This article is by Randolph T. Holhut, staff writer for The Commons, where it was published in issue #193 (Wednesday, March 6, 2013).
BRATTLEBORO — The Brattleboro Reformer celebrated its 100th anniversary as a daily newspaper with cake, coffee, and an open house for well-wishers on March 1.
For Publisher Ed Woods, the fact that a small town in Vermont has held on to its daily newspaper while other major cities have seen their daily papers cut back in publishing frequency, or close down altogether, is a testament to the uniqueness of Windham County.
“Southern Vermont is different from the rest of the country,” said Woods, who has been the Reformer’s publisher since 2008. “We’re providing news and information in the way that our customers request it.”
That means delivering a paper-and-ink edition of the Reformer every day but Sunday, while gradually building up an audience that wants its news online.
According to the most recent circulation figures for the Reformer by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the paper’s total average daily circulation was 6,756 print editions and 1,093 digital editions, or a total of 7,849 as of March 31, 2012.
For the Saturday Weekend Reformer, circulation was 8,155 print and 1,091 digital for a total of 9,246.
By comparison, in the March 31, 2007, report, total average circulation was 9,684 on weekdays and 10,709 on Saturdays.
Although print circulation is down, Executive Editor Tom D’Errico is quick to point out that the digital reach of the paper is growing.
The paper currently has 6,000 followers of its Facebook page, which D’Errico said it is using as a breaking news site that complements www.Reformer.com, and there are 1,200 subscribers to the paper’s Twitter feed.
“These things didn’t exist for us two and a half years ago,” said Woods. “Social media is bringing our news to a new audience. The transition to digital is going to happen, but it’s going to happen more slowly here.” He cited the slow progress of bringing universal broadband coverage to southern Vermont, and the older population of the county that still prefers a paper-and-ink news source.
D’Errico, who became the managing editor of the Reformer in 2007, said that social media — Facebook, Twitter, and the like — has become critical to the way his paper gathers and disseminates the news. “That’s how people tip us off to stories now,” he said. “It’s easy and instantaneous, compared to email or a phone call.”
And, with a newsroom that is smaller than it used to be, it allows the four full-time reporters to cover more ground than before.
Although the Reformer published its first daily edition on March 3, 1913, the paper had long history prior to that date.
Charles Davenport, a stalwart Democrat, started The Windham County Reformer in 1876 as a weekly paper to counter what Davenport believed was the pro-Republican bias of The Vermont Phoenix — then the dominant weekly newspaper in Brattleboro.
Howard C. Rice bought an interest in the paper from Davenport in 1905, and two years later, moved it into the American Building on Main Street — the Reformer’s home for the next seven decades until it moved to its present location on Black Mountain Road in October 1981.
Few had faith that Brattleboro could support its own daily paper, but Rice eventually convinced Windham County that it could consume its news in daily bites, and like it. That began in 1913, when the Phoenix and Reformer merged. The Phoenix continued as the weekly edition of the Reformer until it was discontinued in 1955. By that point, the daily Reformer’s circulation had grown from less than 2,500 to more than 7,000.
Rice stepped down as editor and publisher in 1950 and was succeeded by John S. Hooper. The Rice family continued to own the paper until 1966, when it was purchased by the Miller family, owners of The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass.
Under the Millers, the changes came fast and frequent. Offset printing was introduced in 1969, and molten lead and Linotypes gave way to computerized typesetting and paste-up. Typewriters gave way to video display terminals in the late 1970s. The biggest change of all, besides the move to the new plant off Putney Road, was the switch from afternoon to morning publication in 1982.
All of these changes were overseen by Norman Runnion, who started at the Reformer as Hooper’s assistant in 1969 and became the managing editor in 1971.
By the time the Reformer celebrated its 75th anniversary as a daily in 1988, circulation had grown to more than 10,000. Runnion retired two years later, leaving a legacy of building what former Boston Globe editor Tom Winship once called the best small newspaper in New England.
But the next big change came in 1995, when the Miller family sold the paper to Denver-based MediaNews Group (MNG), ending more than eight decades of local ownership.
Change is constant
In the years since the sale of the paper to MediaNews Group, the paper has made the change from analog to digital, in the design of its news pages as well as its photography.
Delivery of the news changed also. The World Wide Web went from a curiosity to a disruptive force in publishing in the space of a decade, and papers large and small have scrambled to keep up.
Meanwhile, MNG acquired the Town Crier family of free weeklies in the late 1990s, and expanded the Black Mountain Road plant to accommodate their new purchase. They also bought the Original Vermont Observer, another weekly, in the mid-2000s. The papers were ultimately merged into one weekly, and were discontinued in 2012.
But for all the turmoil of a changing industry, and changing economics, the Reformer endures. With MNG joining the Journal Register Company to form Digital First Media in 2011, there has been a greater emphasis on transforming the two newspaper companies into one online media company.
“John Paton [the CEO of Digital First] has brought to us a business model to make the transition to digital media,” said Woods. “We are beginning to see the resources arrive here to make that transition. Our mission to provide the news hasn’t changed, just the way we deliver the news.”
And both Woods and D’Errico say they have come to realize what a humbling experience it is to run a newspaper that people still feel passionate about, and are quick to offer an opinion about.
“A lot is changing in this industry, and it is impossible not to embrace the change,” said Woods. “But our core responsibility is not changing at all.”
“Small-town newspapers offer something that can’t be found anywhere else,” said D’Errico. “While big city newspapers are struggling, our focus on local news makes us as valuable today as we were in 1913.”