BRATTLEBORO — A multimedia exhibit celebrating publishing in Brattleboro kicked off on Friday with a forum featuring a discussion about the current state of newspapers.
“Brattleboro was lucky,” said Randy Holhut, deputy editor for The Commons, a nonprofit weekly that has been published in town since 2006. “You don’t know how close this town came to not having a newspaper.”
In 2016, a group of investors based in the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts purchased the Reformer from Digital First Media, which itself was controlled by Alden Capital, a hedge fund described by Vanity Fair as “a vampire that bleeds newspapers dry.”
The partnership, New England Newspapers Inc., acquired the Reformer, the Bennington Banner, the Manchester Journal, and its flagship, The Berkshire Eagle, in Pittsfield, Mass., and stabilized the four papers after years of cuts that resulted in diminished coverage. Earlier this year, Paul Belogour, a software entrepreneur who relocated to the area from Boston in 2008, purchased the three Southern Vermont properties under the umbrella of Vermont News and Media.
Jeff Potter, the editor-in-chief of The Commons, said this area “is just a fantastic place to be producing a newspaper. There is no better place than Brattleboro to get all of the issues we are facing socially, economically and politically. It’s a small town while being worldly.”
He also noted, “with the highest degree of reverence and appreciation for voices that are somewhat out of the mainstream,” the area is populated by a disproportionate number of “fascinating weirdos.”
“One Town, Many Voices: News and Book Publishing in Brattleboro Over Time,” at 118 Elliot Street, is inspired by the new book “Print Town: Brattleboro’s Legacy of Words,” a look at Brattleboro’s long history and ongoing legacy of printing and publishing, as well as the scores of audio stories created by community members for the newly launched Brattleboro Words Trail.
The exhibit was curated by Rolf Parker, Jacqueline Hooper and Lissa Weinmann, and features portraits and mastheads from the first newspaper in Brattleboro — Benjamin Smead’s “Federal Galaxy.” Brattleboro’s history includes Clarina Howard Nichols, one of the nation’s first female newspaper editors, and Howard C. Rice, who began publishing the Reformer as a daily in 1913 from its start as a weekly in 1876.
The exhibit also celebrates the 15-year history of The Commons, one of the first weekly newspapers in the U.S. to embrace a nonprofit model.
Chris Lenois, former host of Green Mountain Mornings on WTSA and the current chairman of Brattleboro Community Television, hosted the Friday night forum, which was part of Gallery Walk.
Lenois, who got his start in journalism writing sports stories for the Reformer, grew up in Vernon and went to Brattleboro Union High School.
“I’m just a news junkie,” he said. “I appreciate the coverage we have here in this community and the blessings of two print media, community radio and community television. It’s really important we continue to support all of these entities.”
In addition to Holhut and Potter, the panel included Melanie Winters, the Reformer’s news editor, Gena Mangiaratti, arts and entertainment editor for Vermont News and Media, and Miles Anton, a high school student and a budding journalist who hosts, with Jonah Bingham, The Climax Hour Radio Show on WVEW, Brattleboro’s community radio station.
“Journalism needs to be an institution,” said Anton, especially at a time when it’s getting harder and harder to discern opinion from facts.
Holhut, who came to Brattleboro in 1989 to work for Norm Runnion at the Reformer and later left for The Commons in 2010, said he came to town when the Reformer had about 100 people working there, with a bureau in Bellows Falls, five reporters in Brattleboro and a proofreader.
That all changed with the internet and hedge funds moving in to maximize profits.
“So many newspapers are owned by financial interests that have absolute zero interest in journalism,” said Holhut.
“Brattleboro is lucky to have two newspapers,” said Winters, who got her first job in journalism in 1989, which she called the “tail end of the heyday” of newspapers before the internet and the hedge funds moved in.
“We have challenges,” she said. “Part of that is we need to do a better job of letting people know that they need us. Studies have shown that communities with newspapers ... have more civic involvement, less corruption, lower taxes and better bond ratings.”
And while the internet has expanded the amount of information that is available to the public, said Holhut, it’s also expanded the amount of misinformation.
“There have always been cranks and idiots and people pushing things,” he said. “The trouble is, it’s faster now. A bit of misinformation can zip around the world before we find out it’s wrong.”
He said newspapers and other traditional media sources can serve as curators of information, to filter out the misinformation.
“Online, it’s like a firehose,” said Holhut. “A newspaper helps turn down the faucet so you can drink out of it without getting your teeth blown off.”
“An essential part of the process is fact checking,” said Potter, adding it’s also a newspaper’s responsibility to sort through disinformation and agenda-driven news, as well.
For instance, he struggled with how to present an event that was billed as information on the harmful effects of critical race theory, which Potter said has been “weaponized” as right-wing propaganda.
Instead of just running the news release as it was presented to The Commons, Potter included information from the Brookings Institute and Media Matters to explain exactly what critical race theory is.
“This is not a question of trying to force a differing opinion,” he said. “It’s saying there are lines in the sand. If it’s just not true, I’m not putting that in the paper. This has nothing to do with where you fall on the political spectrum.”
Mangiaratti said social media has been both a boon and a bane for newspapers.
“It can be really helpful,” she said. “It’s a good way for me to connect with people.”
It also allows her to push events and arts and entertainment news to the internet while focusing on in-depth stories for the print edition.
“I try to focus on the human stories,” she said. “I talk to them and find out what drives them.”
Friday's conversation was recorded by BCTV. To view the conversation click here.