Can Brad Robertson save Vermont's largest daily?
The Burlington Free Press  is in the news business, but it’s not giving readers an in-depth analysis of its own story.
Vermont’s largest daily, which is owned by Virginia-based Gannett Corp. , has made some big changes — partly in response to the weak economy, partly in response to the habits of a diminishing pool of readers. Over the past year, the paper has thinned. Classified ads no longer appear daily. Last week, the Free Press announced that it’s collapsing the paper into two sections on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.
The Freeps has also changed the way it presents local, national and international news. There’s a new news summary on the lefthand side of the front page, and an expanded section of “briefs” on page 2.
A statement by Executive Editor Michael Townsend in last Monday’s paper proudly announced that the new format means more stories. But the “stories,” taken from “wire reports,” are no more than two paragraphs long. Some pages are entirely byline-free.
That’s because there are fewer writers in the newsroom on College Street. In the past year, the Free Press has laid off 15 people, including columnist Ed Shamy (see related story ). It’s also eliminated seven jobs, bringing its total workforce to 226.
Yet, even as the Free Press’ flagship publication, and its staff, shrinks, its array of niche print and Internet-based publications is growing and changing all the time. Weekend, a pull-out section in the Thursday edition, is no longer distributed free in yellow boxes around Burlington; Bscene  has taken its place as the paper’s stand-alone free paper targeting young people. GreenMountainMoms, which was once a website and print magazine, was relaunched last fall as the web-only MomsLikeMe . The Free Press also publishes The Green Mountain Fun Guide, Real Estate Extra and the longstanding regional shopper Buyer’s Digest. Hometown replaced the suburban editions covering Essex, South Burlington, Colchester and Franklin County that were mailed free to area households for about a year. All of these products are designed to reach more targeted segments of the media audience. But, unlike The Burlington Free Press, they largely lack critical reportage.
Why should Vermonters care about economically driven changes to the state’s largest daily? And, perhaps more puzzling to our readers, why did Seven Days devote this week’s cover spread to a story about its largest competitor, a paper we routinely ridicule in these pages and refer to, both affectionately and derisively, as the “Freeps”?
Simply put, because, love ’em or hate ’em, a daily newspaper is essential to a functional democracy. And, whether we like to admit it or not, our own publication, like our city and state, benefits from a thriving — and yes, competitive — free press.
St. Michael’s College journalism professor David Mindich , author of Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don’t Follow the News , notes that the Free Press “still has a lot of currency in Burlington,” but he’s concerned about the diminishing number of in-depth articles. “It might be more entertaining to get shorter pieces,” he says, “but it’s very important for the Free Press to maintain its primary function, which is to keep citizens empowered and politicians accountable.”
Is the paper still meeting that mission? Says Mindich: “I think they’re on the verge of compromising their product.”
Media maven Craig Chevrier , who teaches a class at Champlain College called “Social Responsibility in Media,” offered a more colorful critique during a panel discussion with Free Press reporter Candy Page and Seven Days staff writer Ken Picard that was broadcast on Channel 17 last April. “I think the Free Press is the journalistic equivalent of Froot Loops,” he quipped, comparing the 182-year-old daily to a processed food product.
Not surprisingly, Free Press publisher Brad Robertson has a different view. He bristles at a reporter’s suggestion that the Free Press is in any way diminishing its product. “As much as you might look at it and think, ‘Oh, my God, the thing’s falling apart,’ I look at it and say, ‘Actually there’s more local news in these newspapers now than there used to be,” he says.
As for the shorter stories: “If you go back to the papers that people enjoyed in the ’50s and ’60s, they used a brief style to do that,” he says. “We’re experimenting with different styles.”
And the constantly changing roster of publications? “It’s a little bit of a web mentality, right?” he explains. “Isn’t the idea of the web that you don’t sit there for years, you’re continually tweaking and moving and looking for feedback, and pulsating? You know, to me, in the past year, I’ve been lucky enough to have somebody like Mike Townsend and an editorial group here who’s willing to go, ‘You know, let’s look at the research, let’s talk to people, and let’s see other things we can do, let’s look for feedback, let’s make some changes, let’s rethink these things, let’s do that.’ We’ve had a steady diet of that. I can appreciate that maybe, to you guys, it looks like the world’s falling apart, but that’s false.”
In fact, Robertson himself is one of the recent changes Gannett has made to the Free Press; the company brought the 36-year-old exec to Burlington in November 2007, to replace longtime publisher Jim Carey. Obviously, you can’t attribute all the changes at the paper to the local publisher; he does work for a large corporation and surely has his marching orders. But it’s hard to deny that Robertson is breathing new life into this local institution and reshaping it in vital ways.
“The amount of content we produce is as much as we’ve ever produced; it’s just going into so many different containers and so many different ways,” he says. “This is the wild, wild West media-wise, and nobody knows what the future holds. It’s a time of experimenting and embracing the uncomfortable — and by that I mean trying things and reworking those that don’t work.”
Robertson is definitely making his mark. But will his efforts save The Burlington Free Press or accelerate its demise?
Robertson is exactly what the Free Press needs, according to his friend Ted Adler, founder of the Burlington web design firm Union Street Media .
“The paper was a little staid and it needed a new, younger, more dynamic-person approach, and Gannett must have realized that and brought Brad in,” says Adler. “Brad is super hardworking and genuinely cares quite a bit about the paper and the community. He’s . . . what you might call a ‘change agent,’ and we’re going to be a better community because it’s going to be a better newspaper.”
Though Adler and others often describe Robertson as “an innovator,” he’s also firmly grounded in the newspaper biz. His dad worked for the Gannett-owned Rockford Star Register  in Illinois; Robertson started delivering papers when he was 7 years old. He graduated from Northern Illinois University in 1994 with a B.A. in Communications, and he’s spent almost his entire professional career working for Gannett, though always on the business side.
Robertson is the consummate company man. He’s had tours of duty at several Gannett-owned papers, including The Journal News in New York, the Fort Collins Coloradoan, the Springfield News-Leader in Missouri and the Detroit News Agency, which runs the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News. Most recently he was the vice president of business development and vice president of advertising at the Des Moines Register in Iowa. In 2006, the Newspaper Association of America included him in its “Top 20 Under 40 ” list that highlights rising talent in the industry. In April 2008, he received a Gannett’s President Ring for the second year in a row. That’s a company award that recognizes 10 outstanding employees for their leadership, innovation and impact on the community.
Despite his prematurely gray hair, Robertson exudes a boyish charm. He’s a natural salesman. It’s hard to not like him. The tall, trim, charismatic exec is about as different from his predecessor as it’s possible to be. Jim Carey made people come to him, and he rarely returned calls from reporters. By contrast, Robertson seems to be everywhere, possibly to make up for the fact that he’s relatively new in town. He’s on the board of directors of the Greater Burlington Industrial Corporation, the Burlington Business Association  and the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies . He’s a member of the Vermont Business Roundtable  and an advisor to the Champlain College  Creative Media and Communication group.
Earlier this month, he co-moderated the Burlington Business Association’s mayoral debate, with Free Press Executive Editor Mike Townsend. He also returns calls from reporters, though he warns that, pending the outcome of this story, he may stop returning ours.
For his part, Robertson, who is somewhat exasperated by this story’s focus on his personal style, says he’s only been doing what anyone in his position would do. “I want to be part of the community, and I want to help out,” he says. “That’s it. There’s no magic formula.”
Maybe not, but his affinity for new-media tools — he actively uses Facebook , LinkedIn  and microblogging service Twitter  — is noteworthy. When he learned he was coming to the Free Press, for example, he logged onto his LinkedIn account, searched Burlington, and looked for people with the most connections. He introduced himself via email and asked to meet. That’s how he met Adler. Say what you will about newspapers being behind the times, the publisher of the Free Press is definitely wired, and he’s brought that sensibility to the paper, leading by example.
[Full disclosure: Robertson and I are friends on Facebook, and he invited me to meet over coffee in June. I accepted his invitation.]
Former Free Press staffer Matt Crawford, who left the paper last March to work for a national outdoors PR firm, observed Robertson’s energy from the inside. “He’s young and dialed in,” says Crawford. “I remember him telling us, ‘Every newspaper needs to be using social-networking tools, video, blogs, and we need to be doing it yesterday.’”
David Mindich gives Robertson credit for his new energy, too. Mindich has been teaching at St. Mike’s for more than a decade, but he never met Carey. Robertson introduced himself shortly after he arrived, when he attended a talk at the college by New York Times Multimedia Editor Andrew DeVigal . Robertson “got everyone to go on Facebook,” says Mindich. “And people laughed at it, but it’s probably a good thing for journalists to do.”
The professor recalls a more recent online interaction with Robertson from December. Mindich posted a message to his Twitter feed noting that he sold his car in a flash on Craigslist, and got no leads from a Free Press classified ad. Robertson wrote back to him to ask how the Free Press could keep his business. Mindich was impressed. “I thought it was a very proactive and hands-on approach,” he says.
The newspaper industry would benefit from some new approaches. Many prominent publications across the country are faltering. The Tribune Company, which owns the Chicago Tribune  and the L.A. Times , is in bankruptcy proceedings. So is the Star Tribune  — aka the Strib — in Minnesota. There’s even speculation about The New York Times , which is scrambling to come up with the money to make a $400 million debt payment in May. The RIP column on Paul Gillin’s Newspaper Death Watch  blog lists several papers that have already gone under. In the current tough economic climate, more are probably coming.
Robertson blames the “historic, horrific” economic times for many of the changes the Free Press has been forced to make, but he recognizes that the challenge facing the industry is broader than that. “I think the biggest thing we are up against is all the other distractions of life — gaming iPods, cellphones, social networking — I personally see them as competitors,” he says. “A lot has been made [of the fact] that the times are changing for the newspaper industry, and that’s true, but the distractions are huge.”
It’s worth noting that not all newspapers are facing the same challenges. For example, Emerson Lynn, editor and publisher of the St. Albans Messenger , a Monday-through-Saturday daily serving Franklin County, reports that his business was up last year over 2007.
“In the industry, there’s a fairly sharp division between community newspapers and the larger metropolitan newspapers,” he explains. “And the larger metropolitan newspapers like the Free Press have been struggling. And papers larger than the Free Press are struggling even more. But papers generally across the country that are community weeklies and small dailies have actually been growing.”
Or, at least losing less money — newspaper trade associations the Suburban Newspapers of America  and the National Newspaper Association released a report last week showing that community newspapers suffered a 1.7 percent decline in the third quarter of 2008, as opposed to an overall decline in the newspaper industry of 18 percent.
Lynn’s brother Angelo owns the Addison Independent , which covers Addison County and is published twice weekly. Together, the two also own weeklies in Colchester and Milton. Lynn says their papers are all still profitable and none has laid anyone off.
Emerson Lynn concedes that the economy is taking a toll on business. “You’d have to be crazy not to be taking strong defensive measures,” he says. “You know,” he adds, “I’ve been here 27 years. And so the relationship that I’ve got with the community is very strong. We’re built upon a model that’s very local in nature. And your larger publications aren’t. They’re built on a model where you’ve got a lot of national advertising, whether it’s classified, display, retail, whatever. And that’s the market that has changed its focus. It’s when you get into your national markets that you have the real struggles.”
It’s fair to say that Gannett is struggling. The Virginia-based entity owns 85 daily newspapers across the country. In October, Gannett reported third-quarter revenues of $1.64 billion, compared with $1.8 billion for the same quarter in 2007. Its fourth-quarter numbers will be released on Friday.
But unlike Lynn’s operation, which is privately owned, Gannett is a publicly traded company. Its shareholders demand, and have been accustomed to seeing, high profit margins. Daily newspaper companies have historically been monopolies, charging monopoly rates. That’s no longer the case, says newspaper analyst Martin Langeveld. The former newspaper publisher, who lives in Vernon, Vermont, publishes a blog called News After Newspapers  that was recently picked up by the Nieman Journalism Lab , a project of the Nieman Foundation  at Harvard. Langeveld points out that even during the Great Depression, newspapers were making “very nice profits” for their owners. That’s because “they were still in that monopoly mode,” he says. “If you wanted to advertise, you needed to spend your money there. But now you can go in a lot of different directions with your advertising.”
How profitable is the Free Press? It’s hard to say for sure, since the paper’s financial information is a closely guarded secret. But a memo leaked in November to Gannett Blog , a website run by former USA Today  reporter Jim Hopkins, suggests that the Free Press actually does still have a healthy profit margin — or at least it did in 2007. According to Hopkins, in the first three quarters of 2007 the paper had ad revenue of $21.3 million and a profit margin of more than 36 percent. That translates into roughly $7.7 million in profit through the third quarter, and excludes the holiday ad spending frenzy reserved for the fourth quarter.
Langeveld and Robertson point out that these numbers are unreliable. “It doesn’t count the upstream,” notes Langeveld, “depreciation, interest, taxes, amortization of goodwill, and dividends and principal payments on the debt. So there’s a lot of stuff that has to come out of that margin up the road.”
If the Freeps is still profitable, why all the cuts? Langeveld explains that Gannett needs to maintain a positive cash flow, because if its net worth drops below a certain value, the company will no longer be able to borrow money. “If . . . they have a quarter where they actually lose money, they could basically see themselves running out of cash,” he says. “And this is what happened to the Tribune company, which as a result of that declared bankruptcy.”
Langeveld projects that newspaper revenue will be down 15 to 18 percent this year. “Gannett is doing a little better than that,” he says, “but there’s just no end in sight.”
All of this may explain Gannett’s cost-cutting measures over the past six months: In August, the company axed 1000 newspaper workers, including six Free Press staffers. In September, during a purge of several hundred of Gannett’s midlevel and senior managers, two Free Press managers retired and had their duties taken over by counterparts in Wilmington, Delaware. The paper raised its single-copy price a quarter, to 75 cents, and, to reduce costs, moved its circulation call center to Kentucky and outsourced some of its design work to India.
Toward the end of 2008, Gannett laid off close to 3000 people, roughly 10 percent of its newspaper division employees. The Free Press laid off a total of nine, four of them from the newsroom, and trimmed five additional vacant positions from the payroll, two of which were from the newsroom. Then, earlier this month, Gannett announced that, in order to stave off further layoffs, it was requiring all company employees to take a week-long, unpaid furlough before the end of March.
Gannett has been more aggressive than most newspaper chains in responding to the shifting media landscape. The company has rigorously remade its newsrooms into 24/7 “Information Centers.” In fact, Robertson helped design that model.
“Overall, there’s never been more of an imperative to be creative in how we look at what we do,” says Jennifer Carroll, a former executive editor at the Free Press and currently vice president of Gannett Digital. For example, in Wilmington, Delaware, Gannett restructured the newsroom staffing patterns to mimic the old afternoon dailies. That meant, rather than reporters and editors strolling in around 10 a.m. and then heading into news meetings to talk about the next day’s paper, the news desk kicks into gear around 6:30 a.m. with traffic reports, late-night sports scores and early reports on news that is just breaking. Those stories are updated throughout the day, new ones are generated, and the next day’s print content comes together.
“This new approach also gives us some of the momentum to try more challenging projects,” says Carroll. That includes more database reporting, but also using new digital tools to let readers in on the story, posting the databases online and letting them dig around themselves.
The Free Press has adopted aspects of this approach as well. Reporters are increasingly using newer narrative reporting tools such as audio slideshows, video, reporter blogs and live blogs. On the live blogs, reporters don’t just report the news; they guide discussions and encourage reader participation online. The Free Press now routinely live-blogs events as they happen, including the BBA’s recent mayoral debate. Its online coverage of Election Day in November included a live blog and several video streams from the local political-party gatherings.
Environmental writer Candy Page has been at the paper since 1974. Although she laments the decline of newspapers, she notes, “speaking as a reporter, for me this is a very exciting time and very invigorating. The opportunity to learn new tools is really exciting.”
Creating a multitude of targeted niche products is another key part of Gannett’s survival strategy. Consider what’s happened in Cincinnati. “In recent years, Gannett’s Cincinnati arm has gone from producing one metropolitan newspaper to producing 270 niche publications, including suburban papers, neighborhood [websites], and regional magazines,” notes a July 2007 article on the company from Wired Magazine .
But what’s the focus of those new pubs? Says Wired: “The readers — their thoughts, their half-baked opinions, their kids’ Little League scores — are at the center of them all.”
Part of Cincinnati’s mix is a moms’ social-networking site, CincyMOMS, — now also renamed MomsLikeMe  — aimed at busy, young mothers who no longer read the newspaper. It was one of the prototypes for the Freeps’ GreenMountainMoms.
The Free Press’ photo-heavy Bscene is much like other free entertainment-and-nightlife weeklies Gannett produces. It’s full of ads, event listings, a couple of short features, and lots and lots of photos. Because, haven’t you heard? Young people don’t read.
Robertson talks about the company’s new diversity of products like a true bean counter. “Some of these are ‘reach vehicles,’ some of these are ‘ad-result vehicles,’ some of these are, you know, just spending a customer’s money as wisely as possible, or reaching an audience in different ways,” he says.
Robertson is particularly proud of Hometown, a free weekly that’s mailed to all households in Burlington and Winooski, and has recently expanded distribution to Shelburne and other suburbs. Hometown replaced the Freeps’ short-lived suburban editions, which contained stories about Burlington’s suburbs that had been repurposed from the main newspaper.
“In the past, in some areas, we were just putting out a vehicle that just had ads in it,” notes Robertson. “Now it’s flush with local content.”
Content, maybe, but news? Here are some of the headlines from last week’s issue of Hometown: “Quilting group stitches in Hinesburg.” “Fans celebrate retired Williston teacher.” “Moms exercise while babies socialize in South Burlington.” Don’t look for letters to the editor or coverage of city government.
Here’s how Emerson Lynn defines “news”: “It’s information that the public wants in order to make better decisions about life. They want the information in terms of what happens with the local school board. With the local select board. The news from the police. They want you to examine budgets. They want a very robust debate within the paper, with the letters to the editor, and they like them on a timely basis.”
But actual news reporting costs money, and that’s in short supply. To survive, the Free Press will have to do more with less, which means relying more on press releases, wire reports and user-generated content rather than trained professional reporters.
David Mindich is complimentary of the way the Free Press has embraced the web — “I think they’ve come a long way. They’ve improved,” he says. But looking at their website, the professor points out that they could do a better job separating the wheat from the chaff. That’s, after all, what newspapers are supposed to do — tell us what’s important.
“I get the sense that the Free Press could do a much better job of developing a coherent hierarchy, both on their website and in the left columns of the front page,” Mindich continues. “If someone has a press release today, like, this hour, it’s going to go right to the top online . . . They don’t seem to have a particularly coherent order. The first one is gallery of the week in photos. Again, I don’t have a sense that they’re really ordering their news stories the way the front page would be doing in the print edition.”
Though he agreed to answer our questions, Robertson says he doesn’t understand why anyone would care about the ins and outs of the business decisions at the Free Press.
But, as Mindich notes, the Free Press isn’t just another business. “People often try to debunk the idealism of the news business by saying, ‘It’s just a business,’” he offers. “But if it’s just a business, we should ask for the First Amendment back. It’s the only business that’s protected in an explicit way in the Bill of Rights. So journalism is held to a higher standard because it has special protections. It’s important for people and journalists to value it in a different way than they would value a generic business. Without a check on power, politicians do bad things all the time. And bad decisions are made. The only way to have a healthy democracy is for people to know what’s going on.”
Mindich questions whether, over the next few years, the Free Press will still be able to cover the Statehouse and Burlington City Hall. He’s concerned about whether the mix of citizen journalism — bloggers and the people creating user-generated content — will be able to protect democracy the same way that a robust daily newspaper can. “I think it’s too early to tell where we’ll be in five years,” he says, “But I think that everyone’s very worried.”
Not Robertson. “Everyone is piling on about the death of all of this,” he says. “And we’re hearing positive things about the changes. I’m not saying everybody is hip-hip-hooray, but people like reading the Free Press and they’re communicating, so they’re willing to be patient. And we’re trying to wade through it.”
As for the future of his 182-year-old “local custom”? “I believe that the printed edition of the Free Press and a lot of newspapers will be around a long time,” Robertson says. “How it all shakes out as far as at the end of the day and what it all looks like, I don’t think anybody knows.”