The Hardwick Gazette, the 132-year-old weekly newspaper of record in its namesake Northeast Kingdom town, will sell its building and shift to a remote newsroom to save money.
Ray Small, the editor and owner, said Tuesday that the Gazette’s advertising revenues dropped by 90 percent after the pandemic hit, “and they really haven’t come back.”
The Gazette stopped publishing a print version in the spring of 2020 but continued publishing a digital edition online, available for a small fee. In last week's issue, the paper announced its plans to close its offices, along South Main Street, on December 31. The paper has been published since 1889.
There are no plans to stop publishing altogether, Small said, though the paper is losing money. In fact, he'd like to bring back the print version someday.
"We’re fine, all things considered," he said.
The paper covers Hardwick, a burg of about 3,000 people, and 10 other NEK towns. When the Gazette stopped putting out the hardcopy paper, it lost revenue from legal notices it printed for local towns.
Small said he's working on making the Gazette into a nonprofit so that donations are tax-deductible. The paper is also looking for volunteer journalists to cover neighboring towns, something the Gazette was doing before the pandemic in Greensboro and Craftsbury.
"It was a sub-section written by and for the people, and we had photographs and poems and cartoons, and it was really quite a nice little issue dedicated to the towns," he said. "And that was to prove the point that if need be, we could actually have towns cover themselves for most things."
The Gazette lists 17 employees or contributors on its masthead, including nine contributing writers and a cartoonist.
"Ultimately, the future of the Gazette will rest with the residents of each town," Small was quoted in the story about the building closure. "If we can replicate the success of the pre-pandemic volunteer efforts in Greensboro and Craftsbury, we may avoid shutting down the Gazette."
The paper drew international attention in 2016 when former owner Ross Connelly offered to hand over the operation to the winner of an essay contest. Entrants were asked to describe, in 400 words or less, their "skills and vision for owning a newspaper in the new millennium."
The gimmick was ultimately unsuccessful, but Small, who lived in Connecticut at the time, was one of the entrants. He and his wife worked out a deal with Connelly, and the sale went through in early 2017.
Although the Gazette's printing press was moved to the Shelburne Museum decades ago, the building remains a repository of obsolete newspaper technologies, with letter blocks in wooden cases and a Monotype machine. And the basement is home to a massive paper-cutting machine with a huge blade. Small doesn't expect that to go anywhere, whatever happens with the building.
"I don't see how that doesn't get found by aliens 2,000 years from now right where it is," he said.
Small local newspapers have been hit hard in the last two decades by the advent of online advertising, including free services such as Craigslist that replaced the lucrative classified ad sections. The Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a nonprofit research organization in Florida, reported on December 2 that about 1,800 newspapers have closed in the United States since 2004 — about 1,700 of which, like the Gazette, were weekly papers.
The Columbia Journalism Review reported that half of all U.S. counties, or 1,540, have only one newspaper, usually a weekly. The Review said almost 200 counties in the U.S. have no newspaper at all.
There are also success stories. After the Waterbury Record shut down in March 2020, a local newspaper veteran started the online Waterbury Roundabout. The outlet collaborates with a research and journalism project at the University of Vermont and works in partnership with the Times Argus in neighboring Montpelier. The Roundabout produces content for a weekly print product that is distributed through the Times Argus to residents in Waterbury's two zip codes.
The online news org recently reached an agreement with the Vermont Journalism Trust that enables the Roundabout to receive tax-deductible donations.
Despite all the partnerships, the Roundabout isn’t making enough money to cover its expenses, said editor Lisa Scagliotti, who works long hours for a weekly salary of $300. She's still not sure a small local paper can thrive in the face of all the new obstacles, but she hopes to find out.
“It’s all a work in progress. Everybody is trying different things,” Scagliotti said. “A lot of the old formulas aren’t holding up, so a lot of us are starting to go off in our own directions.”
Corrections: A previous version of this story contained an incorrect word in one of Small's quotes. It also incorrectly reported the population of Hardwick, which is about 3,000 people. And, due to incorrect information from a source, the article misidentified the Monotype machine.