- Paula Routly ©️ Seven Days
- Signs on the Trail Around Middlebury
Every week the editorial team at Seven Days strives to come up with an assortment of articles on topics that we think you, the reader, will find timely, newsworthy, useful or just interesting to know about.
Editors and writers brainstorm story ideas and make assignments; designers contract photographers and artists to illustrate them. On a good week it all comes together — though never quite like clockwork — and the end result is an attractive, readable magazine that reflects our shared Vermont community.
From the start, the biggest challenge of this particular publishing project has been choosing the weekly cover story, one tale that somehow rises above the rest, ideally because it checks all the boxes: timely, newsworthy, useful and interesting.
To do it right requires sufficient planning. For the first seven years, when cofounder Pamela Polston and I were the only staff writers and editors, that was a pipe dream. We scheduled plenty of stories more than a week in advance, but the exhilaration of getting an issue out was often followed by the sobering realization that we had no idea what to put on the cover of the next one.
Some of our best ideas surfaced in the car on Tuesday nights — after we'd delivered the "boards" to the people who printed the paper. One week we asked ice cream mogul Ben Cohen to interview the Body Shop founder Anita Roddick, who was coming to Burlington to give a talk, and both dished about their businesses. Another week we assembled a forum of Vermont cartoonists and taped their conversation. Massively edited, it amounted to a great cover story.
We also learned that having a plan isn't a guarantee it will come to fruition. Sources get sick, back out or suddenly don't want to be photographed — although we've been lucky on those counts. Over the years, as we've staffed up, Seven Days cover stories have gotten consistently better, deeper, more rigorous.
Our current team of news and culture editors tries to schedule covers a month or more in advance, working with writers to vet and hone their pitches. We do everything we can to give them enough time to thoroughly research and write their stories. Still, shit happens. Dan Bolles spent weeks on last week's Flynn investigation, but it didn't run when originally scheduled because some key people got COVID-19.
Weekly newspapering requires a schizophrenic skill set: obsessive management and monitoring of all the moving parts; then, if things fall apart, creative problem-solving to find an alternative — fast.
That's what happened with this week's cover story. Two ideas had already bitten the dust when we decided to profile a guy who, like so many Vermonters, makes his land accessible for public recreation. But this one owned a mountain — a popular hiking destination within driving distance of Burlington. Ken Picard had already interviewed the man, who has a fascinating backstory, and we took the first steps of arranging a drone shot of him atop his personal peak for the cover.
Then, one week before the story was due, came an email: We could have the man, but not the mountain. The photo request had apparently prompted our source to consult with area landowners, who decided a Seven Days story would result in more traffic and parking problems for all of them. In a matter of hours, we had to change the cover concept from a single profile of a compelling guy with a mountain to a broader piece about public access on private land in Vermont. The plan was to find seven good examples of such spots across the state.
We enlisted Sally Pollak to help Ken beat the bushes and compile a list. Together they scrambled — literally — to get out and visit the sites. This is not the kind of reporting you can do remotely, sitting in a chair. Each of them got to three. I volunteered to "do" the seventh. It was an opportunity to get out into the Vermont woods, have a new experience and also help the team.
To disappear for four hours on a Thursday morning wildly complicated my week — but, for the most part, in ways I welcomed. Walking the Trail Around Middlebury, aka TAM, marveling at the beauty of Vermont's forests and fields, was a timely reminder of why Pamela and I started Seven Days in the first place.
Hopefully you'll find the resulting cover story is also newsworthy, useful and interesting.