CHITTENDEN COUNTY - The Internet-driven makeover of the American media landscape has begun to ripple through Chittenden County. And while the outlines of the new order have not yet come into focus, it's already clear that the changes could prove profound - even fatal - to some long-established local newspapers.
Early this year, The Burlington Free Press quietly began publishing free weeklies in four suburban communities: Colchester, Essex, South Burlington and Williston. The 12-page broadsheets, each accompanied by a 10-page insert of display and classified ads, are mailed on Friday to every local household that doesn't already subscribe to the daily Freeps.
The move was prompted by a drop in circulation for the daily paper resulting from readers' free access via the Internet to thousands of news sources. The Free Press itself, which is owned by the Virginia-based Gannett Co., can be read online without charge.
Gannett, a global media conglomerate, is taking the same localized approach in many of its 98 other daily-circulation areas in the United States, notes Traci Griffith, a journalism professor at St. Michael's College. "It's part of an attempt by traditional papers to gather readership when they're seeing their readers going off in all different directions," she says.
The Freeps' locally focused weeklies, each of which blares the name of its respective town at the top of its front page, are intended to rope in new advertisers more than new readers, Griffith adds. Dailies are hoping to offset their declining subscription revenues by increasing their income from ads.
"The aim is to get a lock on local advertising," Griffith says. By reaching non-subscribers in each of the targeted towns, the Free Press "can now tell advertisers they've got 100 percent penetration."
Tailoring editorial product to specific communities may also be essential to the survival of old-media outlets, regardless of their size. "Readers in every market in the country say that what they want most is local news," notes Free Press Executive Editor Mike Townsend. "They can get national and international news from any number of sources." Up-to-date local content can't be found so easily on the Internet.
But almost all the stories appearing in the Freeps' four suburban weeklies have already been published in the daily paper - in both its print and online incarnations.
The Williston Free Press carries "really stale news - sometimes up to a month old," says Marianne Apfelbaum, who co-publishes a community weekly, the Observer, in the same town. She describes the Freeps' local editions as "just a wrap for the [advertising] flyers."
Townsend acknowledges that much of the editorial content in his paper's free weeklies qualifies as "re-purposed news." But the local editions do include some photos and police-log entries the daily doesn't carry, he says.
Freeps editors haven't decided whether to produce more original material for the suburban editions, Townsend adds. He notes, however, that recipients of the mailed weeklies are responding to front-page requests for information about local happenings, "so we'll have to see where that takes us."
Besides, Townsend continues, everything appearing in one of the paper's weeklies probably comes as news to its audience. "By definition, they don't read the daily," he points out.
Looked at from another perspective, however, the give-away strategy makes little sense. The Free Press is sending localized versions of itself to residents who have shown no interest in buying the daily paper. How many copies of the new weeklies will go straight into recycling bins?
But even if the new offspring won't win any Pulitzers for reporting, the Free Press' growing emphasis on delivering down-home news does pose a threat to local weeklies that have been catering to their towns for many years. For example, could The Williston Free Press put The Williston Observer out of business?
That's not going to happen, vows Apfelbaum, who co-publishes the Observer with her husband Paul.
Competitive pressure from Gannett, with $7.4 billion in annual revenues, "has really only solidified our position in this community," Apfelbaum says. "Callers are telling us that they don't like it that the Gannett Goliath is trying to squash local papers. If anything, it's led to a boom in advertising for our paper."
The Observer, which the Apfelbaums purchased in 1994, is mailed to all 7000 homes and businesses in Williston each week. The couple also owns The Charlotte Citizen, a free weekly that doesn't have to compete on its own turf with Gannett - yet.
Vermonters, Apfelbaum notes, "are very mindful of buying local." The Observer's readers and advertisers know and resent that the Freeps is owned by a huge out-of-state chain, she says. "Some of the big advertisers who feel they've got to buy space in the Free Press view it as a necessary evil."
St. Michael's prof Griffith isn't so sure that most Chittenden County residents are aware that Gannett owns the area's only daily. She also expresses doubt that the Free Press is widely disdained as a corporate concubine.
"I'd like to think that advertisers will stay true to the vehicles they've been using all along," Griffith says. "But I don't know if that's going to hold up."
George Chamberland, publisher of South Burlington's 30-year-old Other Paper, declined to discuss the advent of The South Burlington Free Press. Susan Reid, editor of both The Colchester Sun and Essex Reporter, referred questions to her weekly papers' owners, Angelo and Emerson Lynn. Neither of the brothers, who also publish the daily St. Albans Messenger and the twice-weekly Addison Independent, responded to requests for comment.
For his part, Townsend rejected suggestions that the Free Press is angling to kill off community weeklies. "They've been competing with us for a long time by publishing free papers," he says of the existing locals. "If they think they can live in a world without competition, that's just not serious."
Moreover, some of the weeklies have banded into "a consortium of their own," Townsend adds. He's referring to the Burlington Area Newspaper Group, through which six local papers, including The Williston Observer and The Other Paper, offer package deals to advertisers. "BANG has been a huge boon for us," Apfelbaum affirms.
Her own paper has the capacity to fend off challenges from the Free Press, she insists. It may prove a protracted struggle, however. The Freeps' local editions probably won't disappear anytime soon, Apfelbaum concedes, noting, "Gannett certainly has the money to keep them going as long as it wants."