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Not-So-Free Press

On orders from Gannett, Vermont's largest daily, the Burlington Free Press, undergoes a risky media makeover


Published July 11, 2012 at 11:10 a.m.
Updated November 13, 2020 at 4:40 p.m.

The first Free Press edition in the new format (front) and the last edition in the old format (rear)
  • The first Free Press edition in the new format (front) and the last edition in the old format (rear)

For a time this spring, the biggest story in the Burlington Free Press appeared to be … itself.

Over the course of three months, Vermont’s largest daily newspaper ran more than two dozen stories and columns about a host of changes coming to 191 College Street: a $2.4 million printing-press rebuild, a radical redesign from broadsheet to tabloid and a new subscription model charging for online content.

“In my 25 years in the media industry, I can’t think of a time when I’ve been this excited and fired up about what we do — and how we’re doing it,” publisher Jim Fogler wrote in a characteristically ebullient February column announcing the changes.

Indeed, the news behind the newspaper was big — but it wasn’t all sunshine and roses.

Facing precipitous declines in print advertising, Gannett — the nation’s largest newspaper chain and owner of the Free Press, USA Today and 80 other papers — announced a new strategy in February. It planned to play “offense” by jacking up the price of home delivery and limiting free access to its newspapers’ websites. Gannett promised that, together, the moves would bolster operating profits by $100 million in 2013, helping to generate $1.3 billion for shareholders by 2015.   

“They’re gambling that they can get all these people to pay significantly more without too many of them quitting altogether,” says Jim Hopkins, a former USA Today editor who writes Gannett Blog, an independent watchdog site. “The problem is, for many years they were really weakening the newspapers. They waited until they weakened them as much as they could and then went to readers and said, “We want you to pay more for it.’”

At the Free Press, Gannett’s new strategy manifested itself in a $63-a-year — or 31 percent — hike in the price of home delivery and a limit of 10 free articles per month on its website to nonsubscribers. Making lemons from lemonade, Fogler packaged the price increase with an ongoing refurbishing of its aging press and a long-planned redesign of its newspaper, calling the trio of changes his “triple-crown strategy.” Last month, those changes went into effect.

What’s in it for the reader? Aside from a smart new look and color on every page, Fogler promised that the Freeps would be “growing and expanding our content.” In a front-page column on May 13, he wrote, “As we evolve, we will be making improvements to our content, technologies and digital development efforts.”

But that memo evidently didn’t make it to the newsroom, where executive editor Mike Townsend promised more of the same.

“The changes are occurring chiefly with format as opposed to content because key content changes have largely already been made in anticipation of the retooling of the press,” Townsend wrote in the same paper in which Fogler’s column appeared. “What you read in the final broadsheet editions of the Free Press will be the same content you will find, generally speaking, in the compact edition.”

Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school and news website, says the question is whether papers that have “cut back the reporting staff and news hole and raised the prices [are] still going to look like a good deal to people.

“They’re certainly putting that to the test,” Edmonds says.

It’s a consequential question for a paper that, despite years of bleeding — its weekday circulation has plummeted from 54,636 in 1991 to 28,576 this March — remains what St. Michael’s College journalism department chairman David Mindich calls “the most important daily in Vermont.” It has a stable of accomplished reporters, like environmental writer Candy Page, open-government watchdog Mike Donoghue and jack-of-all-trades Sam Hemingway. Its crusade for government transparency has drawn the attention of Vermont lawmakers and made the paper a Pulitzer Prize finalist this year.

As the closest thing to the paper of record in Vermont, the Freeps is unquestionably critical to Vermont’s journalism landscape.

“The Free Press’ success is good for everybody,” Mindich says. “I think that we should all be rooting for this to work and helping them along as they find the most effective way to deliver the news.”

Fab Tab

A week after the Free Press’ June 7 makeover, the paper posted a link on its Facebook page to a column Fogler had written about the redesign and asked readers for feedback.

The reaction was swift and fierce: Within three hours, more than 75 readers had weighed in, and their responses were overwhelmingly negative.

“I own a small breakfast restaurant,” wrote Matt Birong of 3 Squares Café in Vergennes. “Every customer I have who is a subscriber hates it. Also only allowing subscribers to access your online edition for a fee is aggravating others. You are doing a wonderful job at pushing away readers of every generation. iPads to bifocals they’re all pissed, Congratulations.”

More recently, Hinesburg resident Roger Kohn has attempted to galvanize his neighbors to oppose the Freeps changes with an old-fashioned petition drive organized on the online Front Porch Forum. In a letter to the editor, Kohn wrote, “It appears that the Free Press is so worried about being murdered by the internet, that it has decided to commit suicide.”

The grumbling from the masses may stem from the fact that, as Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus publisher John Mitchell puts it, “Readers do not like change. I’ve learned that the hard way over the past 40 years.”

“From my perspective, it seemed like it might be too much, too fast,” says Maria Archangelo, president of the Vermont Press Association and publisher of the weekly Stowe Reporter and Waterbury Record. “On the other hand, I do understand the whole ‘brave new world’ idea, ripping the Band-Aid off, generating some excitement and buzz.”

At the heart of the Freeps’ redesign was a shift from a folded broadsheet paper similar in size to the New York Times to a stapled, 11.25-by-15-inch tall tab — or, as Fogler calls it, “a compact, smart edition.” Known in Europe as the “Berliner” and common throughout the continent, the tall tab has only recently made inroads in the U.S. Just three other Gannett papers feature the format: the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Shreveport Times and the Journal and Courier in Lafeyete, Ind.

Its virtues? Newsprint savings, a tighter design and a bulkier feel on slow advertising days early in the workweek. Last week’s Monday and Tuesday editions were 24 pages, compared to Sunday’s 72.

The new Free Press replaces the front-page medley of local and national copy with a more magazine-style focus on a solitary story, typically featuring one large photo, a reporter’s mug shot and a few column inches of text.

“They’re gravitating toward putting their enterprise story on the cover,” says Doug Clifton, a retired top editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Miami Herald who lives in Middlebury. “It’s not the story of the day done well. It’s the story that didn’t exist save for their scrutiny or their decision to cover it.”

In the first month of the redesign, the Freeps largely devoted its cover to regional quality-of-life stories: five on transportation and gas prices, four on cops and crime, and a handful each on local government and schools.

To Mindich, who generally approves of the redesign, devoting the entire front page to just one story leaves the reader without a sense of which stories are most important — or what he calls the news “hierarchy.” But Brad Robertson, a former Free Press publisher who now heads up a company division called GannettLocal in Phoenix, argues just the opposite.

“I like the format because it allows you every day to say, ‘Here’s a story you should listen to,’” says Robertson, who had a hand in the early stages of the Free Press redesign. “It provides an emphasis on a story a day.”

The new Freeps features color on every page — including daily comics and TV listings. And it adds what Townsend called “more personality” by featuring reporters’ photos next to every byline. Gone are the anonymous “Voice of the Free Press” editorials — replaced by thrice-weekly editorials featuring editorial-page editor Aki Soga’s photo and byline.

Clifton, who questions the use of reporters’ photos, says, “I think it confuses readers because they’ve been educated to think when there’s a mug shot of a writer, it’s an opinion piece, not a reported piece.

“I think they do that because they think newspapers aren’t as personalized as much as TV,” he adds.

Building on the Gannett model of creating weekly “passion topic” sections such as the environment-focused “Green Mountain” and food-focused “Savorvore,” the Freeps added a new Saturday section called “Round Here,” which thus far has featured folksy first-person stories — last Saturday was photog Ryan Mercer’s turn — praising Vermont life. Writer and freelance journalist David Goodman of Waterbury will also offer a regular “Vermont Lives” column.

“I’ve had to kind of rearrange my process a little bit, but now I’m used to it and I actually like the format,” says Linda Kelliher, chief creative officer at the Burlington-based Kelliher Samets Volk ad agency. “I think it’s a pretty daring thing to change the format of something like that — pretty gutsy and maybe risky.”

But at least one reader says he wishes the paper would put more money into better copyediting, instead of a redesigned paper printed on a newfangled press. For the past month, Nate Orshan, a Burlington web analyst, has taken to Twitter to post photos of typos, erroneous captions and other goofs in the Freeps, tagging them with #WhyEditorsMatter and copying Townsend.

“I’m hoping that I can help shame the Burlington Free Press into allocating more into human resources as opposed to physical infrastructure,” Orshan says in an interview. “For them to make such a big deal out of this has spurred me to try to point out that money could be spent on people improving what they’ve got. It did nothing more than put good gift wrapping on a present that was pretty shoddy to begin with.”

Under Press-ure

It’s not exactly breaking news that daily metropolitan newspapers are in trouble. Bowing to the pressures of a moribund economy, declining print advertising revenue and increases in the cost of printing, the New Orleans Times-Picayune in May joined the Ann Arbor News in trimming its production schedule. The Gannett-owned Detroit Free Press in 2009 cut back home delivery to four days a week, while papers such as the Rocky Mountain News and the Albuquerque Tribune have gone out of business altogether.

“The economics of the old business of chopping down trees, turning that into newsprint, putting gas in trucks, paying carriers — the economics just don’t work anymore,” says industry analyst Ken Doctor.

Across the country, says Doctor, most daily newspapers that operate their own presses “are trying to cut costs on the printing side as much as they can, go digital and get paid by readers for going digital as quickly as they can.”

For many papers, that means shuttering old printing presses or joining forces with former foes to consolidate operations. Seeking a lighter footprint, Gannett itself has put $100 million worth of real estate on the market — making the company’s investment in the Free Press’ downtown Burlington printing press all the more remarkable.

“They’ve invested money in that press, which Gannett is not doing in many other markets, so that’s good news,” says Hopkins of Gannett Blog.

Media blogger Jim Romenesko questions that investment.

“I see in 10 years print product being so specialized that the model will be mostly mobile,” he says. “So I think it’s pretty risky to invest in a printing press at this time, but maybe they did the studies to back that up.”

Indeed, a year after the 2011 spring floods destroyed the Times Argus’ and Herald’s press in Barre, Mitchell, the papers’ publisher, opted against rebuilding and instead chose to outsource production to the New Hampshire-based Upper Valley Press. That outfit prints Seven Days, the Stowe Reporter, the Waterbury Record and a slew of other Vermont weeklies.

“I don’t particularly want to be a landlord or ever invest any more in this building,” Mitchell says of the 23,000-square-foot building he put up for sale in June with the intention of moving to a 5000-square-foot space in downtown Barre. “It just makes sense to downsize the physical plant.”

Fogler told Seven Days in February that after rebuilding the 45-year-old Goss Metroliner press, he would aggressively seek out new print jobs — including newspapers like Seven Days.

Despite the sizable investment in the Free Press’ printing facilities, though, Gannett continues to transfer jobs formerly located in Burlington — like customer service, graphics and design work — to regional hubs scattered across the country.

“In general, Gannett’s strategy for four years now is to consolidate as much as possible in a few places so they can achieve economies of scale,” Hopkins says. “The thinking is that they can still design and lay out these newspapers but do it with fewer people and, in the case of smaller newspapers, in theory they’ll get better design.”

That’s the case at the Freeps, which in June outsourced its layout and design department to Gannett’s Asbury Park, N.J., Design Studio, according to industry blogger Charles Apple. Nationwide, Gannett has shed more than 10,000 jobs — or 25 percent of its workforce — since 2008. In February, it offered buyouts to 665 longtime employees.

The picture is less clear at the local level, though Seven Days reported in January 2009 that the Freeps had laid off at least 15 people and eliminated seven other jobs in the previous year. As of the first quarter of 2012, the Free Press was still subjecting its employees, including reporters, to weeklong, unpaid furloughs, during which they are eligible to collect unemployment.

Despite the Free Press’ crusade for transparency, Fogler and Townsend declined repeated requests for comment over the course of two and a half weeks. Fogler first said he was too busy to talk and then said his decision not to talk was firm. Reached by phone, Townsend too said he did not have time to be interviewed by a reporter. Asked whether anybody else at the paper was available, he said, “I think you already tried” and hung up the phone. A Gannett corporate spokesperson also declined to answer questions.

The Great Wall

Like many newspapers, the Burlington Free Press has sought to cultivate online readers through the use of social media, blogs, and apps for mobile and tablet devices. In February, the paper handed out 18 new iPhones to its reporters, who have been busily tweeting the news ever since. Just this week, the Freeps won an Associated Press Media Editors award for its real-time, digital reporting of a fatal shooting at the Occupy Burlington encampment in City Hall Park last November.

But the future of daily newspapers depends to a large degree on whether they can get digital readers to pay for the pleasure of consuming their content online, as print-edition subscribers have done for years. Advertising alone — which is the sole revenue source for many weekly papers, including Seven Days — has yet to cover the entire cost of news gathering at legacy daily newspapers.

Twenty-twenty hindsight suggests that giving away free online content may have been “the dumbest thing newspapers ever did,” as Clifton suggests. But online experts at the time trumpeted: If you’re not searchable, you don’t exist. Daily newspapers, which had already seen their classified sections eviscerated by craigslist, were terrified into going along with the new, free online model.

The New York Times and others have since changed course, but Gannett’s decision in February is a watershed event. Charging for online content changes the rules for all 3 million of its non-USA Today readers across the nation.

“I think this is arguably one of the biggest [paywall] rollouts in the country,” says Justin Ellis, assistant editor at Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab. “The interesting thing is that it’s going to be a lot of medium and small newspapers, and there’s a real question as to whether that can work on a smaller, more local level.”

In fact, the Free Press is one of the last dailies in Vermont to start charging for online content. The Valley News has never posted more than a handful of its stories on its website; nearly every other daily newspaper in the state has either started charging for or limiting access to its online offerings.

Rather than simply barring nonsubscribers from accessing any content, Gannett is adopting what’s known as a “metered paywall.” Made famous by the Times and used locally by the MediaNews Group-owned Brattleboro Reformer and Bennington Banner, the metered model allows readers to access a set number of free articles a month — 10 in the Freeps’ case — but forces heavy users to pay. Those with print subscriptions receive free access to the website, as well as mobile and tablet apps.

According to Edmonds, the Poynter analyst, “The so-called porous paywall or metered model solves a couple of problems: Most obviously it means that you can still keep the traffic that comes from Google searches and social-media referrals and links and all those things that typically account for a lot of traffic — but it also allows you to ask your regular readers to pay for it.”

While you might lose a few freeloaders in the beginning, Doctor says, papers that manage the transition well can preserve unique visitors and digital advertising. The Free Press’ website drew 768,000 unique visitors in January, generating 6.5 million page views, Fogler said at the time.

More importantly, as Mitchell argues, it can shore up declining print-circulation numbers.

“It was always troublesome to me to have my friends come up to me — people who could well afford the subscription — and say, ‘Why the hell should I pay for it if you’re giving it away?’” the Times Argus and Herald publisher says. “Since we started charging subscriptions online, our drop in circulation has stopped, and we have a nice chunk of money which is helping us in our news coverage.”

Of course, while news consumers have shown a willingness to pony up for specialized content found only in online trade publications or high-quality coverage unique to the New York Times and other top papers, the jury’s still out about whether they’ll pay for state and local news they could get elsewhere for free.

“I think it becomes incumbent upon a newspaper to really, really produce content of value if they’re going to charge for it. They can’t be the echo of all the free publications,” says Clifton.

Although he’s a paywall believer, Clifton serves on the board of the nonprofit Vermont Journalism Trust, which operates, an online-only free daily news source that increasingly competes with traditional outlets such as the Burlington Free Press. Founder Anne Galloway lost her job at the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus in one of several rounds of layoffs there. is among the likely beneficiaries of the Freeps’ paywall, as nonsubscribers migrate to free news sources. Others include broadcast outlets like Vermont Public Radio and the state’s three television stations — all of which now have robust, free websites — as well as free weeklies such as Seven Days.

“If people want to find local news, statewide news, regional news, scores, weather — they can get it all from us free and that’s not going to change,” says WCAX news director Anson Tebbetts. “If people decide they don’t want to pay for content and they come to us, we welcome that.”

Gone are the days when news outlets competed only within their medium, notes Tebbetts, whose station partners with Seven Days.

“It’s not like it’s TV versus TV or radio versus radio. In Vermont, we’re all battling to find viewers, readers, people to see our content,” he says.

Vernon-based media consultant Martin Langeveld, a former publisher of the Brattleboro Reformer, believes that charging for online content is a shortsighted move on the part of legacy media companies that simply haven’t figured out how to hack it online.

“If you’re looking to get more people involved and engaged, it seems to me paywalls are not the way to go,” he says. “The internet has produced plenty of major news businesses making tons of money — including content websites that don’t charge for access.”

Politico, the Huffington Post and Gawker come to mind.

But Archangelo, the Vermont Press Association president, sees it differently. Though she says her Stowe and Waterbury papers are bringing in enough online advertising revenue to eschew paywalls for now, she says the “blowback” from Free Press customers who don’t want to pay concerns her.

“The idea that you’re entitled to free news that’s provided by professionals who have to be paid is distressing to me as a journalist,” she says. The Free Press “is a tremendous news operation, and if you want to have that kind of operation, you’re probably going to have to pay for it.”

Will It Work?

“For the Burlington Free Press and all the other Gannett newspapers, 2012 is a really, really, really, really, really critical year, because it’s the year they decided to finally start charging people for online access,” says Hopkins of Gannett Blog. “The question is going to be: Will it work? Because there are no other big potential sources [of revenue] out there. Print advertising is falling and is going to continue to fall.”

Hopkins notes that even Gannett’s most optimistic estimates presume revenue declines in 2013 and 2014. Adding to the problem, as New York Times media critic David Carr reported earlier this week, Gannett’s pension plan is underfunded by $942 million.

For the company to turn the ship around by 2015, it’ll have to succeed at charging more for the same in print and charging for what was once free online — all without scaring off too many of its readers.

It’s a huge gamble — potentially irritating older print customers who don’t want to pay for digital access and younger readers who won’t pay at all.

But at an industry conference last month, Gannett president Bob Dickey sounded an optimistic note, announcing that the national price hike had resulted in a lower-than-expected 7 percent drop in weekly circulation. Dickey said the company was on track to realize the $100 million, 25 percent print-revenue growth it — and its shareholders — is banking on.

To Langeveld, Gannett’s fundamental problem is just that: “Gannett is very much a stockholder-focused company. They’re not trying to provide better community information in Vermont. They’re trying to solve the problem of upping their stock price and dividend.”

“It’s a bottom-line-oriented strategy as opposed to a market-growth strategy,” he adds.

But Romenesko believes the new management at Gannett has to be thinking longer term. “I don’t think they’re doing it to boost the stock price,” he says. “I think they really know that they have to make big, important decisions that are gonna affect what Gannett is going to be in five, 10, 15 years. I think they are looking way ahead, as opposed to what we’re going to do for next quarter’s earnings.”

How the media landscape will evolve on that time horizon — in Vermont and throughout the country — is impossible to predict. But like the rest of the Gannett empire, the Burlington Free Press is betting that readers will find enough news in its now-smaller pages to continue shelling out cold, hard cash for it.