The 14th Vermont Journalism Conference at UVM: Good News

Center for Community News

In this time of contrapuntal highs and lows, I find a need to look for and celebrate the occasional highs.

I woke up the morning after the Presidential debate with a sense of haunting gloom and questions about whether, as we approach our semi-quincentennial year in 2026, our aging architecture of governing will still be able to preserve and protect the democracy we’ll celebrate again in two years.

As for many, the day after the debate my email and text streams were rife with gloomy reactions to the volcanic nonsense and lies from Trump and Biden’s sometimes halting delivery of his vision to sustain democracy and ensure broader prosperity for all Americans.

That day, still with a heavy heart, I attended the 14th Vt Journalism Conference, of which my wife, Kate Robinson, and I were among the founding partners.

The event began with Senator Peter Welch doing a deep-dive on how fundamental open and accurate journalism is to a functioning democracy. He reminded us that the U.S. postal system predated our nation’s founding by a year and was established in good part to provide news to the varied communities that formed the nation. It was started in 1775 by the Second Continental Congress, spurred by Ben Franklin, who became the first postmaster general. Not only was interpersonal communication vital to the nascent country but the rapid distribution of news was also deemed critical.

Before the Internet, newspapers were sold on street corners or mailed to subscribers and depended on the postal system. The decline in postal service today, largely a factor of conservative efforts to privatize the system, has affected delivery for many citizens who still value holding and reading newsprint or are not yet acclimated to the online world.

Of major concern to journalists and publishers is the almost mortal blow the Internet and digitization have dealt to the traditional business model, one that supported national, regional and local news production. New tech has also eroded intellectual property restrictions that had protected the work of news gathering. Major internet players such as Google and Facebook either stole news copy outright or paraphrased it and delivered it online, often before the source news entity could post or deliver their content. Newsprint, capable only of mass message delivery, lost advertisers, who fled print for the Internet because it could offer more cost-efficient targeting of potential customers with unique messaging. Local newspapers as a business began dying as the 21st century opened and news deserts began to proliferate.

But there is good news. People who care about local news and information have been galvanized by all this. UVM’s Center for Community News (CCN) began to attract and train students in the ethos and practice of journalism and, in so doing, began to replenish local news access around the state.  Young journalists-in-training are getting internship opportunities to work in and for local and regional news organizations, boosting the economic viability of both. In recognition of their importance in training new journalists and supporting startups and existing news organizations, CNN just was awarded a $7 million grant from the Knight Foundation.

Relieved of the escalating expense of printing and paper, more online news organizations began to proliferate around the country and became more economically sustainable, while other news organizations adhered to their paper editions in deference to those of us elders who still like to handle and read a paper edition.

At the same time, nonprofit websites like Vermont’s own began to appear. VTDigger debuted under the visionary leadership of journalist Anne Galloway a year before the first VT Journalism Conference.

Today, many news sites are questioning whether they should switch from “for-profit” to nonprofit, but this question misses the point. As was made clear at the conference, a journalistic enterprise’s success depends entirely on its perceived value to the community it serves, not whether it’s supported by subscription and advertising or by membership and donations.

Vermont has three statewide news services: SevenDaysVT, VTDigger, and Vermont Public. SevenDays is a for-profit and the other two are nonprofit; all three are viable because of their commitment to excellence.

One often-discussed challenge/opportunity is how for-profits might accept donations and have them be tax-deductible to the donor. SevenDaysVT took up the challenge and has secured a fiscal agent that can accept tax-deductible donations and pass them through to the for-profit company. In time, there’s hope that all consumer support of journalism, even a subscription, might become tax deductible.

Senator Welch addressed how government could support local, regional, and national journalism. Tax breaks are not the answer he said, but direct assistance is. He said state and national governments could and should support local journalism financially, as long as there is full transparency.

He also urged that newspapers be a regular part of education   ̶   available in all schools   ̶   and that states fund the cost of subscriptions so that students learn early the value of reliable, fact-based reporting as part of their civics education. This will also cultivate new audiences for news.

Vermont Secretary of State Sarah Copeland Hanzas, also a speaker at the conference, added that states could offer $10,000 awards to local news organizations that excel in their work and thereby make clear to the broader public the value of journalistic excellence. It was also noted that governments spend a great deal online on public messaging, legal notices, and advertising employment opportunities and should include news organizations in their budgets.

Anna Brugmann of Rebuild Local News also addressed the 100 or so journalists in the audience and spoke of their work supporting local news organizations. She noted the severe decline in local news, saying that “since 2000 newspaper revenue has dropped $40B or an 81% decline and she made a strong case that news is a “public good, if not necessity.”

Another issue that surfaced was the convergence of technologies in local news, the fact that many online and broadcast news organizations now offer written, audio, and video news segments. Relatively new, the jury is still out on how this technical convergence will affect news gathering, editing, and distribution.

Perhaps the hit of the day was the presentation of Dale Anglin, the Founder/director of Press Forward, “a national movement to strengthen democracy by revitalizing news and information.” The project links foundations and mission-driven philanthropists to opportunities to sustain the production of local news and information, and does so with full transparency.

Ms. Anglin was joined on the panel by Dan Smith, CEO of the Vermont Community Foundation (VCF), which has just partnered with Press Forward in starting and helping to fund a Vermont chapter. This work is just beginning, he said, so resources available to support Vermont-based news and information sites are in the development stage.

Ms. Anglin’s presentation spurred the inevitable question about how one filters out philanthropy that comes with an agenda, and she answered with total transparency.

In an age when religious, conservative, and progressive evangelists are buying or starting “news” services, the issue of reliable, fact-checked news becomes even more critical. Sinclair Broadcasting Group owns or operates 185 radio and TV stations in all U.S. markets and is known for its conservative bent in news production. In 2017, WCAX was sold to Atlanta-based Gray Television Inc., which owns or operates 180 stations in 113 markets. This trend towards national consolidation of local news can be seen as another threat to reliable local news organizations.

Perhaps what was most compelling about Ms. Anglin’s delivery was her humility, as she explained that, as Director of Press Forward, she was constantly learning about new challenges and opportunities. It was refreshing to hear this from an active and open innovator.

Dan Smith made clear that partnering with Press Forward was intrinsic to the VCF’s own agenda of supporting Vermont communities.

“In being selected as a local chapter of Press Forward, the Community Foundation is committing to create a shared vision and coordinated action for Vermont. Over the next five years, Press Forward Vermont will work with and learn from media outlets across the state, support collaborations and innovative approaches, engage with policymakers, and foster local, state, and regional philanthropic support. The collective goal is to work together to support Vermont’s media landscape so that what is in place in five years is more comprehensive, more accessible, and more financially secure.”

The next event was a panel of active Vermont newsroom leaders who shared their thoughts with the audience on what is working for their organizations: Seven DaysVT, VTDigger, WCAX Channel 3, Vermont Public, White River Valley Herald. Roger Garrity of WCAX spoke in depth of his collaborative efforts at sharing stories generated by other news organizations like VTDigger, SevenDaysVT and Vermont Public. He also made clear that the acquisition by Gray in no way affected his choice of relevant news stories.

As a closing task, the 20 or so tables in the room were ordered to scramble guests and two young journalists from CCN joined our table. I spoke at length with a young journalist named Busy Anderson. Listening to her lifted my spirits, another moment that helped eclipse the previous day’s disappointment. She spoke with deep commitment to an ethos of fact-based journalism and truth-telling and made clear her personal commitment to do everything in her power to build her career in its support. She had the fire in the belly that assures both her success and, with luck, the survival of journalism as a fundament of democracy.

I left the conference with new hope for our democracy. Thanks to all who made this bright day possible.

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