Volunteers Launch 'Waterbury Roundabout' To Fill News Desert Left By COVID-19
After the Waterbury Record published its last issue in late March, a group of volunteers has started a community news site to try and fill the void.
The weekly newspaper had been around in its latest iteration for the last 13 years, but according to its publisher, it was never profitable and the coronavirus crisis quickly added to its financial challenges. Enter the Waterbury Roundabout.
VPR's Henry Epp spoke with journalist Lisa Scagliotti, one of the founders of the Waterbury Roundabout. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Henry Epp: How did the idea for the Waterbury Roundabout come about?
Lisa Scagliotti: The announcement at the end of March, when the Waterbury Record folded, was really a surprise to everyone in the community. Even others, other journalists, everybody knows that weekly newspapers are not goldmines. They're not super stable businesses these days. It's always a very difficult industry to be in. But no one expected it to just disappear as quickly as it did.
And so we kind of looked around and realized that this is a bad time to not have local news. And I've been working with students at the University of Vermont, which is sort of what was the inspiration for this, is that I work as a mentor with students who are interested in journalism and are working on producing news stories for local media, both print and online outlets. And, you know, we looked around and we thought, "Why couldn't some of our attention be focused now on doing stories about Waterbury?"
And so how has that worked with UVM students? Have they been doing some of the reporting around town?
A little bit. Although given the fact the way the timing has worked out, just like everyone else, students were forced to basically start to do their work from home by mid-March. So I've had a little bit of contributions on the writing end from students so far. The biggest contribution was in building the website.
I've done a bunch of the reporting so far. I had a few stories by another one of our students. Summer term begins June 1st and there'll be a new group of students who'll be part of this program. And so I feel like by the time they get on out in a couple of weeks, that's when we'll really be able to hit the ground running.
This is all students and volunteers in this effort, right?
Right. Well, the students themselves that are in the program, most of them are in it for credits. So it's part of their regular semester. For myself, I'm volunteering my time. I have a couple other partners here in the community. You know, people have asked about whether and how this may become a sustainable business operation, and that would be fantastic down the road. But we feel like there really wasn't time to sort of sort all that out when there's so much news to cover.
You know, I don't think that we can essentially replace a weekly newspaper 'cause our resources just aren't what a newspaper would have at their disposal. But I feel like we could try to hit the main things. Anybody in any town, Vermont or anywhere in America right now, could start asking the same questions that we're going to be asking here of pretty much everyone that's been affected by this big disruption in our lives.
Do you think this is something that can remain present in the long run and be a vital source of information for the Waterbury community?
I think so. I hope so. You know, we've had some conversations about, you know, looking at different models of how local news can be delivered. I mean, you don't have to look very far to see what a great job VTDigger, for example, has done.
We need to consider and sort of brainstorm the business model. Does it look like its own little standalone business? Does it become a little nonprofit of its own? Those are all good questions that we can kind of sort through as we as we move ahead. But I think part of that is to just start doing the work and see what people make of it and see where it goes.
And just finally, is there room for paying journalists in the future through this project?
I hope so. I mean, that would be the goal, would be to have a model that we're able to have some funding that could also help support paying freelancers. Even to be able to pay students who have gone through the program and have now graduated or are no longer working as an intern, that they may still want to contribute. And it'll be nice to be able to pay them for their efforts as well.