I used to say that the six weeks leading up to the first issue of Seven Days, on September 6, 1995, represented the hardest stretch of my life. Now, mid-pandemic, I'm not so sure.
The challenge of starting this labor-intensive local media company was assembling the pieces within a compressed amount of time: funding, office space, people, sales, production and distribution. The order of the steps was important — each one built on the one before — but the process wasn't as simple as crossing things off a list. It was like building an orchestra, the parts of which were meant to swell into a decent-sounding symphony. But the musicians had never played together. Neither Pamela Polston nor I had ever held a baton. And we were attempting to perform on a set date that had been widely publicized.
Adding to the pressure: recognizing faces in the audience. That is, we were spending other people's money and hiring employees without knowing how long we could afford to pay them.
A few folks didn't like the music, including my then-husband, but other spectators filled their empty seats. Pretty soon we needed a bigger concert hall.
The digital archive on our website includes the contents of every Seven Days since the inaugural issue. Reviewing 25 years of cover images recalls the weekly struggle behind each one of them: finding a dozen or so good story ideas, convincing people to report and photograph them, making the result readable and visually appealing. And, of course, selling enough advertising to pay for it all.
On top of those fundamental publishing challenges were so many others over the years: staffing up, quality control, collections, getting ad agencies to take us seriously. Circa 2000, we got caught up in the world wide web. While it facilitated fact-finding and made Seven Days accessible to readers everywhere, the internet threatened our business model in every possible way.
Craigslist, Match.com, indeed, cars.com and others targeted our classifieds, personals, employment and retail advertising. Heeding the warning "If you're not on the web, you don't exist," we pushed ourselves to keep up with the digital arms race, feverishly adapting our original content to be deliverable on multiple platforms.
Today we're breaking news at sevendaysvt.com, as well as showcasing videos we've produced, linking to public records databases we've built, and promoting virtual job fairs and home-buying seminars we've organized. It's hard to imagine what we'd do without all this connectivity — especially since it's enabled us to continue producing a finely crafted newspaper while working remotely.
COVID-19 has made just about everything else about our work much more difficult, from protecting the people who cover the news and distribute the paper to managing a precipitous drop in advertising revenue related to events and food-service businesses. As in the fall of 1995, we face an existential challenge — only now with so much more to lose.
Our talented and dedicated staff — pictured on the rocks by the bridge that connects Burlington and Winooski — is producing some of the best newspapers in our company's history. Since 2010, we've helped 16 of them become owners, ensuring that they're invested in the future of our shared enterprise.
Government loans and grants have supplemented our ad revenue, helping to keep us all employed. So, too, have donations from our 1,950 Super Readers. Total reader contributions during the pandemic have reached almost $150,000, with recurring donations generating more than $2,000 a week — roughly the equivalent of two reporter salaries. The snail-mail checks and accompanying love notes have been huge motivators for all of us.
For a quarter of a century, we have managed to produce and distribute a weekly newspaper that aspires to magazine quality, to be "the New Yorker of the north," as a contest judge once described Seven Days — except it's free.
Please help us sustain this community resource by becoming a Super Reader. We're in for another 25 years if you are.