Stop the presses! No more Vermont daily papers to print instate

By Guy Page

The Burlington Free Press called me yesterday afternoon with the stunning news: May 3 would be the last day it could print the Chronicle of the Vermont State House, the newspaper I publish for True North Media.

When I took my first newspaper job at the Free Press as a night-shift intern in 1979, the powerful thrum of the rolling presses and the smell of newsprint spread throughout the building on College Street in Burlington. At that time, almost all Vermont dailies and many weeklies operated their own presses.

So much has changed. This week, the Free Press was told by its corporate leaders that henceforth from May 3 it would be printed in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, home of a sister paper in the newspaper chain that owns it. A few emails, phone calls, and collegial conversations later, I found that not a single Vermont daily newspaper prints in Vermont anymore. I couldn’t find any weeklies that do either, but there are still many publishing and I can’t say for certain that they all print out-of-state.

Guy Page

Daily newspapers now being printed out-of-state are the Times Argus and Rutland Herald (New Hampshire), St. Johnsbury’s Caledonian-Record (at the Concord, NH Monitor), Newport Daily Express (Quebec), Bennington Banner and Brattleboro Reformer (Massachusetts). The Connecticut River-area Claremont Eagle and Valley News both are printed in New Hampshire. Once boasting their own printing presses,  the weekly News & Citizen in Morrisville and the Herald of Randolph both print out-of-state. So does the twice-weekly Addison Independent. The St. Albans Messenger and its Chittenden County weeklies now print at the Free Press, so they too must find another printer.

How did this happen? And – does it matter?

The first question has two answers.

First, the online purveyors of state and national news – manufacturers of a product that is fast, cheap, plentiful, accessible – have all but won the war against the slow, expensive, increasingly-hard-to-find daily newspaper. Like a pack of raptors taking down a brontosaurus, it’s happened very fast and it’s not pretty.

To be sure local weeklies are still strong. Online-only media don’t yet competitively turn a buck on community news alone. Print weeklies like those mentioned above and the Barton Chronicle and Vermont Standard and many others enjoy powerful local loyalty, in part because they offer unique local news presented on both online and “hard copy” platforms. Still, online-only media like the Chester Telegraph – whose motto is “all news – no paper” – and the Newport Dispatch are gamely fighting for advertiser and reader market share.

Second, many local newspapers also ran print shops. These cash cows produced the weekly shopping circulars, Town Meeting reports, and other staples of the pre-digital society in which paper was king. But one budget-minded print job at a time, the internet has silenced this once-thriving local business. Why go to all the time and expense to print, prepare and mail an advertising campaign, when a free email with a website link will do the same job – and maybe even do it better?

Does the disappearance of the printing press matter? To the average reader, not really. Nor much to local businesses, except for the few  that rely on the locally-printed newspaper as either customer or vendor. Nor does it mean anything to younger journalists who have never seen or heard or felt in the soles of their feet the power of the printing press running at full speed. Sitting here in the State House cafeteria on a slow Friday afternoon, I asked a young VT Digger reporter who was the editor of her college paper if she had ever seen a newspaper printed. Alas, no.

It matters most to the out-of-work pressmen, of course. They used to be the lords of the operation, and they knew it. Mostly “blue collar” skilled tradesmen (and they were all men, those I knew), they were far more valuable to the publisher than the dime-a-dozen, interchangable reporters and editors. Now, they are all out of a job. With luck they will catch on at another printer. If not, they will try to leverage their skills into a “sideways” move into another manufacturing profession.

Besides the out-of-work press workers and flyer “stuffers,” the people who will miss the presses the most are sentimental old newspaper reporters and editors – like me.

After playing Jimmy Olson at the Free Press, I went to the Caledonian-Record, where everyone from the janitor to publisher Gordon Smith – so no excuses accepted from a hapless reporter – would gather in the press room on Monday afternoons to stuff inserts. At the St. Albans Messenger, I wrote a “hold the presses” story or two that publisher Emerson Lynn agreed just couldn’t wait until tomorrow. The pressmen would shuffle their feet impatiently while I typed furiously an hour after deadline. In my first stint at the News & Citizen 35 years ago, the father-son team of Clyde and Brad Limoge printed two newspapers a week plus a steady stream of circulars and college publications. In my second stint in 2008, the stream had already slowed to a trickle. The presses were abandoned after the paper merged with the Stowe Reporter.

The news hit this morning with a whimper, not a bang. From most Vermonters, including policy makers, the response was a collective shrug. Maybe someday the Vermont Historic Preservation Division will erect a historical marker on South Winooski Avenue outside the loading dock where delivery trucks would line up at 2 AM – “On this spot, on May 3, 2020, the last in-house newspaper printing press in Vermont ceased operation.” Because that’s what this story is really about – history. It’s not news.

* * * * * *

There are advantages to paperless news, of course. For example, an errant reporter can correct a mistake immediately, long before the printing presses roll again. This morning I misidentified the author of the proposed amendment to delay the Act 250 vote until after Town Meeting. In fact it wasn’t Jim Masland of Thetford, it was Thomas Bock of Chester.

Read more of Guy Page’s reports.

Image courtesy of Public domain

7 thoughts on “Stop the presses! No more Vermont daily papers to print instate

  1. As published on Seven Days several days ago:

    The Burlington Free Press Will Be Printed in Coastal New Hampshire

    With Student Dollars Down, Saint Michael’s College’s Bond Rating Takes a Hit

    Vermont House Votes to Override Minimum Wage Veto

    Any questions?

  2. So, you explained what most of us surmise concerning print media. The unwritten question you didn’t address kept popping up, i.e., New Hampshire. These papers you mention are still being printed, but many in NH. The story is why? What is it about VT that makes it untenable to print there? What makes NH desirable? Why do media corporations shun VT?
    There your investigative story.

  3. No one wants to do business in VT lol…surprise! When reading abt move of Burlington Free Press and did math using estimate of wage increase by # of employees by 52 weeks…5 digits…

  4. I’ve been in the newspaper, publishing, and printing industry for over 50 years. What has happened is heartbreaking, almost unbelievable. Newspapers saw their final days approaching as early as 1986. The 100th anniversary year of Ottmar Mergenthaler’s Linotype Machine. The final night of hot-metal at the New York Times was July 2nd 1978, from there-on newspaper after newspaper went cold, or photo-type. This eliminated the Typographical Union, then the largest, strongest, and most powerful union in the entire U.S. All other unions combined did not equal the Typo Union in either size or membership. It all came crashing down in-short-order. These were the die-hard compositors of the news. Conservative in every kind. Dedicated to correctness, style, and delivery—in-every-form. Replaced, of the next ten years by typists and computer operators, no experience or trade related background was necessary; this lead to off-the-street employs and a callousness for the trade. Editors became publishers, reported became story writers, they all became copy-makers and psuedo-typesetters. Liberals replaced conservatives, newspapers became shameless shams. Pressmen were the last tradesmen to read and print the news, but the typographers were the heart, and soul of the printing industry …and now you know the rest of the story. —k.e.s., jr.

    • Very interesting, Karl! I learned something new. The computer revolution that really empowered small community journalism also seems to have taken its toll on quality and continuity.

      • Gentlemen: For those of you interested enough to delve into the subject – I respectfully disagree with the assessment that technology is to blame for the demise of quality and continuity.

        When I graduated with a BS in Journalism back in 1971, I was required to compose a ‘graduation thesis’. My topic was the future of mass media advertising. Fortran and IBM punch cards were the advanced technology of the day. My news reporting final exam was taken on a manual typewriter – not even an electric. But I digress.

        In my essay, I described a digital communications environment in which individuals would have access to virtually all published information. The obsolescence of thought and products would occur as quickly as the data was published. I described little black boxes carried on one’s belt and glasses worn as digital tv screens, receiving data upon request in real time.

        To make a long story short, I was called in to the Dean’s office. My advisor and the Dean of the School of Journalism (who I had befriended over the years) sat me down and said this: Jay, what we want you to write about is radio, TV, direct mail and billboards.

        While the typographers were the heart and soul of the printing industry back in the day, before Visual Basic, Unix programming, tablets and smartphones, the problem with Journalism now isn’t the change in technology. What concerns me is the breakdown in journalism ethics. Be they progressive liberals or right-wing conservatives, as Marshall McLuhan opined in 1964, ‘the medium is the message’. This tenant applies to typographers of old, media pundits and armchair editors/publishers today. Here we are, the three of us, in fact, reporting to all who are interested, on the history of journalism.

        Yes, reporters today must be ‘story tellers’. But, more importantly, they’ve forgotten (or were never taught) this tenant of Edward R. Murrow’s, that “To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; to be credible we must be truthful.”

        Murrow went on to say, more than 60 years ago, “The newest computer can merely compound, at speed, the oldest problem in the relations between human beings, and in the end the communicator will be confronted with the same old problem, of what to say and how to say it.” Further, that: “Everyone is a prisoner of his own experiences. No one can eliminate prejudices – just recognize them.”

  5. yes and they can delete stories when they are caught lying, there can be many shenanigans with online press, I’ve seen it many times with Vermont Digger. I mentioned on a comment, are you working for the NEA when all the ads came up around a story. My comment never saw the light of day, but they pulled all the ads surrounding the story within 2 hours. Propaganda LOVES online news.

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