Hardwick newspaper sells headquarters, pins hopes on citizen journalists to survive pandemic
The 132-year-old Hardwick Gazette is moving toward a fully remote newsroom.
The weekly newspaper serves the towns of Hardwick, Greensboro, Cabot, Marshfield, Craftsbury and other small Northeast Kingdom communities. Its owner has recently listed its building for sale to save money on overhead.
If it sells, owner and editor Ray Small plans to use to use part of those profits towards continuing its online platform, which the paper pivoted to during the pandemic.
Small spoke with VPR's Mary Engisch about the paper's plans to go fully remote, the challenges it faces and the paper's path forward. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Engisch: Before we dive in, Ray, in 2016, former Hardwick Gazette owner Ross Connelly held a much publicized contest. You participated in it. You began a correspondence then with the paper's previous owner. Tell us what happened next.
Ray Small: The initial intent was the contest winner would then get the win the paper and the building and as the initial publicity said, "any propane that's left in the tanks."
And I participated in the essay contest, but it didn't reach the threshold. But that got me in touch with Ross. So I started talking to him and after some initial discussions, my wife and I decided, "Sure, let's move to Vermont to a town in a region where we have no ties whatsoever, and try to save the newspaper."
OK, so now you're here, running this weekly newspaper, the Hardwick Gazette, knowing then, as now, that it's no secret that small local newspapers are in dire straits nationwide.
Well, according to Poynter.org, which covers things like this, in the last 15 years, 1,800 newspapers have closed in the United States. Of those 1,800, 1,700 have been weeklies. We're a weekly.
When I took over the paper, it was losing money. And we were slowly clawing our way back to at least break even. And then COVID hit.
COVID wiped out 90% of our revenues, ad revenues. They really haven't come back.
One of the things we had to do is very reluctantly abandon our print edition. And so we're online only, we're digital only.
The physical newspaper, you know, where we put ink on paper and distribute it, that had a lot of appeal for local advertisers. And when that went away, I think some of that appeal went away.
You know, the rule of thumb is what used to cost a dollar in ad space in a newspaper costs 10 cents or less once you move to digital rates.
And so to the extent that we still have digital advertising, that further erodes our advertising revenue.
And then finally even towns like Hardwick, a lot of the public notices put in on a paid basis, no longer ran in the Gazette because we weren't putting ink on paper, we weren't a physical paper anymore. And so that's caused further erosions.
What does the paper mean to the community?
We're going to get that answer over the next couple of months, the next six to 12 months.
The proposition is, if the communities we cover, if you want the paper to continue, we need you to step up and help put out the paper.
There's a lot of research and a lot of opinions in terms of the value of a weekly newspaper — the fact that it holds government accountable, you know, all the way to voter participation goes down after a local weekly dies.
So, there are a lot of big issue things that are in play here. But, you know, for Hardwick and for the surrounding towns, the question to the communities really is: Do you want the Gazette to continue? And, we'll find out what the answer to that is.
Where do you see new revenue streams coming from?
There are no truly new ideas. There's just new ways of applying old ideas. We are applying for a 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, so that we can raise funds through donors. We'll be looking for driving more subscriptions and less advertising revenue.
That's less of a strategic decision then it's simply a fact that's already happened because of COVID.
And Ray, what is the path forward for the Hardwick Gazette?
I think that the key to the survival of the Gazette is it's not necessarily a new approach — but it's a new approach for the Gazette and it's something that we tested several years ago — having the communities in essence cover themselves, partially because of local demand, partially because of looking forward to this day, which has now arrived.
We ran some special sections once a month in the towns of Greensboro and Craftsbury. And have the local residents cover their towns. We had great response. I still edited every piece and we did the professional layouts and residents choosing the topics do a much better job than a Gazette correspondent who has limited bandwidth to cover any particular town.
And it just becomes incumbent on me on recruiting those volunteer journalists, still holding the line on editorial content and making sure that we continue to cover not just the things that are happening in each town, which are of interest to the most people. We still cover the school board meetings. We still cover the select board meetings. It's entirely possible.
Closing the building is not a an indication that the end is nigh. Closing the building is just a step to make sure that the end in fact is not nigh.