Jim Kenyon: Good News for Sale, but Norwich Isn’t Buying

  • 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: 12/18/2018 11:22:52 PM
Modified: 12/18/2018 11:22:58 PM

I might have underestimated the Norwich Selectboard. Apparently, board members aren’t the easy marks I thought they were.

In September, the board bit on an aggressive sales pitch by a group of former journalists turned spinmeisters who offered — for a price, naturally — to fire up a digital media campaign that would make Norwich the envy of the Upper Valley.

For only $495 a month, a “media services group” called Story Kitchen Creative offered to write and post stories online about the wonders of Norwich. The stories were guaranteed to appear on DailyUV, a privately owned website based in White River Junction.

It was an easy guarantee to make. Story Kitchen promotes itself as a “new fee-based storytelling subsidiary” of DailyUV, which Norwich resident Watt Alexander started in 2014.

With the three-month contract expiring on Dec. 31, Story Kitchen showed up at last week’s Selectboard meeting in hopes of extending the deal into 2019.

Story Kitchen representative Rob Gurwitt, a Norwich resident, told the board that he and his colleagues were “pretty happy” with an average view count of 398 for the 18 stories posted so far. (Most popular: a three-part series on a new Norwich police officer who “just fell in love with the community.”)

The town needed to decide whether it was important to continue to “get this kind of information out there,” Gurwitt told the board. “If you’re going to do that, you’re going to have to pay for it, one way or another.”

Gurwitt, a former reporter for Congressional Quarterly, is right about that. Credible news organizations have standards. They don’t guarantee good publicity or charge “pay to play” fees. And they don’t allow town officials to review stories in advance of publication, which is the arrangement that Story Kitchen had with Norwich Town Manager Herb Durfee.

In an early draft of next year’s proposed town budget, Durfee had set aside $5,940 for Story Kitchen under the line item “professional services.” A contract extension seemed a done deal.

But the board surprised me. (And I suspect the surprise extended to Story Kitchen’s leadership team, which includes former Valley News publisher Mark Travis.)

In response to what’s shaping up as a tight budget year, Board Chairman John Pepper said he couldn’t support re-upping with Story Kitchen. Pepper later told me in an email that he was disappointed about severing ties, but the board has “more important challenges.” (As the proposed budget stands, residents face an 8.5 percent increase in the amount to be raised through property taxes to support a $4.5 million municipal spending plan.)

Budget concerns aside, it was heartening to hear board member John Langhus, an attorney, talk about the ethics involved with Norwich participating in a pay-to-play game. Distinguishing between independent journalism and “sponsored content” churned out by public relations companies, such as Story Kitchen, can be “confusing to the public,” he said.

Langhus said he couldn’t “support going forward with this expense because he’s concerned that the articles are more like advertising than information sharing,” according to the meeting’s draft minutes.

Although next year’s budget is far from finalized, Durfee told me on Monday the $5,940 allotted for Story Kitchen likely is “going to come out.”

Meanwhile, Story Kitchen, which really is just a funnel for DailyUV, continues to chase taxpayers’ money across the Upper Valley.

Windsor currently pays $660 for four or so stories a month. Town Manager Tom Marsh expects to extend the three-month deal in one form or another when it expires in late January. “So many good things that happen in any community go unnoticed by the general population,” Marsh told me in an email. “To spend a few dollars to spread the word of good works done by their fellow residents is, I feel, money well spent.”

Lebanon City Manager Shaun Mulholland also has bought into the power of good publicity — even if it requires dipping into taxpayers’ pockets. He recently signed up the city for a three-month package of Story Kitchen online stories at a total cost of $3,300. “This is part of a larger effort to market the city for high-tech businesses,” Mulholland said.

Lebanon as a high-tech hub? Mulholland might want to check the prescription on his rose-colored glasses. It’s going to take more than few a Story Kitchen puff pieces appearing on DailyUV to persuade tech companies to move to Lebanon.

But I must hand it to Alexander, DailyUV’s founder. He’s managed to sell some area government officials (just how many, he won’t say) on the notion that good publicity is worth paying for and — more important — the public isn’t savvy enough to recognize when they’re being spoon-fed drivel.

Another thing Alexander has going for him? Deep pockets.

According to Alexander’s LinkedIn profile, he’s a Yale Law School graduate who chairs the board of directors of Alexander Lumber — a family-owned building supply company with 18 retail yards in the Midwest. Alexander Lumber, which dates back to 1891, also operates two truss plants in Illinois, according to its website.

Why is this relevant? The public has a right to know whose pockets their tax dollars are slipping into.

Here’s an idea for all those town officials thinking about buying some good news: Rather than paying money to tell people about what good things you’re doing, why not spend the money to actually do good things and let them speak for themselves?

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

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