Over and Out in the Mountains
BURLINGTON - After 21 years, Out in the Mountains, the only newspaper devoted to covering Vermont's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, is closing up shop. The final issue hits the streets this Thursday.
The free monthly newspaper contains GLBT-themed columns, comics, and local and national news briefs, as well as a statewide events calendar and a resource directory.
Burlington-based nonprofit Mountain Pride Media publishes the paper. MPM board president Brian Cote says the group made the difficult decision to fold OITM three weeks ago. "It was such an emotional board meeting," Cote recalls, "but when it came down to it, we had a few hundred dollars left in the checking account, and the model just could not continue."
Money has always been tight at the paper. OITM maintains a small office in Burlington's R.U.1.2? Queer Community Center. It has never paid contributors, and volunteer drivers deliver 5000 copies each month to coffee shops, libraries and general stores all around the state. Money for production costs, rent and payroll expenses for the paper's three employees comes from donations, subscriptions and advertising revenue.
OITM enjoyed a few years of prosperity during the civil-union debates, when national advertising dollars flowed to the state. But, Cote notes, "as one former board member said, 'It's been a slow spiral downward ever since.'"
The paper often was a lightning rod for criticism from social conservatives, but homophobia didn't kill it. In part, success did.
When OITM first appeared in 1985, it was still legal in Vermont to fire an employee for being gay. Same-sex couples could not expect to receive domestic partnership benefits, never mind enter into a state-sanctioned civil union. Back then, positive news coverage of GLBT people was rare.
"Twenty-one years ago," Cote observes, "people relied on this newspaper for information about our community." Now, he says, "The Burlington Free Press and Seven Days are routinely printing articles that the Free Press wouldn't have touched 10 years ago."
That's definitely progress, he admits, but it means fewer and fewer Vermonters need to read OITM to keep up with what's happening in the queer community. "We're getting coverage in a variety of ways now," he says.
That includes online. Cote notes that many readers, especially younger ones, would rather turn to the Internet for the latest news than pick up a monthly newspaper. Though OITM has a website and an online archive, it's been slow to incorporate interactive features, and still updates the site just once a month.
And the media landscape isn't the only thing that's shifted recently - the paper experienced board and staff turnover this year. Former editor Euan Bear departed in February, and the paper's operations manager immigrated to Canada to join his partner. Several volunteer board members also left.
Cote says the board worked hard to overcome these setbacks. The group added five new members in the past few months, completed a strategic plan, and hired an executive director. But it wasn't enough. "Like many small newspapers," he says, "we just could not turn the advertising revenue around."
Cote, whose partner Howdy Russell helped start the paper, is sorry to see it disappear. "It's very sad," Cote says. "It's a community institution."
So far the board has been tight-lipped about the paper's demise, but most of the people who've been involved have been informed. Euan Bear says she's not happy about it. Bear has been an OITM contributor since the beginning and served on the board for a year, in addition to working four years as editor. She questions whether closing the paper was really necessary. "I'm not just sad," she says. "I'm angry. I'm angry that this group did not find a way.
"We had 21 years of shoestring operations," Bear explains, "and I just sort of wonder if this particular board understood that part of things, how it's always been this way. Or if they're coming from a more corporate place, where 'The books look bad, so we have to shut it down.' I don't know."
Bear, who lives in Bakersfield, argues that the paper is still a vital resource for GLBT people in rural parts of the state, who often experience discrimination. "Just being on the shelf in the places where it's been on the shelf, in the little stores, wherever it was distributed out here in the boonies," she says, "that by itself, for people actually to see it there . . . They could look away if they wanted. But it was there. We proclaimed our existence, we battled denial. If anybody was curious, they could pick it up. Now that it's going away, that's not going to happen."
Cote and other board members have expressed interest in continuing the paper in some form online, but Bear is wary of the idea. "It's really lovely for people who live within the correct distance of a DSL node," she says. "But the fact is that there are huge sections of outlying counties, among people who need it the most, where you can't sit online and read a magazine." With dial-up Internet service, she notes, every minute of reading results in a phone charge.
But Bear also acknowledges that much has changed for the GLBT community since 1985. "Who would have ever thought, even six years ago, that we would have five gay members of the legislature?" she muses. And she points out that OITM isn't the only queer-friendly institution to fail this year: 135 Pearl, the state's last gay bar, closed in July. "Is this the price of assimilation?" she asks rhetorically.
That's a question OITM supporters can discuss on December 9, from 2 to 4 p.m., at a gathering for the paper at R.U.1.2? Cote says the event will celebrate 21 years of publishing. It will also be a fundraiser, he adds - OITM is in debt. The paper needs to raise money for payroll and closing costs. Says Cote, "It could be several thousand dollars."
Cathy Resmer is a former contributor to Out in the Mountains.