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Readers, and Writers, Lament Loss of Vermont Sunday Magazine

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A tremor from ongoing shock waves in the national newspaper industry recently shook Vermont journalism, as the state's only independent Sunday magazine got buried in a money-saving move.

The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus and The Rutland Herald terminated the jointly published Vermont Sunday Magazine on January 13 after a nearly 24-year run. Its loss is being lamented in letters to the editors of the locally owned twin papers published by R. John Mitchell. Veteran Vermont journalists are also mourning the mag's passing, which, they worry, will deprive readers of its in-depth reporting on statewide issues. But close observers, including the magazine's own editor, were not surprised by its demise.

"I'm disappointed, certainly, and I'm proud of what we did," says Dirk Van Susteren, who oversaw the publication for much of his 22 years at the Times Argus. "But I'm maybe not surprised, because these are hard times for newspapers."

Steve Terry, the magazine's first managing editor, says he's impressed it lasted so long. The founders fretted from the start, Terry recalls, because, even combined, the two papers constituted the smallest Sunday publishing entity in the country bold enough to create its own mag. "We knew sustaining it with ads was going to be a struggle," Terry says.

Because it was a tabloid inserted in broadsheet newspapers, the Sunday magazine required a separate press run, which made it "expensive to produce," notes TA editor Sue Allen. She and Mitchell declined to say how much money will be saved as a result of the supplement's cessation and the attendant departure of Van Susteren, the only TA/RH employee who worked exclusively on the magazine.

Mitchell did acknowledge that circulation slippage compels him to "weigh every resource we're spending." The papers now have combined Sunday sales of about 30,000, he says, noting that migration of readers and advertisers to Internet outlets is hurting Vermont's dailies - though not to the extent it is hurting larger papers such as the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times.

Several independent Sunday magazines around the country have been sacrificed in efforts to cut costs. Only about 25 survive today, compared to 50 a decade ago.

Two national chains continue to publish Sunday mags that are inserted into a total of about 1000 newspapers. Parade, owned by Advance Publications, appears in 400 papers with a combined circulation of 32 million. About 23 million copies of USA Weekend, a Gannett product, are distributed by 600 newspapers, including The Burlington Free Press, Bennington Banner and Brattleboro Reformer. Neither of these Sunday supplements carries state-specific feature stories or homespun advice columns like those the Vermont Sunday Magazine published week after week.

Readers of her paper won't be forced to forego much high-quality content, TA editor Allen argues. For the past year and a half, she notes, the front page of the Sunday Times Argus has been running major analytical pieces such as those often featured on the magazine's cover.

The decision to kill the Sunday mag was initially centered on financial considerations, but soon came to be viewed as an opportunity to "invigorate" the entire newspaper, Allen says. The magazine's format had "gotten tired over the years," she observes. Van Susteren agrees that publishing the mag on newsprint limited its visual appeal. And the tabloid shape made it hard for some readers to locate the magazine amidst the advertising flyers inserted into the Sunday paper, Mitchell adds.

It was "nostalgia" for the publication's unique identity that enabled it to last longer than financial factors dictated, Allen says. Publisher Mitchell adds that he understands the sorrowful response to the mag's death, because it did have a distinct place in Vermont journalism.

But almost the entire contents of the magazine have been shifted to other sections of the Sunday Times Argus and Rutland Herald, Mitchell notes. Indeed, the papers ran an announcement on Sunday, January 20, suggesting they were merely changing the magazine's appearance and placement, thereby making it "easier to find, easier to read."

It's "disingenuous" to spin the demise of such a distinct product as simply a shift in formats, says longtime Vermont journalist Hamilton Davis, an occasional contributor to the Vermont Sunday Magazine. To him, its disappearance is "a real shame." He says there are now only one or two publications in the state in which readers can find long, detailed stories on topics of importance to Vermonters.