A unique way to get into the newspaper business
The owner of Vermont's Hardwick Gazette is giving away his weekly
June 20, 2016
By the editors of Media Life
This article is part of a Media Life series “Reinventing the American Newspaper.” Click here to read other stories in the series.
Right now, there aren’t a lot of people hoping to buy a newspaper, with so many challenges facing the industry. But winning a newspaper? Ross Connelly hopes that’s a different story, if you’ll pardon the pun. Connelly is the co-publisher and editor at The Hardwick Gazette, a weekly in northern Vermont, and he’s giving away his paper to the person who writes the best 400-word essay, after trying unsuccessfully to sell the paper by more traditional means. Connelly talks to Media Life about the inspiration for the contest, who would make the ideal owner for the paper, and why newspapers still matter.
How did you come up with the idea for this contest?
A woman over in Maine sold a B&B last summer doing this. There was an article in The Boston Globe and on CNN, it got very good press. So this friend mentioned this to me, knowing I was trying and wanted to sell The Gazette. We kicked it around, I got a hold of an attorney and he researched it, and it does fall within Vermont law as long as it’s a contest of skill.
Then we started working on a web page for the contest. I put together a panel of judges and we said, “Let’s launch it.”
We did so a [in early June], and I’ve been pleased and appreciative in the way the media has taken to the story. One, I think journalists like stories about journalism. But also maybe people are sick of the election [laughs].
One thing I’ve already learned, too, is the people in Hardwick—the people we’ve covered, those I’ve seen in person or heard from over the phone, everybody is talking about it. The part that’s most significant to me is people are complimenting me on the idea, but they also hope we do find a good person to take over because they want the paper to stay here. And that’s what I want too.
People depend on it, we’re not corporate media that skims across the top and goes for just the big stories. The fact is, [when it comes to] the mainstream media, we fly below that radar. We’re a hard-news newspaper; we cover hundreds of stories each year.
We are definitely a foundation stone of democracy. My view is people have to interact with each other to have a functioning society. We’re a pluralistic society, we have to figure out how to get things done, and to do it in a civil manner I think we need civic media.
People can have social media, and that’s fine. But there’s a difference between civic media and social media. There are 6,000 to 7,000 community papers in the U.S., and the community of journalism is a part of the media landscape of this country. And I hope this contributes to that awareness.
What are you looking for from the winning essay?
We have some criteria. We’re going to be grading them, if you will. Obviously somebody with journalism experience, some business experience. I’m going to look for whether they convey a sense of community and understanding of what that is.
Creativity, commitment—commitment to serious journalism, we are a serious newspaper. We don’t just cover chicken pie dinners. Who is going to convey the sense of that importance, the sense that people here are just as important as anywhere else? Whether you’re in the minor leagues or major leagues, it’s the same game. We still have that same responsibility.
That’s the message I’ve been getting from people—the hope that The Gazette will find a good new owner so that it will continue.
Logistically, how will this work? How do you know the person will be prepared to keep the paper running?
From a logistical point of view, when you hire someone you get the resume and cover letter and hope you get some good people. You talk to them on the phone and may want to interview them.
The panel will be reading through the essays. We’ll evaluate the essays blind and assign each one a number. The essays will be distributed, we’ll read them, assess them on the various attributes I’ve mentioned, and try to have an objective look at them.
Then we’ll kind of weed out and put some of the essays into a second level for second readings. Then eventually we’ll get down hopefully to 20 winners, then down to a top three, and then who’s the top.
We’ll get in touch with that person and say “you won, we’d like you to come to Hardwick so you can vet us, and we can vet you.” We want them to realize we’re a newspaper, and hopefully whomever wins will have merited their essay in our evaluation.
But again, as with hiring, you never know until the person’s been on the job for a bit. There will be a covenant in the paper where they agree to run it as a newspaper for at least two years, so somebody can’t come in and decide after six months they’re going to bail. If that happens, it would go back to me. I hope it doesn’t come to that, but that’s what we have in place.
When and why did you first buy the paper?
My late wife and I bought it in 1986. I was a journalist, she was a graphic artist. We saw it as an opportunity, we sort of kicked around the idea of having our own newspaper. So we found The Gazette, it was listed in a trade publication in a blind ad. We wrote in and said who we are and expressed interest. The owner and publisher wrote back and said he was impressed with our experience. I guess he did okay in picking us—we haven’t driven the thing into the ground.
How would you describe the paper? What are its values?
The value is to report the news. As far as I’m concerned, it’s professional journalism. There are young people that have come through here and learned about the profession and gone onto other higher levels of journalism, if you will. Others have stayed in weekly journalism. I’ve never had a negative, a “this was the worst job of my life.”
We do a lot of municipal government, schools, activities, budgeting, informational meetings, votes on budgets. We had one town that took six budget votes before they approved it. So that was pretty important news. And what are the implications of that budget? I had a former school board member say we were nickel-and-diming and had one working water fountain at the end of the hallway. That’s important to people here in town.
This area of Vermont also has a ton of musicians, artists and writers, so we try to keep abreast of that as much as we can. The local high school, the boys have won numerous state basketball championships over the years. It’s important to people to be able to read those stories.
We don’t have the news hole or staff to do much feature writing, but we do try to keep up with what’s going on and people can have it reflected back at them each week. There was an embezzlement story that lasted over a year, from allegations to a trial, and we kept on it. And when she was released we wrote about that. There’s a lot of hard news around here and news that’s important to people each week.
Tell us a bit about the town of Hardwick.
We had been through Hardwick the preceding year [before buying the paper], going on a winter sled dog trip, and unbeknownst to us when we came up to see it [to buy the paper], we were like, “Oh we’ve been here before.” It’s a beautiful area, the town is in a river valley, there’s a river right outside the building itself.
Another view is Buffalo Mountain. It’s a rural area, a lot of farms. Sustainable agriculture is something that has been coming along. People work in the woods in logging. There are mom-and-pop businesses and retail—not as much as I’d like, but it’s here.
Surrounding towns, same type of thing. Hardwick historically was a hub, and still is to some extent. It was known as the granite building capital of the world—the company that was here designed for the Pennsylvania state capitol, Union Station in Washington D.C., among others.
Since we first came 32 years ago it has changed. The facades and buildings have been spruced up. It’s getting a reputation for sustainable agriculture. Young people are coming back or staying here to see what they can do in that economic arena. There’s a lot of music in the summer, some theater, and galleries and things. It’s a nice place.
Why don’t you have a website?
It was a conscious decision for a variety of reasons. From an economic point of view, doing a print edition and adding a web page would require more expenditure to design and maintain it. That was a consideration.
Another was, I don’t believe in giving away my product. I think that was a mistake a lot of papers found, and when they started putting up paywalls they got a lot of resistance. From the beginning I said, “Nah, I don’t think so.”
From a philosophical point of view, I think the hard newspaper is kind of a stimulus to civic engagement for people to interact with each other in a way you can’t with a tablet or smartphone.
I can’t see what you’re reading on that. But I can see that you’re reading the newspaper and it might start a conversation about a particular story that goes beyond ourselves. I just think face-to-face interaction is an important part of civic society, and newspapers are a physical part of that. They lead people to engage with others rather than having their nose in their smartphone.
I’ve literally found with some young reporters, they have a hard time looking someone face to face in the eye. A reporter has to be a curious person, and I think you really need to get out and be a part of it. You need to get out and experience the elements. The world is not a virtual world, it’s a real world, so go out and get into it and report back.
So I just think the end copy, the hard product, is a part of that real reality as opposed to the virtual reality. And if the new owner decides to do an online edition as well, more power to them.
How many entries have you had so far?
None yet, and I don’t expect any until maybe next week. I’m hoping people are taking it seriously. [The entry fee of] $175 isn’t a huge amount of money but most don’t have that much just to say, “Here.” I hope people recognize it as a serious opportunity and take time to write and send in their essays.
Where can people enter?
HardwickGazette.com. That page has lots of information, and that is only about the contest. The contest is running from June 11 to August 11, and I’m reserving the right to extend it to two months, if need be. There is a minimum of 700 entries and a maximum of 1,889. Once the 700 figure is reached, then the contest is officially underway and the entries are non-refundable.
What’s the allure of running a newspaper in the digital era?
To me, I still find journalism exciting. And I find it important. As I’ve been saying—perhaps in a long-winded manner—I think it’s critical to our democracy.
Citizens need information to make sound decisions. We need more than just the big stories we read and hear and see every day. There’s important news happening locally, here and in neighborhoods in towns and cities around the country. I think those events, happenings, civic life and those people are important anywhere. Owning a small independent paper gives the opportunity to report on those things.
And working for oneself is nice. I don’t answer to a board of directors or shareholders, I sink or swim on my own talents and the people who work here. It’s a challenge and responsibility, but it’s also a privilege. If there are people who share that feeling and would like to do it—I know there are young people taking it on in various parts of the country, starting and buying newspapers.
Are there any out there interested in doing so in northern Vermont? I hope so, and the people here hope so also.
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