Reformer celebrates 100 years of news gathering

Saturday March 2, 2013

Editor's Note: A version of this story first ran in the special Centennial section, printed last fall.

BRATTLEBORO -- On March 3, 1913, it was reported that "An enthusiastic meeting of citizens" was held in Putney to talk about sidewalks and about making plans for a better Putney, according to the day's Brattleboro Reformer.

The town of Brattleboro was getting ready for a controversial vote concerning the downtown, the paper said, and the town's residents were going to discuss a pending issue concerning the schools at the upcoming Town Meeting.

A lot has changed since then ... kind of.

Over the past 100 years the people of Windham County have been grappling with many of the same issues, and every day the Brattleboro Reformer has been there to report about them to its readers.

The paper itself has gone through a number of changes of its own -- in ownership, in its location, and in how it gets the news out every day. And as the Reformer enters its second century it is continuing to grow and change to bring the people in southeastern Vermont their news in a timely and accurate manner.

Day to day

When the Brattleboro Reformer printed its first daily edition on March 3, 1913, it had already gone through a number of transformations and mergers.

The Reformer was first published as the Windham County Reformer, a weekly paper, in August 1876, when Charles Davenport, a local lawyer, decided to print a newspaper to contend with what he saw as the Republican bias in the Vermont Phoenix, the most popular statewide paper at the time.

Davenport was looking to help "Reform" the people in Windham County. Davenport's Reformer started as a weekly, and was published as a semi-weekly between 1897 and 1901.

Howard C. Rice, who would eventually become the first editor of the daily Reformer, bought an interest in the paper in 1905, a few years after the Vermont Printing Co. purchased it from Davenport.

In an historical narrative that he prepared for his family in 1958, Rice said the decision to publish a daily paper in Brattleboro was bold for the time.

"Despite the belief of many local residents that we were crazy in our view that Brattleboro would support a daily newspaper plus our own ignorance of the technique of daily publishing, The Reformer did well from the outset," Rice wrote in his personal history. "At the outset readers accustomed to getting their local news in weekly doses were a bit skeptical of having to read it every weekday evening, but with-out too much resistance these habits changed."

When the Reformer moved to a daily paper, the company also took over one of its main competitors, The Vermont Phoenix, which remained as a companion weekly until 1955.

In an editorial that appeared in the Reformer the week following the first daily edition, staff recognized the new paper's success.

"The Reformer of yesterday was a good illustration of the value of a daily newspaper in the local field," the editors wrote. "That the public appreciated having this news while it was news was shown by the fact that the entire edition of the Daily Reformer was sold out before 6 o'clock."

But producing a newspaper everyday in 1913 in Vermont was not easy and in the following days a number of stories appeared about the Reformer's ever-widening learning curve.

"The Reformer acknowledges with thanks the many complimentary notices that have appeared in the editorial columns of its contemporaries about the new daily," the March 7 paper read. "It is not, however without considerable struggle on the part of both staff and management that the exigencies of the situation are being met. The work is new and the efficiency that comes from experience is yet to be attained."

And on March 10 reporters said, "The Reformer's new press has not arrived, being somewhere in the wilds between here and West Virginia. In consequence the printing of the daily is a much slower process than it will be after the new press is installed and in working order."

"Getting out the paper, more or less by the trial and error technique, was a tough job," Rice wrote in his personal narrative.

Throughout those early years, when editors, reporters and press room operators were figuring out how to publish a daily paper, Rice, who worked at the paper for 47 years, says the county's appetite for local news propelled the experiment forward.

"From the time Vol. 1, No. 1 of the Daily Reformer made its appearance March 3, 1913, a two cent, eight page paper of seven column width with its classified advertisements on the front page, it gradually grew," Rice wrote. "One factor in bringing about the change was the emphasis the management always placed, and still does, on local and regional news. The Reformer still adheres to the policy that local and regional news is the commodity in which readers of a local daily are most interested, as well as a field in which such a newspaper has the best chance of competing with its metropolitan rivals."

Chris Chapman, who grew up in Brattleboro and now serves on the Selectboard, worked at the Reformer from 1972 through 1976. When he started at the paper, while he was still a sophomore at Brattleboro High School, it was Chapman's job to research and write about the paper's and the region's history for a column titled "Events of the Past."

Chapman would read about people like Davenport and Rice who helped establish the Brattleboro Reformer, and others like John Latchis who helped build and develop the town.

"It made me appreciate Brattleboro as an organism that was living and changing," Chapman said about the work he did at the paper in the 1970s. "When you go back 100 years you find that people were engaged in their community, and have been right up to today. They were interested in the arts and in intellectual pursuits. There is a consistent pattern of thought and expression that continues to this day."

The Reformer moved into the American Building Annex in 1907.

In 1964 the business and advertising offices moved to the Main Street side of the American Building and that's where Chapman worked when he was with the paper.

He remembers a busy and ambitious newsroom that served up daily news to the region's hungry readers who were engaged in their community, state and country.

Major news stories like the secret bombings in Cambodia, Watergate and the attempted assassination of President Gerald Ford were all banged out of the paper's teletype machine on Main Street and then printed in the Reformer, which for most of the town, was the primary source of news.

"It was a busy, humming place," Chapman remembers. "There was a lot going on in Brattleboro, and all around the world, and we fit all of it into the paper. We were right in the heart of the community and a lot of information passed through there."

Changes in publishing

and at the Reformer

The Rice family owned the paper until 1966, when Eagle Publishing and the Miller family purchased it. John S. Hooper, who was the son-in-law of Howard Rice and who took over as editor in 1950, helped negotiate the sale of the paper to the Miller family.

Over the next 29 years The Millers oversaw some of the biggest changes at the paper as the Reformer began publishing in the morning, moved out of its Main Street address and then saw as technology completely transformed how the paper was published.

Eagle Publishing, and the Miller family, had a rich history in New England newspapers that went back as far as the Reformer's.

Kelton Miller purchased The Berkshire County Eagle in 1891 and began daily publication of The Berkshire Evening Eagle the following year. The company purchased the Bennington Banner in 1960 and then the Brattleboro Reformer in 1966.

Josephine Howard, former night editor at the Reformer who worked at the paper for 47 years and was there when the Millers took over, said the staff was largely receptive of the change.

"I think we were surprised but we knew they were coming from not so far away," Howard remembers. "We thought it was better than a big national news organization taking over."

Howard said Pete and Don Miller, and then Kelton Miller, would visit the Main Street office, and while they allowed the editorial staff members to make their own decision, they also supported the paper. Soon after the Miller family took over ownership of the Reformer one of the paper's more colorful and well respected editors arrived to steer through the paper through the next two decades of growth and challenge.

Norm Runnion came to the Reformer in 1969 after working for years all over the world for United Press International.

First hired as an assistant to then-editor John S. Hooper, Runnion took over as managing editor in 1971.

He worked at the Reformer for 21 years and retired in 1990.

Runnion ran the paper as southern Vermont was facing a war in Vietnam, a growing environmental movement and an influx of hippies moving in from states farther south.

Runnion made sure the Reformer was on top of every story and that the paper remained vital to the readership.

"He had a very big voice," Howard said. "He knew people in Washington and Montpelier. He was an old-time newspaper man. He was very smart and he gave the paper a very strong voice in southern Vermont."

Linda Ducharme, a former editor who worked at the paper from 1985 through 2002, said Runnion could be found walking up and down Main Street, talking with merchants and state and local officials. He had contacts around the world, as well as in Washington and Montpelier, and Ducharme said that while he could be demanding and impatient, he helped every reporter and editor grow in their work.

"He was a brilliant editor. He was smart and he had incredible instincts," Ducharme said. "He would yell and carry on and curse and make you feel awful, but he'd come in the next day and let you know that you did a good job. I can still picture him sitting at his desk. It was an exciting time."

Under Runnion's leadership the Reformer moved out to Black Mountain Road, and out of its historic offices at 71 Main St., in 1981, and then from an afternoon to a morning paper, which happened the following year.

Runnion said both changes were traumatic for Reformer readers and staff.

The move from an afternoon to a morning paper caused about half of the press room staff to quit and scores of subscribers canceled their subscriptions when they lost their afternoon paper.

"It was like their lives were turned upside down," said Runnion. "It was a shock. People don't like to change what works."

Eventually, the 83-year-old former editor said from his home in Brookfield, Vt., subscribers and Reformer staff members grew to accept, and even embrace the changes.

"I did not want to leave downtown. The move was very traumatic," Runnion said. "I felt that if we were a part of Brattleboro we had to be a part of Brattleboro, but in the end we liked the new building. It just took a little time. Everyone was able to adjust eventually."

It was during these years that the newspaper industry was going through a transformational change in how the printed words were placed on the page.

George Class started at the Reformer in the composing room in 1964 and he worked there for 33 years.

He remembers the loud clacking of the linotype machines, the smell of the vats of hot lead that were used to form the type and the steady physical work of putting the pages together word by word that included swinging heavy arms of hot lead back and forth.

"There were so many moving parts. It's hard to explain today," he said, laughing at the outdated work. "You had to be fast and you had to be careful. I think I still have scars from the hot lead jumping out."

He was there in October of 1969 when the Reformer was printed using an offset press for the first time after 56 years of being printed with type cast from hot metal.

As the linotype machines were replaced by computers Class says the early machines were unreliable and challenging to master.

He was sent to Boston to receive training on the new computers but they would ultimately crash and it was not as simple to fix as a linotype machine, which Class said he could always get working again.

"We had no idea at the time that everything would be changing so fast," he said. "You could do a lot more, and do it so much faster. As soon as you got used to one thing, it was like, holy cow, here comes something else."

The next 100 years

Eagle Publishing announced in late 1994 that it would look for buyers and in August 1995 a Brattleboro Reformer headline announced that Media News Group was going to purchase the paper for $4.5 million which was part of a $21.7 million deal for all of the Eagle assets. Media News Group, owned by Dean Singleton, controlled papers around the country and the controversial deal included staff layoffs and salary reductions.

Since then the newspaper industry has been going through historic challenges as advertising revenue has dropped while print, paper and energy costs rise every year.

At the same time, the 24 hour news cycle is demanding more from news organizations and people are getting their news through an ever growing list of sources.

Still, current Executive Editor Tom D'Errico sees similarities in the Reformer's mission over the past century.

"It's funny, because just as this newspaper's first editor put it 100 years ago, I have (until recently) unknowingly echoed his sentiments to this day," D'Errico said, "these days, people can and will get their national and world news anywhere they want. But the Reformer's focus on local news, events, people and issues -- then and now -- makes us just as valuable as we were in 1913."

The Reformer, and every other paper in the country, is now challenged to make its way into the new world.

Today Runnion said he reads the New York Times everyday on his tablet, and he regularly visits the Huffington Post and other online blogs and new sources.

"You can't move fast enough to get out of the way of the stampede that's coming," he says. "I like to touch a newspaper, but I have no choice. It's just hard to catch up."

He laments the loss of physical newsprint, but at the same time understands that behind every story he reads on his computer is a reporter doing very much what his reporters were doing 40 years ago.

"We're still sending reporters to meetings, and when there's a fire we send a reporter to cover it and read about the next day," he said. "The basic skills are still there. We're doing the same stuff. We just have different ways of doing it."

Reformer Publisher Ed Woods says the paper is embracing the historic transformation that newspapers and other print media are going through.

In many ways, Woods says, the paper is just continuing its work that has led from hot metal typesetting to the offset press to computerized printing, and now to more online publishing.

"It would be impossible not to embrace the change," he said. "We have been in the industry of delivering news for a long time, and people now access that news in many ways. Our company is offering the best solutions given the changes that we are all facing."

Still, while the steady move to online content gets stronger by the day, Woods says it will probably be another generation before print is completely abandoned.

He said it is a challenge to operate with a foot in each world, but in many ways the Brattleboro Reformer is taking the same risks that Charles Davenport and Howard Rice took about 100 years ago, when the local readers "were a bit skeptical of having to read it every weekday evening," as Rice wrote.

"A lot is changing in this industry, but our core responsibility is not changing at all," Woods said. "In the next 100 years we are probably going to change over completely from print, but what we do in reporting the news and providing information will not change. Only the way we deliver the news will evolve."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at or at 802-254-2311 ext. 279. Follow his on Twitter @HowardReformer.

A collection of photographs from the Brattleboro Reformer 100th anniversary on Friday, March 1, 2013. Photographs by Zachary P. Stephens.


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