Why I am Not Donating to the Valley News
Twenty-five years ago, I relocated from Portland, Maine to Sharon, Vermont. And one of the first things I noticed upon arrival in the Upper Valley was the excellence of its local daily newspaper, the Valley News. While the VN could never rival the depth of the big metropolitan dailies and was not, back then, as rich with local content as the Portland Press-Herald, there always seemed to be two or three interesting things to read in every edition of the VN. I was impressed that a daily in a semi-rural area -- where the urban core consists of Lebanon and White River Junction -- could manage a meaningful presence in not one but two states.
Today the Valley News is in a dessicated state indeed. There is almost no local content; nearly everything is syndicated, with most of the 'news hole' filled by Associated Press and the Washington Post. Shockingly, at some point in the last year or two the Valley News quit writing local editorials altogether.
A quarter century into my post-Maine life -- I've spent about half those years in New Hampshire and the other half in Vermont -- I feel the loss of the old Valley News acutely. These days I am based in Concord and serve as New Hampshire's Consumer Advocate, representing the interests of residential utility customers at the state Public Utilities Commission and elsewhere. As such, I sit atop the mother lode of unreported New Hampshire news. Since I briefly worked at the agency now known as the Vermont Public Utility Commission, I know there's an equally rich vein of unreported energy news on that side of the Connecticut River too.
Plus I also keep an eye on non-energy issues as best I can, as any public citizen should. On the question of unreported news, it's easy to extrapolate as to other subjects of public importance and conclude that there are whole Himalayas of important stories, vital to the future of democracy and community, that go unexcavated.
So you might think that I'd be eager to open up my checkbook in response to the publisher's note in the March 14 edition of the Valley News, announcing that the paper is seeking to raise $50,000 in contributions to help pay for two new journalists whose costs will be half borne by the nonprofit organization Report for America. Especially because one of the journalists will apparently be assigned the climate and environment beat.
But I'm not gonna donate. Here's why.
Over the past 25 years, as the internet and the advent of social media has decimated the 1950s business model with which the Valley News was founded, the paper has obdurately refused to adapt. The basic architecture of the paper hasn't changed a whit; the same old sections, the same tired graphics, the same menu of subjects uniquely calculated to appeal to retired people.
My favorite example of the Valley News behaving as if it's still the Watergate era (when the arrival of one's morning paper promised a healthy dose of intrigue) has to do with its subscription pricing structure. For $230 a year, if you live in the paper's delivery area you can get both digital access and a paper copy left at the end of your driveway every day. But let's say you are like the vast majority of news readers these days, don't want to waste trees and hydrocarbons, and like to read your newspaper on line. In that case, the Valley News will knock a measly nine bucks off the annual subscription price.
As someone who thinks all day about how to make prices fair (in the public utility business), I'm here to testify: That's crazy. The marginal cost of delivering you a paper for a year, as opposed to your reading it on your computer, is vastly more than $9. In the public utility realm, we talk about setting rates that provide good "price signals" for consumers -- i.e., encouraging conservation. Unless you think wasting paper and having armies of people driving around the circulation area every day are good ideas, the price signals being emitted by the Valley News are ridiculous.
There is also the fundamental ludicrousness of a profit-maximizing business -- as opposed to a tax-exempt nonprofit -- seeking donations. Notably absent from the appeal of Valley News publisher Dan McClory was any hint of a promise to give the money back when the paper returns to profitability. Given the unlikelihood of that ever occurring, you'd think it would be an easy enough promise to make.
Fortunately, if you care about local journalism in New Hampshire and Vermont, you are not stuck with giving free money to formerly profitable businesses like the Valley News, its sibling newspaper the Concord Monitor, or any of the region's other struggling daily newspapers. Real nonprofit news -- delivered the way today's 'print' journalism should be delivered, via the internet -- is thriving in both states.
Let's start with Vermont. The Vermont Journalism Trust and its VTDigger.org are a success story that has received national attention and plenty of awards. Today there are 17 journalists on the VTdigger masthead and breaking news galore on the web site site itself. It is a tribute to the tenacity and professionalism of Anne Galloway, who started VTdigger at her kitchen table in 2009 when she was laid off from her job as Sunday editor at yet another wheezy legacy daily, the Times-Argus in Montpelier. Your tax exempt donation to the Vermont Journalism Trust would be gratefully received, I'm sure.
New Hampshire's counterpart to Anne Galloway is Nancy West, who spent 30 years as an gumshoe reporter at the Union Leader in Manchester before founding the news web site InDepthNH.org and its parent nonprofit, the New Hampshire Center for Public Interest Journalism, in 2015. Just as VTDigger hit the bigtime by breaking the story of Vermont's infamous EB-5 scandal, West is famous for her relentless pursuit of the infamous "Laurie List" of police officers with "trustworthiness" problems, first at the Union Leader and now at InDepthNH.org.
Your tax-exempt donation to the New Hampshire Center for Public Interest Journalism would also be gratefully received. The case for InDepthNH is even more compelling because it's a few years behind VTDigger and still trying to gain traction with the Granite State's philanthropic community. New Hampshire Public Radio says Nancy West is "blunt, curmudgeonly, and unyielding," qualities that are not necessarily conducive to success with donors.
Speaking of New Hampshire Public Radio, both it and its Vermont counterpart are also thriving as nonprofit news organizations. Each has a bustling newsroom; the resurgence of audio journalism, thanks in no small part to the podcasts VPR and NHPR and zillions of other producers are creating, belies the conventional wisdom that journalism as a profession is withering.
But -- and here I am sure Valley News Publisher Dan McClory and I agree on this point -- truly local news remains a challenge. The City of Lebanon is in the midst of an ambitious effort to become an oasis of affordable, green energy. Hanover has similar ambitions and is coordinating with Lebanon. The Upper Valley is the Silicon Valley of employee-owned businesses thanks to Hypertherm, King Arthur Baking, Harpoon, and Gardener's Supply (based in Burlington but with a big store in Lebanon). The Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society is one of the oldest and biggest consumer-owned retail businesses in the nation. And that's just the newsworthy Upper Valley phenomena I can rattle off without giving the question much thought!
That's why, since 2010, I've been walking this talk. I served on the board of the Vermont Journalism Trust during my years at Vermont Law School; in fact, I'm responsible for securing the VJT's tax exemption. (Back then, the IRS was skittish about doling out 501(c)(3) tax exemptions to non-broadcast newsrooms; fortunately, that's no longer true.) More recently, I've served on the board of the New Hampshire Center for Public Interest Journalism -- and, of course, InDepthNH is the home of my regular column about energy and utilities called (thanks to Nancy West) Power to the People. I spent a decade in fulltime journalism before enrolling at law school -- not, I hasten to add, because I burned out on journalism but because I was tired of being snow-jobbed by lawyers when I attempted to interview them.
And in the interest of truly full disclosure, I should confess that my byline has appeared, more than a few times, in the Valley News. If I weren't so busy with my day job, I'd make myself useful as an architecture critic. I will always be grateful to Jim Fox, now retired as the Valley News editor, for letting me give that neglected subject a spin in his paper, given that architecture is super-important and fascinating (if only because we all spend most of our time in or near buildings).
So, truly, I hope the Valley News -- and the Concord Monitor -- figure out how to reinvent themselves for the digital age. Even more than Vermont, New Hampshire needs a thriving community of sometimes competing and sometimes cooperating newsrooms. I'll even send the Valley News a donation -- once they ditch the print edition and go all-digital.
Here's a tweet I received from Maggie Cassidy, editor of the Valley News: "Your headline is misleading. Donors donate to a nonprofit, the GroundTruth Project, which via Report For America will place a reporter and a photographer in the VN newsroom. If people want to donate, they can do so here."
Fair enough. It's tempting to say more, but I learned from a great editor (the late Peter Cox, co-founder of Maine Times, at which I worked from 1986 to 1990) that it's always best to let the readers have the last word.