500 issues and counting

Thank you, everyone, for supporting your nonprofit community newspaper

BRATTLEBORO — The fact that this issue of The Commons is our 500th doesn't mean it's appreciably different from what we did last week or will do for our next. But if big, round numbers are useful in any way, they provide us a context with which to gauge our journey together in this improbable undertaking in community journalism.

Starting from the very beginning, when The Commons was more of an ideal and a concept than it was a consistent and predictable product, this still-young newspaper has offered readers something with personality and energy and purpose: a locally accountable newspaper that existed purely out of love for a place and its people.

If I've come to understand anything about running newspapers over the years, it's this: a newspaper run as a conventional business is far too often either a catastrophically bad newspaper or a catastrophically unsuccessful business.

So here was a novel approach: What if a newspaper were deliberately nonprofit - not to avoid making money, but to understand itself and be understood as something that's more than just about making a buck? What if a newspaper were funded by its readers, one designed to exist for no greater purpose than to be a great newspaper? What if it's not owned by an individual or a corporation but by everybody and nobody - a product for and responsible to the community it serves?

In its earliest days, long before I knew it so well, this nascent nonprofit - Vermont Independent Media - produced The Commons pretty much through sheer force of will, almost entirely with volunteer labor. Its founding board members would pass the hat to pay the printer and would flip through user manuals to learn how to put the pages together. Its interim editors - professionals who had worked for the daily across town - served as consultants and architects of a beautiful vision.

And a little over 11 years ago, the board hired me as the first permanent editorial employee of this then-almost-unheard-of nonprofit newspaper.

It seems like yesterday, and it seems like forever.

I guess I really like this job. I'm still here.

I guess you really like this newspaper. It's still here, too.

* * *

Over these 500 issues, we have seen, and reported on, the news - a whole lot of it.

We've chronicled bitter battles over a nuclear power plant. We covered the emergency of a racist student group at Brattleboro Union High School and the complicated and messy redemption of a kid who atoned for those actions. We covered two fires and the ultimate rebirth of the Putney General Store.

We've navigated our way around fires and floods and snowstorms. We've written about heartbreaking untimely deaths, from natural causes and by human hands. We've explored why good people do bad things and how bad people can make themselves better through restorative justice.

We've taken field trips to Occupy New York and to Montpelier. We've followed legislators in the arctic early days of a new biennium. We've sat in the police cruiser with some of the people who work hard to protect Windham County.

We have seen our friends at the Brattleboro Reformer struggle though round after round of cuts, reorganizations, consolidations, and corporate takeovers, only to find it and three sister newspapers purchased by new owners in Pittsfield, Mass. We are thrilled to see our once-eviscerated daily regain its strength and stability.

We have published at least 21,000 stories in print and online. We have published at least 7,500 photographs on 7,366 pages since we started keeping track in 2012.

We've been privileged beyond measure to welcome into our newsroom a number of young people - or young-at-heart people - who, despite reading about all the challenges our industry faces, nonetheless want to learn how to write about what's happening in the world around them. And some of these creative professionals have gone on to publications ranging from the Addison County Independent to Rolling Stone.

* * *

The most important observation over 500 issues?

This community newspaper is not about me, your editor, or about those of us who work here. It's about you. It's about all of us - but it's mostly about you.

You, dear readers, have provided us with countless news tips, interviews, and ideas. You have shared your photographs with us. You've let me ask you to publish your heart-wrenching posts on Facebook as Voices pieces. Some of you are professional writers and photographers and graciously let me publish your hard work in the spirit of sharing and building community.

You have supported us. In so many ways. For so many years.

A select few of you have worked yourselves insane to start and govern this news operation and nonprofit by serving on our board of directors. It's not for the faint of heart.

As readers, you've shared your news, your story ideas. You have entrusted us with some of your most deeply personal and harrowing stories. You have helped me understand your lives and livelihoods.

You have invited me and my colleagues to your schools, to your clubs, to your libraries, to your local radio and television programs, to your committees.

You have seen me at work around Windham County. You've introduced yourselves. You've made me feel welcome. You've engaged with me about the newspaper.

You have questioned our use of language, our approach to the opiate epidemic. You have educated me and my colleagues on issues of gender and race. You have been true partners in helping us navigate language and its rapidly changing use. Our prevailing policy: be kind, communicate clearly, listen, and learn.

You have volunteered to proofread pages, to report accurately and deeply (sometimes at great expense and at some degree of risk and discomfort), to stick mailing labels, to organize events, to raise money, to teach our classes. You have offered professional services, advice, and support, sometimes when we have least deserved that sort of help but most needed it.

You have brought meals, snacks, and seltzer to the office. You have surreptitiously surprised me by paying in advance for my ritual spaghetti-and-wine editor's chow at Vermont Inn Pizza.

You have engaged with our work and have let us know when we have done well. And even when we haven't done well, you are understanding and almost always measured in your criticism. It's hardly ever personal, even when you are bitterly angry about something we decided to publish. We deeply appreciate and respect that.

You have used The Commons as a venue for advertising. We can't create this paper without that support. We will never be beholden to advertisers, but we sure appreciate every single one of you.

You have also joined as members - the more-than-a-few, the proud - who are willing to pay for a free newspaper. Advertisers make it possible, but your unwavering support? You let us make The Commons better.

* * *

So as my colleagues and I finish assembling this issue - somewhat appropriately, as Town Meeting Day draws to a close on a day that happens to be my 11th anniversary of sending my first completed issue to the printer - I leave you with a simple plea.

This adventure has not been easy - not in the least. We have had a roller-coaster ride through bold expansion, lean times, rapid growth, spiraling challenges. Through it all, we have done our very best for all of you.

If you like what we are doing, if you like what we stand for, if you like where you know we are headed or could be heading if we had the funding, please join us and help us give you the newspaper that you deserve. That everyone deserves.

In the end, that's what The Commons is all about.

And with that, I'm lifting my coffee mug and raising a toast to our next 500 issues.

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