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A Print News Distributor Gets Leaner — and More Creative — to Survive

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Glenn (left) and Brian Murphy - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Glenn (left) and Brian Murphy

A sign hangs upside down near the idle conveyor belt at the Burlington News Agency's warehouse. Faded but still legible, it reads: "Each Magazine is Money. Count Accurately."

The Colchester-based company once rented 33,000 square feet in an industrial park off Route 2 to store and sort the newspapers and magazines it supplies to stores in northeastern New York and western Vermont. Last month, it occupied less than a third of that space — and stacks of the Burlington Free Press and the New York Times shared the facility with bundles of firewood and palettes of hand lotion.

Founded in 1939 by E.J. Murphy and now run by his grandsons Glenn and Brian, this local distribution operation has long operated under the radar. The Murphys are middlemen who buy periodicals in bulk from publishers, then bring them to stores that sell the publications at a higher price. The brothers get a cut.

Traditionally, a high volume of newsstand sales made that a profitable activity. But as you may have read — perhaps online — the demand for print products is down. Weekday sales of newspapers that the Murphys deliver have declined by more than 30 percent since 2000, and the pair moves half as many Sunday papers as they once did.

Meanwhile, the company's costs — trucks, gasoline, drivers — have remained steady or increased.

Glenn isn't confident that the family business will be around long enough to be handed off to a fourth generation.

"It's getting harder. It's tough in the sense that we sort of don't have any control over it — that's the thing that gets you," Glenn said. "We can't work any harder than we are. We start to feel like the only thing we're doing is keeping the doors open and the lights on and employing people."

Burlington News Agency has around 15 workers, including nine drivers and several part-timers, Glenn said. In its heyday, the company had more than 30 on the payroll. Health and retirement benefits have since been discontinued.

Its niche is shrinking. Newspaper companies usually handle residential deliveries themselves, either through contracted carriers or in-house workers. Seven Days employs drivers who distribute its various free publications at self-serve, drop-off spots.

But commercial accounts that sell paid publications are different. Billing is more complicated, and distributors have to pick up unsold papers and dispose of them. The New York Times, the New York Post, the New York Daily News, the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald rely on the Burlington News Agency to get their product to 287 local retail outlets. When its parent company, Gannett, got out of the retail distribution business five years ago, the Burlington Free Press hired Burlington News Agency to manage its newsstand sales.

But many people who used to buy those publications now read them online. Consolidation hasn't helped, either, Glenn said. When his father ran the business, national wholesalers started supplying publications to grocery stores and other lucrative retailers, which made life more difficult for the smaller independent competitors.

Todd Murphy, who died in 2008, didn't want his boys to follow in his footsteps — the job was too thankless, he told them — and neither did they. But they're both deep in it. On a quiet Thursday in June, a map of New England covered Glenn's desk and, on top of that, multiple yellow legal pads, post-it notes and an open can of Monster energy drink. The 47-year-old Colchester resident wore a flannel shirt, jeans and a gray baseball cap that hung low over his lean face as he described how he and his brother ended up where they are.

After graduating from Syracuse University in 1994, Glenn was working for a shipping and transportation company in Connecticut, building his own life. In 1996, he got an urgent call from his father back in Vermont.

Almost overnight, a few large distributors had swallowed up several of Burlington News Agency's competitors and were pressuring magazine chains to sign distribution deals, Glenn said. Without warning, independent distributors such as Burlington News Agency lost as much as half their revenue.

Glenn's father needed some help, he told his son.

"When do you need me?" Glenn recalled asking. In three weeks, his father said. Soon thereafter, he got another call from his dad, who told him: "I need you next week."

The family wasn't confident that the company could hold on for even a few more months. But it managed to survive. After graduating from Ithaca College the same year, Brian joined the effort.

Burlington News Agency held out while other competitors disappeared or got bought out by larger firms. Today, it is one of only two independent wholesalers in New England that still deliver both magazines and newspapers.

Four years ago, the Murphys expanded their product line. Using the same fleet of drivers who supply stores with periodicals, Burlington News Agency started selling small bundles of firewood and kindling for campfires under the Cold Hollow Ranch brand.

Then the brothers asked themselves: What else do people need around campfires?

The answer: bug spray. Through a friend of a friend, Glenn got in touch with a chemist, who created a recipe for a natural insect repellent. The venture was unusual for a print distribution company, but the Murphys were determined to come up with their own products to sell.

It was a small leap from the bug spray business to lotion. The brothers contracted with Jeffersonville's Vermont Natural Formulations to create Vermont Lotion Company, which now offers a full array of natural insect repellents, lotions and lip balms in 50 stores from Northfield to Champlain, N.Y.

Burlington News Agency has also started delivering for two food companies: Divine Desserts in Williston and Klinger's Bread Company in South Burlington.

The two brothers chuckle at the sight of their delivery trucks loaded with "moisturizing hand lotion with shea butter and Vitamin B" alongside crossword puzzle books and the New York Times. But they are willing to try anything. Sales of their newer products have been decent, Glenn said, but nowhere near enough to replace the revenue they once made from publications.

"It's not just us; a lot of industries are getting taken out by the internet," said Brian, 45. "The way I look at it is, the nature of the whole economy is changing, but you have to do what you can. And that's what we're trying to do."

Among the company's most loyal customers is longtime state Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle). The Murphy family has stocked publications at Dick Mazza's General Store since it opened in 1954.

Mazza said he used to sell several hundred dollars worth of magazines a week, and around 70 copies of the Sunday Burlington Free Press. Now he is lucky to bring in $100 per week from periodicals. Single sales of the Sunday Free Press have dropped to about a dozen.

"I admire those guys," Mazza said of Burlington News Agency. "They hung in there and they're trying to do their best to keep their employees and trying to survive by diversifying. But I don't know where it's going."

Mazza said sales of the company's firewood have been pretty steady, and he also sells their lotions. The brothers said Mazza made some calls to persuade other area storeowners to carry their products.

"They're not afraid to try something new, and I hope they do very well," Mazza said. "They want to be a Vermont business and they're doing everything they can to make it happen."

Ralph Foss ran a similar wholesale operation, Magazines Inc., in Bangor, Maine, until he went out of business in 2012. He said he admires the Murphy brothers for their ability to stick it out. But he worries about their future. Diversification alone might not be enough to overcome the challenges of operating in a rural area.

"The problem of places like Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont is there's not enough density," Foss said. "There are not a lot of people."

The Murphys understand the challenges — and the reality.

"It's tough, when you've committed so much time and energy into it, to stay positive day in and day out," Glenn said. "But nothing lasts forever, as much as you want it to."


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