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Over Easy: Community Journalism Is Tougher Than It Looks

  • Jeremiah Dube, of van de Ven Construction, carries a section of fence past the burned remains of Pi Brick Oven Trattoria in Woodstock, Vt., Tuesday, July 17, 2018, the day after it was destroyed by fire. Vermont State Police investigators have deemed the fire to be suspicious. Dube and his co-workers fenceed off the building and new locks were installed in the adjoining stone structure that houses offices for the Vermont Standard and the Collective - The Art of Craft gallery. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Phillip Cabot Camp, Sr., owner of The Vermont Standard, watches firefighters work to finish putting out the fire that damaged Pi Brick Oven Trattoria, The Vermont Standard, and The Collective in Woodstock on Monday, July 16, 2018. Firefighters were able to retrieve computers and a fire safe containing backup documents from the newspaper’s second floor offices. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. 

  • After their offices were made inhospitable by a fire earlier in the morning, The Vermont Standards takes refuge in the Norman Williams Public Library's "room of requirements," from the Harry Potter book series, in Woodstock, Vt., on Monday, July 16, 2018, to ensure they can keep putting out a paper. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



For the Valley News
Friday, July 27, 2018

Soon after a recent fire heavily damaged his newspaper offices in Woodstock, publisher Phil Camp vowed that the Vermont Standard would not miss publication that week. I believed him. Just as in show biz the show must go on, in the news biz the paper must come out.

It just has to, that’s all there is to it.

The Standard has hit the streets every week since 1853, and the streak wasn’t going to be broken on Camp’s watch. An emergency like the fire is exciting, he told the Valley News. I understood; one week is pretty much like another when you watch them roll by, but then comes something really big and it’s like a kid’s Christmas in a newsroom. You feel guilty if it involves tragedy, but even then, you file your feelings away until after deadline.

The July 20 edition led with stirring coverage of the fire. It also contained, as is the nature of community papers, less sensational stuff: a new fire truck for West Windsor, a new president for the Woodstock Foundation. Forget about clickbait: the Vermont Standard, which dishes up a hearty stew of hard news and all the community news and photos that fit, still employs town correspondents for whom journalism is a labor of love. A good-sized headline advanced an upcoming Reading-Weathersfield horseshoe match, pointing out good-naturedly that the competitors are amateurs.

The Standard is a good, solid paper, well supported by local advertisers and with a loyal staff. Some of them, Camp noted in an editorial last week, have been with the paper for 20 to 30 years. Weeklies like the Standard are rare gems; the Herald of Randolph is another, maintaining the traditions of community journalism even as digital sites disrupt the industry. The websites don’t do the grunt work of local democracy, covering school boards, selectboards and planning commissions, or asking tough questions of the big dogs like Dartmouth College and DHMC. They never miss a new food truck, though. Ice cream and tacos make people click.

The national press is facing tough times, as circulation slips and advertising slumps. The New York Daily News just laid off half its news staff. According to the Pew Research Center, there were 74,410 ink-stained wretches (my term, not theirs) in American newsrooms in 2006. By 2017, it dropped to 39,210. That’s a lot fewer people — our essential cynics and skeptics — watching over government and institutions that sometimes need to be called to account.

My first newspaper job was at a good weekly paper much like the Vermont Standard. I wrote news stories, columns, feature stories and editorials. If need be, I typed up a wedding and a letter or two. Everyone on the staff pitched in.

On Monday we hit the ground running and exhausted ourselves until the press ran on Wednesday afternoon. We didn’t take ourselves seriously, but we took the work enormously seriously.

We always tried to get both sides of a story. We corrected mistakes and felt real shame over them. If people didn’t like what we wrote, they stepped into our office on Main Street and told us so. The very idea of “fake news” was preposterous.

It still is, but that’s a column for another day.

We did have a couple of deadline emergencies at my weekly paper. Once, when I was a summer part-timer and still in college, the editor was rushed to the hospital for gallbladder surgery. I was filling in for the assistant editor, who was on vacation and camping in parts unknown, leaving me the last person standing. The editor of our sister paper told me to write as much as I could, and he’d put the paper together. I typed like a fury for two days and we got it out.

In 1978, the Great Blizzard paralyzed much of Rhode Island, which had up to 4 feet of snow. It struck on a Monday and we couldn’t make it to the newspaper office until Wednesday — one day to produce enough copy to fill the paper and print it. We did it.

I became editor and lasted five years. I was my own boss, essentially, at age 22, which probably ruined me for a normal working life, since I knew bosses were optional.

Yet being bossless didn’t mean the freedom to relax. For me, the responsibility of being a young editor was enormous. I felt responsible to readers. I felt responsible to the people we wrote about, to get the facts right and spell every name correctly. I felt responsible to the printers and production people, the paper boys and paper girls, to everyone who worked for the company.

I felt responsible to my journalism professors and good journalists everywhere. If a New York Times editor happened to be passing through town and picked up a copy of our paper, we wanted him or her to be impressed. I even felt responsible to previous editors retired or dead, whose good work was yellowing in the bound copies.

That Rhode Island paper was the Standard-Times. A village grande dame stepped into the office one week and said, “We love our Standard.” She had been a subscriber back when the paper was named the Wickford Standard. She accepted some changes in the publication, but let me know in no uncertain terms she didn’t want any more of them. I added her to the list of people to whom I felt responsible.

The paper would come out every Thursday, as good as we could make it, come hell or high water — or even fire. We could not walk through flames, but we would surely find a work-around.

Dan Mackie is a retired newspaper editor and writer who spent much of his career at the Valley News. He lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at dan.mackie@yahoo.com.