By Lisa Scagliotti
The Waterbury Reader weekly newspaper, published by the Times Argus featuring stories and photos from the Waterbury Roundabout online news site, ceases publication with the September 23 edition.
In announcing this decision, Times Argus executive editor Steven Pappas writes to readers: “This has been a very hard decision, especially since readers in the community continually thank us for mailing the newspaper to their home every week."
The free weekly paper has been mailed to households in the zip codes serving Waterbury and sections of the adjacent communities of Duxbury, Moretown and Bolton as a collaborative effort that began in November 2020. The paper has been produced and distributed by the Times Argus. It has provided an opportunity for stories by the online news site WaterburyRoundabout.org to be delivered to local readers in a printed edition.
"This has been such an amazing partnership and it provided us with great opportunities to keep our product in this important Vermont community. But without ongoing advertising support, it is impossible to cover our production, printing, trucking and postage," Pappas explained.
Waterbury Roundabout launched in May 2020, several weeks after the Waterbury Record weekly newspaper ceased its 13 years of publishing at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Its owners, the Vermont Community News Group based in Stowe, said the paper was not financially viable even before the dramatic drop in advertising revenue triggered by the pandemic. The company continues to publish five other weekly papers including the Stowe Reporter.
The decision by the Times Argus came six weeks after the Reader printed a joint message from Waterbury Reader and Waterbury Roundabout editors titled, “We’re invested. Are you?” The message praised the collaboration on covering local news and the desire to keep news coverage free of charge with the caveat: “But we cannot accomplish either of those goals without an investment from the community – and that means ongoing support from our readers and local businesses.”
Given the climate for community newspapers in Vermont and across the country, we are not surprised that this has happened, but we are disappointed. The Roundabout website began as a class project at the University of Vermont in the spring of 2020 as part of the Community News Service journalism internship program. It never envisioned creating a news print newspaper.
Having the Times Argus approach us that year with the idea to supply content to print in a small weekly free publication they were starting seemed like a worthwhile experiment – they would get local stories to print, we would have a steady stream of income, and the community would get back a physical newspaper.
We knew the numbers would be tough given the decision by the Waterbury Record’s publisher that started this chain of events. But it seemed worth a try. Unfortunately, the model hasn’t gained the financial support it needs to be viable. We understand the business decision.
To a great extent, that depends on the community.
WaterburyRoundabout.org isn’t going anywhere – yet. Our operation is an independent nonprofit Vermont corporation registered with the Vermont Secretary of State. Photographer Gordon Miller and I will continue to cover local news stories along with contributions by some of our regular freelance journalists as funding allows. Our digital editor Julia Bailey-Wells, who created the website, continues to work on the site and the weekly email newsletter, This Week in Waterbury. UVM’s internship program will provide an intern or two this semester to get firsthand experience reporting local news at no cost to us.
But all of that still relies on a significant number of volunteer hours. And without revenue from the print edition, that becomes even more tenuous.
Like newspapers everywhere, we are experimenting with different business models to see what combination might work. So far, our other income sources have been reader contributions and one paid weekly business sponsor on our email newsletter.
We are grateful to the readers who have sent us checks and signed up online to chip in with one-time and even monthly contributions. We've already seen an uptick in subscribers since this news came out two weeks ago. But there is still much room for improvement. More than 1,860 people receive our weekly email, for example, yet fewer than 300 readers have contributed this year.
For those considering helping out, know that the Vermont Journalism Trust – the parent nonprofit to VtDigger – is our fiscal sponsor, making contributions potentially tax-deductible depending on how you do your taxes. That sponsorship also can help the Roundabout seek grant funding. In fact, just days after we learned of the Times Argus decision, we received word that a grant request we made in July to the Vermont Community Foundation was approved. We have been awarded a $3,000 Spark grant to use for business development. The timing couldn’t be better.
In the next few weeks, we will be looking at changes to our website to accommodate online sponsors/advertising. It may mean that you see fewer stories posted and our newsletter may be shorter than usual while we focus on the business end of things for a bit.
Ironically, the day before we got this news, we had decided to launch a Local Jobs page on our website to post employment listings. We hope that will help collect the “help wanted” messages from local employers in a convenient spot for job-seekers.
And, as we expand our website to accommodate paid sponsors/advertising, we hope local companies and organizations will see it as a place to connect with the community to get their messages out. We hope to have more details on this part of the operation by early October as we figure it out.
Ultimately, whether Waterbury continues to have a locally-produced source of community news depends on everyone. If there’s interest and financial support, it will take hold.
We don’t plan to stop trying until this truly local operation has given it a wholehearted try. We get that current market conditions don’t support a weekly print paper and all of the overhead that requires. But what about a scrappy website with a few dedicated professionals, talented local freelancers, and eager students?
Scagliotti is the editor of Waterbury Roundabout.