Vermont’s next-generation publishers chart the future of local news
It’s no secret that the media industry is going through a period of disruptive transformation. Daily newspapers and TV stations around the country are struggling to chart their futures in the age of Internet 2.0 and social media. Online competition for young readers and viewers is fierce, which has caused “traditional media” to lose users — and, hence, market share.
It’s no wonder that, like the children of dairy farmers, local publishing progeny might find themselves considering other options. Meanwhile, their parents worry about who will carry on local newsgathering in their respective communities. In towns such as Randolph, the newspaper is not just a source of information but a catalyst for dialogue, social work, events and many other forms of community building.
Publisher M. Dickey Drysdale bought the Herald of Randolph  from his father in 1971, but neither of his two sons is likely to carry on the tradition. “Selling a paper at this time is bound to be daunting,” Drysdale points out, “even though this one continues to make a worthwhile profit and has hardly lost any circulation.”
A group of laid-off journalists might be interested in buying in, Drysdale reasons, but “even on big newspapers, they haven’t been earning enough money to actually buy a newspaper business.”
Who would choose journalism as a profession these days, let alone seek to own and run a local newspaper or TV station?
At least four Vermont families appear to be in the media business for the long haul. At WCAX-TV, the Rutland Herald/Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, the Caledonian Record and the Essex Reporter, the next generation has already taken over, or is being groomed to do so. The young media execs are generally confident they can stay relevant to readers, viewers and advertisers, despite changes in how consumers get and share news and information.
The goal: to accomplish everything grandpa’s media company did — and more.
Stuart “Red” Martin, the founder of Vermont’s largest television station, WCAX-TV , passed away in 2005 — one year after the station celebrated its 50th anniversary on the air.
His son, Peter, had learned the business from Red and for years had served as general manager. Given his own age, though, then-65-year-old Peter and his shareholder siblings — two brothers and a sister — had to ask themselves a tough question: Who from the next generation of Martins would succeed Peter? There were five possible heirs. None of Peter’s three children were interested: One became a diplomat, one a book editor and one a doctor.
Alex, the son of Peter’s brother, Donald, stepped up to the plate.
Growing up in Essex, Alex Martin had worked summers at the station, busying himself with everything from painting the transmitter on the top of Mount Mansfield to manning the teleprompter during newscasts. After high school and college, he had a career outside of television — mostly working in computer networking and telecommunications.
Still, he always felt drawn to the workplace he had roamed as a young kid with his cousins and grandfather.
“After my grandfather passed away, I had a discussion with Peter: What are we going to do now? It is a family business and Peter, at the time, was in his mid-sixties, and I felt like it was a good time for me to come on board and learn the business from the bottom up,” says Martin, now 39. So, in the fall of 2005, he joined the WCAX team.
Martin’s first stop was the newsroom. With no formal journalism training, he learned how to be a reporter. “News is what we do at our core, and understanding how the newsroom works and understanding the ethos that’s part of the newsroom is essential to understanding what makes Channel 3 successful,” he says. “Without our news, we’re just another CBS affiliate broadcasting other people’s content.”
His uncle, Peter Martin, had started the same way. At 29, Peter began working nights, eventually covering the Statehouse with Marselis Parsons. He left the station only briefly, in the early 1970s, to work as chief of staff for Gov. Deane Davis.
Cable TV didn’t exist back then in Vermont for most viewers. WCAX’s hourlong dinnertime newscast was how Vermonters learned about doings across the entire state.
Today, in response to viewer demands and industry norms, WCAX reporters use Twitter, the station has added 5:30 p.m. and morning news programs , and you can stream live coverage of breaking news or watch your favorite news clips online.
“The best part about being family owned is that you are not subject to the tyranny of the quarterly reports, and we don’t have to constantly worry about the stock price,” says Peter Martin, noting that most of his competitors are publicly traded companies.
Alex Martin concurs. “We also don’t have to ask for approval from regional headquarters or corporate. We still have to think through all the costs and benefits, but we don’t need anyone else to give us the go-ahead.”
Alex deals with day-to-day operations and what he call the “forward-thinking” plans: short-term and long-term projects designed to find new revenue streams, new ways to connect with viewers, and “looking at new business plans with new things we’re going to do and putting out fires when necessary.” Peter still handles affiliate negotiations with CBS and other contracts, but Alex is beginning to learn the ins and outs of those processes, too.
Alex says he didn’t feel ready to come to the station until he’d proven himself professionally. “You don’t want to get involved until you know you can come in and provide some benefit. There were things I could offer the company given my background in technology,” he says. “Like anyone in my position, you don’t want to just come in and take it because you’re part of the family. To be an effective leader you have to prove yourself to the other employees; just being the boss’ kid doesn’t inherently earn their respect.”
Elsie Lynn, 24, isn’t totally convinced that she wants to get into the community newspaper business, but with her last name, it’s almost inevitable. Her father, Angelo Lynn, and his brother, Emerson, are fourth-generation publishers — Emerson is publisher of the daily St. Albans Messenger  while Angelo is editor and publisher of the Addison Independent , a twice-weekly paper based in Middlebury.
The pair also own publications together, including the Colchester Sun and the Essex Reporter. Angelo separately owns the Brandon Reporter and Vermont Ski and Ride  magazine. Emerson owns the Milton Independent . The Milton Independent and Brandon Reporter have a combined paid circulation of 9200, while the St. Albans Messenger has 6200 daily subscribers. The Essex Reporter, Colchester Sun, Milton Independent, all free, collectively circulate 20,800 papers. Vermont Ski and Ride distributes 75,000 copies.
Angelo and Emerson Lynn’s great-grandfather Charles F. Scott bought the Lynn family’s first paper — the Iola Register  in Kansas — in 1882. Angelo and Emerson’s sister, Susan, is that paper’s current publisher.
“The community newspapers and small newspapers that we grew up in were family affairs, and so, when we were little, we would help insert papers, label them and put them in mail sacks,” recalls Angelo Lynn. “We also lived in an apartment above the newspaper, and so we were never very far away.”
When he was old enough, Angelo got as far away as he could. With a degree in journalism from the University of Kansas, he traveled to Colorado, California and Alaska. He was a ski bum, a cowboy, a climber and part of a national parks rescue team.
Angelo says his father would call from time to time to see if he wanted a job back in Kansas. None appealed.
“Then one day my dad called me to say, ‘There’s an opportunity in the next county over,’” Lynn says. A paper was in trouble and the bank was taking it over. It was a good opportunity to get in cheap, he notes.
Angelo’s three daughters are roughly the same age he was when he bought that first paper at the age of 26. His oldest daughter, Polly, 27, has assumed a variety of roles at the Addison Independent. Elsie, his youngest daughter, is currently the assistant publisher at the Colchester Sun and Essex Reporter.
Angelo believes he’s introducing them to an honorable — and viable — endeavor: community journalism. “There are tons of ways to grow and reach more people in our communities that weren’t available to us 10 to 15 years ago,” he says. “As long as keeping people informed about their local government is a cornerstone of democracy, this is going to be an important business and should be profitable, if we’re doing our job well.”
Like her father, Elsie wanted to see the world before settling in to the family business. She attended college in Colorado, where she earned a degree in political science and history, then came back home to help at Vermont Ski and Ride. Her wide-ranging job description at the publication? She sold and designed ads, wrote articles and edited her father’s writing.
She left to teach English in Taiwan and travel in China. The day after she landed in Burlington, last April, her father said he needed help at the Essex Reporter and Colchester Sun.
She’s been on the job ever since.
Elsie plans to stay at the papers until her one-year anniversary. But “in terms of me staying and taking on the family business, I’m just not there yet. I’m still up for grad school or maybe writing a novel, and traveling more,” she says.
“It would be so easy for me to fall into this because I feel like I’m good at it, but I need to check in to be sure this is what Elsie Lynn wants to do and not just what Angelo Lynn wants Elsie Lynn to do,” Elsie says.
Says Angelo, “There’s always the opportunity, but no pressure.”
Lots of history, too: “In terms of whether I think journalism and community newspapers are an effective business model, I absolutely think so,” says Elsie, sounding a lot like her old man. “These papers are something that local people will always be interested in.”
The Mitchell family has been in the newspaper business for three generations in Vermont. The patriarch, Bob Mitchell, started at the Bennington Banner  in 1933. Two years later, while working at the Rutland Herald  and the Burlington Free Press , he founded the Vermont Press Bureau, which to this day covers state politics and government.
Mitchell rose through the ranks at the Herald, taking over as publisher in the 1940s and leveraging a majority ownership in the paper in conjunction with another family, the Nobles.
In 1964, the Mitchells purchased the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus  to keep it out of the hands of William Loeb, the archconservative publisher of New Hampshire’s Manchester Union Leader. R. John Mitchell, Bob’s son, took over as publisher in 1978.
By 1986, the Mitchells had complete ownership of both the Rutland Herald and the Times Argus, after buying out the other family’s shares and rejecting offers from national chains. When Bob Mitchell died in 1993, John became the publisher of both papers. The family has since picked up more titles, including a series of regional, monthly business journals. In 2001, editorial writer David Moats won a Pulitzer Prize for the Herald for a series of pieces he wrote in defense of civil unions.
It was a crowning achievement for the Mitchells and the flagship paper that sells roughly 13,000 newspapers daily and 14,300 on Sunday. (By comparison, the Times Argus sells 7300 copies daily and 7900 on Sundays.) But prizes don’t pay the bills. Operating two printing presses, and with the digital revolution upon them, the newspaper family determined they needed fresh eyes on the horizon.
On April 1, 2008, they got some: John Mitchell’s son, Rob, returned to the family paper from California, where he attended college and worked in various editorial jobs at two weekly papers in Marin County. Yes, it was April Fool’s Day — “an auspicious start date,” as Rob notes.
But instead of gravitating to the newsroom, he focused on an equally crucial area of the business: the sales departments at both papers. Over time, he learned about Internet sales and marketing.
Rob was a force behind a landmark decision last fall to erect a “paywall”  on the company websites. The Rutland Herald and Times Argus now charge readers to access their online news content. The goal is to refresh the paper’s business model — and fund the old-fashioned newsgathering — by converting regular, online readers into paying online subscribers.
Although he concedes he spends too much time at the office, Rob says restaffing, retooling and reorienting the business has deepened his appreciation for the work of his predecessors.
“It’s not just that I’m my father’s son and my grandfather’s grandson,” says Rob. “I’ve been observing the business my entire life and, now that I’m in it, I’m beginning to understand what it is that my father and grandfather have created. I feel a sense of responsibility to not just them and the newspapers, but the employees and the readers — the people who depend on us.”
There are benefits to publishing a newspaper in an economically depressed region that still lacks broadband access and cellphone towers. In St. Johnsbury, the Caledonian Record  is insulated from many of the problems that have plagued mid-market and larger-market dailies.
The paper just came off a year of record profits and circulation gains.
You could say soon-to-be-publisher Todd Smith believes in “appropriate technology.” The son of the son of the man who founded the nearly 200-year-old Northeast Kingdom daily has made the most of new inventions that have allowed the paper to achieve efficiencies and develop new products — web-based or in print — at a lower cost than in previous generations.
In the case of the Record, four batches of Smiths have made their mark: Todd’s great grandfather, Herbert Atwood Smith, bought the paper in 1919; his son Gordon took it over after World War II. Todd’s dad, Mark, assumed control in the 1980s. Todd returned to the family paper about six years ago after working in telecommunications and marketing in Vermont. He takes over as publisher this year.
So far, 36-year-old Todd has launched two new print publications: an 8500-circulation direct-mail weekly in neighboring Littleton, N.H., and a new daily iteration of the Caledonian Record for neighboring Orleans County. He aptly calls the latter the Orleans County Record. That paper’s front page has only content from Orleans County, and is an effort to boost subscriptions and single-copy sales in Newport and Derby, among other Kingdom shire towns. So far, the experiment seems to be working. Smith said the Caledonian Record’s daily circulation has risen to 8400, ending a long streak of circulation declines .
Todd’s other big business decision: Last fall, he opted to put the Record’s online content behind a paywall. He says he heard from too many people who were reading content for free on the website, and had given up subscribing to the paper or buying it from the newsstand.
“I’m not going to be a party to my own demise,” Todd observes.
Like his father, Todd has worked in every department of the newspaper to ensure he understands all aspects of the business. He could have skipped the printing-press part, though. The Record sold off its presses in 2007. Now the paper is printed at the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire.
His dad, Mark, may have had a rougher intro to the biz: He spent his first summer in the “press pit,” beneath the machinery. He was the new kid on the team, so he got the hottest and dirtiest jobs.
“My father’s attitude is that I was an employee and should be treated as such,” recalls Mark Smith. “So, as a result, I was constantly tested by these guys to see if I’d run to Daddy. But I didn’t.”
Mark says he never sought special treatment for his children, either, when they worked at the paper.
“I had no desire to put pressure on my kids. It wasn’t a case of, This is in your genes and you must take over the family business. That said, if I had no kids and no one to take us into the electronic age, I probably would have sold it by now.”