financial realities were never far from mind, and it is far too easy to romanticize the painful realities of this difficult industry. A chart of ad percentages on the wall would non-negotiably determine the size of the newspaper based on the advertising, and newspapers like the ones I worked for would survive not because of local business support but in spite its absence. The abysmal pay and work demands of these jobs hurt people and broke up marriages.

But, by and large, I learned quickly that if you didn’t love what you did, you were in the wrong business. You had to: it sure wasn’t for the money. If you ran newspapers well, you could stay in business. That’s a fairly low bar of achievement.

In those days, my colleagues would often hold up several examples of corporate newspapers — papers where they had worked — as produced by people who were just going sloppily through the motions. They predicted that a newspaper whose staff didn’t listen to, respond to, or connect with its readers would be destined for failure by changing a local institution into one that routinely placed commerce above community.

Not one of those papers is still publishing. All withered over time and finally died, with only a fraction of their original readership and advertising base still hanging on and a bunch of disaffected readers yearning for a newspaper with a spirit and spark — a newspaper that reflected the personalities, ethics, values, and institutional knowledge of staff members who cared deeply about doing it right.

Years later, the deterioration of quality of that small newspaper where I first worked, and its ultimate sale to a newspaper chain 60 miles and a whole other culture away, prompted me to launch a competing newspaper. That disastrous business venture in 2004 was traumatizing, heartbreaking, and in many respects a catastrophic failure. Yet it remains one of the defining points of my career and my life. I had to do something, and starting a newspaper was the only thing I could come up with.

Such is the love that some of us have for this business.

* * *

Over the past three decades, we’ve all come to know the Internet. We’ve moved into the age of multimedia, online video, podcasts, and social media. Glib business suits embrace these technologies, calling them “disruptive.”

Nobody knows exactly what is going to happen to local newspapers, and anyone who claims otherwise is either deluded or lying. Only a fool would think that newspapers shouldn’t change or that they won’t have to.

But I do know something about the role that local newspapers play in cultivating a sense of community, awareness, and belonging. It is absolutely essential.

Without community, we are all people living detached lives in relative isolation. With shared knowledge of people, neighbors, connections, history, issues, politics, and conflict, we knit connections to one another and to a common sense of place.

As technology makes our world shrink, the concept of “community” becomes more elastic as well. With social media, it is entirely possible (maybe not preferable, but possible) to make and cultivate connections with friends and colleagues we’ve never met face to face.

We all are members of any number of communities at any given time. But no community tie will ever become more important to us than the group of people who live or work where we do.

And community news — whether distributed on paper or via social media or through some other mind-blowing mechanism that will be invented 10 years from now — is and will always be the essential catalyst that draws people closer to their own world, that makes them better to one another. It helps us visualize issues and see conflict through the eyes of our neighbors. It gives us a voice to express our opinion. It lets us make connections and see the world with more precision and understanding. It lets us understand where we have come from and see where we are headed. It helps us hold our neighbors to account for their actions.

Self-described futurists look and see news publishing as an industry that is fundamentally doomed. Technogeeks embrace a parade of technology: Movable Type, Blogger, LiveJournal, WordPress, Friendster, MySpace, Digg, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, Pinterest, Storify, and now a streaming video app, Meerkat. They said much the same thing about radio and television.

When I contemplate the future of professional community journalism, I can’t envision a world without it in some form. To the degree that technology gives writers — amateur or professional or in between — tools to express themselves, community papers can use this technology as a force for good: news sources, potential contributors, more connection.

The medium will change. The style will change. The standards will change. But there always will be a role, some role, for well-written, thoughtfully crafted work, whether it comes in the form of accurate, trustworthy reporting, well-reasoned commentary, or essays that capture the essential truths of what it means to live in a place at a time.

We will always have people eager to learn this craft. We will always have people whose lives are enriched by this information. And for those of us who have dedicated our lives to giving life and value to the words of a community, we can add make sense of the cascade of social media. Reporting and editing bring value, perspective, and verification to the written word.

A good newspaper creates a hospitable environment for all of these phenomena. In a perfect world, this environment sustains itself, creating a constant cycle of improvement and growth. The content creates the readership that attracts the advertising that pays the bills for the content.

But this world is not perfect. Community journalism is so fragile, yet so necessary. It is so worth encouraging, so worth protecting.

* * *

When I published a newspaper, I never felt comfortable in my skin as the owner of anything. Truth be told, that paper owned me.

But when I discovered The Commons, I was drawn in by the premise of — and promise of — a newspaper as an inherent social good. I was excited by a model that acknowledged that a local newspaper is something that will always be fragile and worth preserving, much as we care for farmland or local CSAs. Our newspaper’s inherent fragility makes every milestone in our journey worth celebrating.

The idea of a not-for-profit news organization is still a different beast. Instead of seeing fragility as a symbol of economic failure, we embrace it as a natural and expected aspect of doing this job right.

Some people still find the concept of a nonprofit newspaper off-putting. It’s just a different model, one that I’m increasingly convinced will become essential to the survival of small, grassroots ones like ours.

Look at it this way: If strangers working in a company from outside your area get to make decisions about a newspaper and its well-being based on an Excel spreadsheet with bottom lines, that company’s primary mission will be to help itself and those strangers socially, economically, and politically. Not that lone region. Not that lone newspaper.

(That’s not a diplomatically worded slam against newspapers under corporate ownership like the Brattleboro Reformer. That objective fact and law works against our best interests as readers and communities — and, too often, against the very employees of these papers. That’s where traditional corporate operating procedure can very easily conflict with what a community needs.)

Being a nonprofit doesn’t mean we don’t aspire to make money. It doesn’t mean that we oink at the trough of public funding. It does mean that we aspire to make as much money as we can with honesty and integrity — and that we use it to pay our staff and contributors fairly and regularly, to provide bigger papers with more news, to make long-overdue upgrades of our website (as we have in the works; Martin Langeveld, take note).

In other words, being a nonprofit lets us make a better newspaper — one that resonates, one that people have come to love and to value, and one that’s truly accountable to our readers. Nobody owns Vermont Independent Media; as a corporate entity, it belongs to the community and is entrusted to the stewardship of our board of directors. That’s powerful and beautiful.

Other papers are looking to emulate this structure. Most recently, we’ve been helping The Bridge in Montpelier, which has recently incorporated as a Vermont nonprofit. Other papers have come calling.

* * *

To me, a nonprofit newspaper boils down to acknowledging that central truth of a good community newspaper is to help a place thrive socially, economically, and politically. In the process, it can develop into a vibrant and stable business that provides a great workplace for the wonderfully eccentric and creative newspaper personalities of our generation.

The Commons has been and will be a huge experiment, but — at least for now — it’s an experiment that’s working. Our circulation is surging, and we are now distributing 9,100 copies throughout the county and the surrounding region. Our advertising revenue has increased 30 percent in the past year.

Can we keep it going? We sure will if you will — that’s the nature of this interdependent news ecosystem. We know we can count on our readers, and we look forward to many issues to come. We take it one week at a time and look forward to this journey with you.

And most of all, we also look forward to providing support and training for people in Windham County of all ages in making their own community journalism, in our pages and elsewhere — that is, after all, deeply embedded in our nonprofit DNA.

We want to encourage the next generation of wide-eyed teenagers to come through this door, ready to join this crazy club of people who so love to learn about their surroundings and communicate with creativity and verve that they can’t help themselves — that they can’t not do this work.

If that isn’t the embodiment of a charitable good, then I don’t know what is.

What do you think? Leave us a comment

Editor’s note: Our terms of service require you to use your real names. We will remove anonymous or pseudonymous comments that come to our attention. We rely on our readers’ personal integrity to stand behind what they say; please do not write anything to someone that you wouldn’t say to his or her face without your needing to wear a ski mask while saying it. Thanks for doing your part to make your responses forceful, thoughtful, provocative, and civil. We also consider your comments for the letters column in the print newspaper.