The sprawling city of Colchester may lack an identifiable downtown, but it now has two newspapers covering its selectboard meetings, sewage strategies and high school sports. The debut issue of the Colchester Sun rose last Thursday, reporting that the 17-year-old biweekly Colchester Chronicle is being sold to The Burlington Free Press. In a tacit declaration of war, the start-up paper pledged to give the incumbent some locally owned competition.
Chronicle owner Guy Page confirmed his papers pending sale but would not reveal the buyers identity. Burlington Free Press publisher Jim Carrey did not return phone calls for this story. Its common knowledge the Gannett chain is behind the deal, according to Marc Landry, a resident and selectboard member who owns an insurance company on Prim Road. Guy told me standing in the post office, he says. Thats where most of the stuff happens in town.
Why is the multinational media conglomerate that publishes USA Today suddenly interested in every-other-week small-town journalism? For the same reason its testing the concept of a national chain of alternative newspapers by launching free weeklies in Boise, Idaho, and Lansing, Michigan. Because daily circulation is down. And, ultimately, it would be easier to buy readers than to sell them subscriptions to the Free Press.
People tend to be loyal to the little local papers that cover their communities: the Williston Whistle, the Shelburne News, the Other Paper in South Burlington. Nearly every town in Chittenden County has a thriving indigenous rag. For the past six years, those papers have also banded together to lure advertisers away from the Free Press with a one-stop network deal that costs them less than they pay at the Freeps. National chain stores, politicians and regional businesses flocked to the Chittenden County Suburban Newspaper group nothing is more legitimizing than a presence in the hometown paper.
Meanwhile, local publishers like Page happily cashed checks from J.C. Penney, K-Mart, Fletcher Allen, Filenes and McDonalds. As Vermonts third-largest city, Colchester was a crucial piece of the puzzle. Can it be a coincidence that once the sales transaction is complete, as Page acknowledges, the Chronicle will no longer be part of the Chittenden County Suburban Newspaper group?
Enter brothers Angelo and Emerson Lynn, who collectively own four other papers in the area. In Colchester, they saw an opportunity to expand their own local publishing empire. The duo made an offer for the Chronicle, but lost out to the higher bidder. You cant compete with the Free Press in terms of the depth of their pocketbook, says Emerson, who once employed Page as a reporter.
Drawing on their existing editorial, sales and administrative staff, the Lynns decided to start the Sun, which will now be receiving the network ads that used to go to the Chronicle. Well run the Colchester paper just as weve run the St. Albans Messenger, the Addison Independent, the Essex Reporter and the Milton Independent, Emerson vows. You pay attention to the information that is important to readers in those respective towns.
The first issue of the 16-page broadsheet carried stories on teachers union negotiations, the Lime Kiln Quarry, toxic algae and a full page of captioned photos entitled Hometown Sports. First-time advertisers ranged from City Market in Burlington to The Automaster in Shelburne and Total Home Center in St. Albans.
Despite the four-color cover, though, not everyone noticed the difference. Honestly, its just another paper, suggests Bruce Deming at Champlain Marina. Now both of them are hitting us up for ads.
Other readers were impressed. You could see they had some resources to bring to the table. The first issue had a full complement of ads and articles, Landry observes. Im hoping what all this does should Gannett wind up buying the Chronicle is raise the bar. If they want a presence in this community, they are going to have to work for it.
Page bought the Chronicle 14 years ago from former Republican Rep. Inge Schaefer. Although the paper was generally considered to be politically conservative, Page insists he gave everyone a fair shake. Asked to identify the article that made him most proud, he recalls a posthumous profile of Red Sox pitcher and Colchester resident Ray Collins.
Breaking news was another story, according to Landry. Guy wasnt able to cover most selectboard meetings. The same thing happened with school board and zoning. Sometimes hed have to call us to ask what happened.
Ultimately, dueling news sources can only benefit the people of Colchester, whom Landry posits have a kind of collective chip on their shoulder because they dont get enough media attention. In support of that effort, may we humbly suggest to the publishers of either or both Colchester newspapers: Along with your masthead, give us a map.