Nonprofit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006
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Randolph T. Holhut/The Commons

Mike Faher has begun reporting on Windham County for both The Commons and vtdigger.org.

Voices / Editorial

It matters for a community to value good journalism

Brattleboro

This week, we welcome to our newsroom Mike Faher, a familiar face to the Windham County media landscape.

In what all of us involved hope and anticipate will be a relationship that is as innovative as it is practical, Faher will cover the Vermont Yankee decommissioning beat and will report general county-wide news stories for both The Commons and VtDigger (vtdigger.org), a similarly young and similarly not-for-profit state news website based in Montpelier.

If Faher’s name is familiar, it is because for years you’ve seen his byline in the Brattleboro Reformer, where he worked as lead reporter — until he was in the news himself a few weeks ago when he was laid off in parent company Digital First Media’s bloodbath of cutbacks nationwide.

It is very difficult in this business to find reporters who have the constellation of fine qualities that Faher brings to the table (literally, to the table that now serves as his temporary desk in our newsroom while we gird ourselves to lug the permanent one out of storage). He quietly, meticulously, and unassumingly does excellent work that has earned him admiration and respect.

To a person, the former news sources who have reacted to the announcement of his hiring have praised him for his accuracy. He is the type of reporter that Windham County demands and deserves.

If not for this opportunity, Faher would have left journalism altogether for a different career pursuit.

And, really — under the circumstances, who could blame him?

* * *

A few months ago, CareerCast, an employment website that also offers human resources advice, released its annual Jobs Rated list. This year, the site reported that of the 200 jobs on the list, newspaper reporter moved from #199 in 2014, displacing lumberjack as the worst job of the year.

Lists of this sort tend to be gimmicky, and the ranking is hardly scientific. But in this case, it resonates.

The news business is brutal, a profession in turmoil. For reporters like Faher and their colleagues — editors, publishers, photographers, layout artists, web developers, advertising designers, distribution managers, IT gurus — the hours are long and erratic. The stress is toxic. The pay is too often appalling. And in the aftermath of decades of cutbacks, the quality of the product has deteriorated, embittering and alienating a readership, many of whom feel entitled to be withering, insulting, and vicious as the quality of the product inevitably deteriorates despite the best efforts of those who remain.

To do this job well demands teamwork and loyalty in a newsroom. Too often, that loyalty is rewarded with a pink slip and a box in which to pack one’s belongings.

And for those who are out of work, the prospects are dismal, even for gifted professionals. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 14-percent decline in the number of reporting jobs in the country between 2012 and 2022. In 2013, the American Society of News Editors reported a loss of 18,400 journalism jobs — almost one-third of the workforce — from 2000 to 2012.

What happened at the Reformer this summer — and, really, for at least the past two decades — is unacceptable. It breaks our hearts, and we know their remaining employees share that sentiment. The newspaper was gutted to create a bigger profit margin for the hedge fund that controls the Digital First chain. Its remaining staff is doing its best to hold together the wispy shadow of what was once one of the best newspapers in New England. Much of the content that remains is reprinted from its sister newspaper in Pittsfield, Mass., including its once-award-winning editorial page.

News is too important to a community, too important in creating and sustaining community, to be treated in this way. People are just too important to newspapers to be treated in this way.

This financial model of journalism is deplorable and insane.

* * *

Now in our tenth anniversary year, The Commons stands ready to expand our public-service approach to local news if the community is ready to support those efforts. We are buoyed by some meteoric growth this year in our advertising support and our donations — this week’s newspaper, for example, represents a 63-percent increase in advertising support from 2014. We are cautiously exploring a number of options to bolster our news coverage for the long term. It will cost money.

If we can derive any lesson from the economics of corporate news publishing over the past 10 years, it’s that what happens locally ultimately doesn’t matter. The economic forces that drive the decisions affecting the quality of our daily newspaper happen at the national level.

Now more than ever, we have the opportunity to affect the quality and quantity of our news locally. VtDigger has similar needs on the statewide level. Both our news organizations illustrate pride of craft, commitment, creativity, thriftiness, stubbornness, and dedication to the spirit of independent media.

With Mike Faher, our two news organizations saw a great opportunity, and we are sticking our respective metaphorical necks out to keep an outstanding reporter with a great reputation. In the case of The Commons, our sudden and serendipitous hiring decision was informed by the distress that many of our readers articulated about the layoffs at the Reformer and how they would affect the quality of the daily news. We wanted to seize the opportunity to support that news and get unprecedented value with a creative partnership.

Our share of the expense is just as unplanned for our small organization as the Reformer layoffs were unexpected by the community. We have taken this bold step fully anticipating the need to ask readers to dig deeper to continue to make this reporting possible, and we genuinely need your help. You can fill out the form on page C8 this week, or visit donate.commonsnews.org.

One final note: We are beginning to plan a special 10th birthday celebration this fall, where we both look back and reflect on a remarkable and improbable history, and where we will also — more importantly — discuss with creativity and candor all these ideas and how they can realistically have a lasting and sustainable impact on our community’s future.

There will be a lot to discuss, and we hope you’ll be part of the conversation — and that you will help make it happen. Watch this space.

Like what we do? Help us keep doing it!

We rely on the donations and financial support of our readers to help make The Commons available to all. Please join us today.

Originally published in The Commons issue #320 (Wednesday, August 26, 2015). This story appeared on page E1.

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