Jim Kenyon: Good News for Sale

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

Published: 10/14/2018 12:14:53 AM
Modified: 10/15/2018 3:08:49 PM

It’s been a rough few months for the Norwich Selectboard and its chief minion, Town Manager Herb Durfee.

They’ve had to deal with residents and pesky journalists who want to know what was behind longtime Public Works Director Andy Hodgdon’s sudden departure this summer. In a June 5 letter to Durfee, Hodgdon agreed to “return all town property” and “retire” three days later. On Hodgdon’s last day, Durfee informed him in writing that Norwich Police Chief Doug Robinson would drop by his house to pick up any town digital files he might still possess.

Do you sense the break-up was less than amicable?

Questions about Hodgdon’s abrupt exit, however, were met with a curt talk-to-our-lawyers stance. (I tried. But Joe Farnham at McNeil Leddy and Sheahan in Burlington wasn’t very forthcoming.)

Then there’s Durfee himself.

Last month, he received a 30- to 60-day suspended jail sentence and was placed on probation after pleading no contest to a reduced charge of negligent operation with alcohol in his system after he crashed into a state plow truck on I-89 in Colchester, Vt. He was originally charged with driving under the influence.

Some people in Norwich questioned whether Durfee should keep his job, but the board stuck by him.

With everything that’s been going on, I imagine Durfee and board members would like nothing more than to distract residents from their troubles. So what better than a digital media campaign to remind residents how lucky they are to be living in one of Vermont’s wealthiest communities?

The board — at Durfee’s urging — has hired a public relations outfit that goes by the name of Story Kitchen Creative. The PR flacks will take pictures, write human interest stories about town employees and create “fun” posts that will appear on DailyUV, a privately owned website based in White River Junction.

Here’s the kicker: Norwich taxpayers will foot the bill for all this good news fit to print.

“It’s putting a face on things that are happening in Norwich,” Durfee told me. “Potentially, it’s an invaluable resource for the community.”

If he says so. Oh, by the way, Durfee told me that he’ll review each story before it goes online. “I can change it any way I see fit,” he said.

It all seems very Trump-esque — the president has Fox News, and now Norwich officials have DailyUV as their official platform to tell people what a great job they’re doing.

“We do need to always be looking for ways to communicate more effectively and it would be nice to learn good things happening around town and even within Tracy Hall on a regular basis,” Board Chairman John Pepper wrote to me in an email. “The town should be given a chance to share its voice and maybe this will do that.”

It shouldn’t be difficult for Story Kitchen’s staff to get DailyUV to post their material. Story Kitchen’s three-man staff are all employees of Subtext Media, an internet startup that just happens to run DailyUV.

Mark Travis, who was publisher of the Valley News from 2008 to 2012, is heading up DailyUV’s Norwich coverage. Gathering from a string of emails that I received through a public records request, Travis approached Durfee in late August about developing a public-private partnership.

On Sept. 26, the Selectboard approved a three-month agreement that pays Story Kitchen $495 a month for two stories and six “news of note” listings. If all goes according to plan, the board can extend into January and beyond.

The timing of the deal is curious. First, Hodgdon leaves without the public receiving any explanation. Then, three weeks after Durfee is sentenced in Vermont Superior Court, the town mounts a public relations campaign to spit-shine its image. “It has nothing to do with any of that,” Durfee told me.

The contract isn’t a big-ticket item. But there’s something unseemly about a town paying to have nice things written about it.

On its website, Subtext Media boasts that “we’re disrupting the traditional media model.” That’s certainly true. Traditionally, respectable news outlets haven’t required towns to pay for coverage.

Subtext Media CEO Watt Alexander, who lives in Norwich and is an attorney by trade, tried to convince me that DailyUV, which launched in 2014, isn’t a news organization. “We don’t do journalism,” he said. He almost seemed proud that “we’re not fact-checking” what appears in DailyUV. (I guess that will be Durfee’s job.)

I assume that DailyUV will keep their bloggers who are already posting about happenings in Norwich. And that speaks to another problem with the DailyUV-Norwich partnership. How will readers know what’s taxpayer-funded content and what’s not?

Alexander told me that his company will soon be approaching other towns about signing up for DailyUV’s pay-for-coverage scheme (my words, not his) to present their “view of the world.” Presumably, those town officials who feel confident that their good work can speak for itself will decline the offer.

I get why Alexander is looking for cash. DailyUV doesn’t charge users. And there’s not a lot of money to be had in online advertising. In a 2017 interview with Burlington-based Seven Days, Alexander said he had raised capital from family, friends and professional contacts, but declined to say how much.

Alexander seems to be banking that town officials throughout the Upper Valley will buy into DailyUV’s strategy that people are more interested in pablum than real news.

Even if he’s right, which I hope he isn’t, taxpayers shouldn’t get stuck with the bill.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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