Rutland Herald Financial Turmoil Raises Concerns About Paper's Future
The Rutland Herald may be facing serious financial trouble. On Friday, the paper ran an article that reported bounced paychecks for some of the news staff. That same day, longtime news editor Alan Keays was fired for approving a follow up story.
No news of Keays' firing or the paper’s money situation was in Saturday or Sunday’s paper.
Many in the community are concerned at what it means for the oldest, continuously published family-owned paper in the country.
A block away from the Herald’s newsroom, Bridget Scott, owner of the Speakeasy Café, says speculation about what’s going on at the city’s newspaper is troubling.
"I shudder to think what would happen if they close their doors." -Bridget Scott of Rutland's Speakeasy Cafe
“I’m really concerned about that,” she says. “Obviously I’m not really aware of what’s going on over there, but so many people on staff there come here to get their coffee and so many people come here looking for the paper - when they come in the door they look straight to the rack to see if the paper is there and I shudder to think what would happen if they close their doors. “
No current Herald reporters would comment for this story, but Jack Crowther, who worked at the Rutland Herald for 22 years as a reporter and city editor, says he’s spoken with a number of Herald employees who are upset and worried the paper is in dire shape. “There seems to be a lot of anger from not being told what’s going on. And my sense is there’s a fomenting rebellion against that,” says Crowther.
A knowledgeable source who asked not to be identified said for the last month employees were finding paychecks were bouncing, freelance writers were not getting paid and expense accounts were not being covered.
When employees asked management for answers, the source said staff meetings were promised but not scheduled.
An email to all Herald employees from CEO Catherine Nelson dated Aug. 1 said, “We don’t want to keep you in a holding pattern and have not been able to figure out a good time for a standup meeting as of yet.“
On Thursday, Aug. 4, the Herald’s business manager, Deborah Morse, sent out an email saying paychecks would not be directly deposited as usual, but handed out in physical form the next day.
That set off alarm bells among many staff, say the source, especially for those who had previously had checks bounce.
"If things had been more hopeful they would have reassured people." - former Herald reporter and editor Jack Crowther
Sources say news editor Alan Keays was troubled that other news agencies were beginning to cover the paper’s financial difficulties and he wanted the Herald to write a follow up story. But top management balked.
Keays was called into a meeting with the paper’s President and Chairman R. John Mitchell and CEO and Vice President Catherine Nelson on Friday afternoon and was fired when he would not agree to drop the story.
Keays verified the reasons for his firing but wouldn’t comment further. Others currently working for the paper refused to comment.
Listen to Alan Keays' conversation with VPR on Monday morning: Rutland Herald's News Editor Speaks About His Dismissal
Neither Nelson nor Mitchell responded to requests for comment for this story.
Last month the paper cut back its print editions to four days a week to save money. Not long after, on July 15, editor Rob Mitchell sent out an email saying the paper had experienced cancelations in the double digits since the switch. But the email went on to say the paper had also seen a rise in digital traffic, which Mitchell expected would continue.
While the email showed some cautious optimism, the future of the Pulitzer Prize-winning paper seems very much in question.
Bruce Edwards, a freelance reporter who worked for the Herald for 27 years, says the lack of transparency for those working at the paper is disappointing.
“As a media outlet and institution for well over 200 years in this community and in this state, the Rutland Herald, its ownership, the publisher had an obligation to level with its employees about its financial difficulties,” he said.
Edwards believes no matter what happens, the paper's image has been damaged and he says that will be hard to repair.
Jack Crowther says at this point it's all speculation since no one in management has made a statement, but he’s not optimistic about the paper’s future. “The behavior of the management makes me think it’s very serious.” Adds Crowther, “If things had been more hopeful they would have reassured people.”
Update 2:21 p.m. At a meeting for Rutland Herald employees Monday morning, Editor-in-Chief Rob Mitchell read the following statement to staff:
I want to first of all acknowledge that this has been a very difficult few weeks for all of you and for these newspapers. The uncertainty has weighed on all of you, and on us. You may wonder why we have rescheduled this meeting repeatedly. The simple, honest answer is that we have had a lot of work to do, each and every day, and wanted to ensure that any information provided to you was accurate. Our priority through all of this has been to preserve these newspapers and to make sure that our employees are paid, and we meet our obligations. We have worked tirelessly on that and have done that.
Yes, several employees had manual checks bounce. As was reported in the story Friday, we have been late paying expenses, and we have been late paying freelancers. None of that has been easy for you, for our drivers and it has not been easy for me or my father. I walked over to the bank with several of you to make sure you got paid. We have written letters for employees whose checks bounced, to make sure that your banks know that it was an issue between the newspapers and our lender, not your fault. Personally, this has been embarrassing, humiliating and difficult, as I'm sure it has been for many of you. If you hare having any additional difficulties, you need to bring those directly to our attention in a one on one basis so that we can address those issues directly with our lender.
We are all tired, and if you're like me, you've lost a significant amount of sleep. But all our employees have been paid, and employee expenses have been paid. While it may look bad from the outside, it's not as bad as it looks.
At this point, there are still things we can't talk about, for a variety of reasons. Rather than focus on what we can not yet openly discuss, I am going to try to focus today instead on what we can talk about – the overall direction and the future of these newspapers. There is a future for these newspapers. The context to where we are right now is important. We started this year with a general plan that is designed to bridge our newspapers to the digital world. It's no secret that these newspapers and newspapers everywhere have had major, life-changing challenges. On top of this transition, we've had to deal with a flood that destroyed our press and a lot of other problems that are out of our control.
It has always been my family's intention to do whatever possible to ensure these newspapers make the transition to a new business model. We have worked on this plan over the course of the last few years, and have started putting it in place. In March, we launched the Business Vermont web site, an online iteration of the New England Business Journals. In May, we reconfigured and improved the Sunday newspaper, and launched our first consumer-focused mobile app, Go Rutland. In July, we moved to four days of print publication. We have started a web site redesign that will allow for a modern news workflow.
None of these things were or are easy to pull off. We've accomplished much with your support, your hard work, your diligence and our shared belief that we are here because the mission of the Rutland Herald and Times Argus is important. It's important for all of us to keep that in mind. My family has been a part of the Rutland Herald since 1935. We've been a part of the Times Argus since 1964. These newspapers have had hard times, and have had good times in those years. Through it all, the newspapers, and I believe, my family, have established a long track record of standing for the principles of free speech, government transparency, and of taking principled, public stands on issues that matter to the community at large. That has not changed – it will not change.
What is at stake right now is whether we can prove that a strong, community-oriented news organization can and will continue. I am here because I believe it will, and my career and my heart are dedicated to figuring that out.
Mitchell declined to answer any questions about the situation at the Herald because he has "a lot to focus on in the next couple days."