- Courtesy of Alex Nuti-de Biasi
- Michelle Sherburne, the new co-owner of the Journal Opinion newspaper
Michelle Sherburne started working at the paper in the early 1980s, when she was fresh out of high school. Although she moved to other local papers over the years, she returned to the Journal Opinion in 2000 and has worked as part of a four-person team since then in editorial, sales, production and any other job that needed doing.
On October 1, Sherburne and her husband, Rodney, bought the paper from owner Connie Sanville, herself a former employee who had purchased the paper from former owner Robert Huminski.
Sherburne said she sees her family’s role an important step in keeping the 155-year-old paper in local hands as an asset that connects and informs the community.
“Connie and our boss before that, Robert Huminski, always felt they were just stewards of the newspaper,” Sherburne said. “And that’s what Rodney and I are thinking, too.”
There are other news outlets covering those larger stories, Sherburne noted. The Journal Opinion updates readers on activities at the selectboard — which holds its meetings just down the hall from the Journal Opinion’s rented offices — and on fires, local crime and business openings.
“Our readers like feature articles,” Sherburne said. “They like to read about the 100-year-old woman who is still quilting and is still involved with different organizations.”
Nationally, the newspaper business is in rough shape. Advertising dollars that used to sustain papers have migrated online over the last few decades, and papers haven’t really come up with a way to replace that income. Last month, two Vermont news organizations ceased printing their paper editions — the Waterbury Reader, a free weekly community newspaper produced in partnership with the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, and the Vermont Cynic, the University of Vermont's student newspaper.
In recent years, large corporations have been buying up local newspapers around the country and slashing the reporting staff — a practice that guts local news coverage.
The Journal Opinion has also scaled back considerably since 2005. That's when managing editor Alex Nuti-de Biasi joined the paper after earning a degree at Vermont Law School — and then answering the paper’s ad for freelance writers. Back then, the paper was about 40 pages divided into two sections; now it’s 10 to 16 pages, with one section.
But Sherburne and Nuti-de Biasi said they think their barebones operation has the ingredients it needs to survive. That includes staff and family members who take photos, call in news events, deliver papers and make sales calls outside of their regular jobs. Last week, Sherburne’s son’s fiancée called in a fire she passed on her way to work in Woodsville, N.H., and she stopped to take some photos for the paper. Rodney Sherburne makes sales calls one day a week on top of his regular full-time job in retail.
“At a small paper like this, we’re all like Swiss Army knives,” Nuti-de Biasi said. “You have to take up a lot of roles, like answering phones, doing subscriptions, sometimes delivering papers.”
The pandemic revealed very strong local support, he added. Few businesses were running ads, and the paper was down to just eight pages.
“I was really surprised by the level of devotion to the paper that came out,” he said. “There were people donating to make sure we were still there.”
When Sanville put the paper up for sale this year, Sherburne said, a pair of brothers showed interest in running it remotely from Massachusetts and Tennessee. That’s when she and her husband decided to buy it.
They are determined to keep it exactly the same.
“If you’re going to have a local paper, you have to have local people running it,” she said. “Otherwise it’s a newsletter full of canned copy.”