The 'Ghost' of Franklin County? The 'St. Albans Messenger' Is a Shadow of Its Former Self | Fair Game | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Mark Johnson Political Columnist

The 'Ghost' of Franklin County? The 'St. Albans Messenger' Is a Shadow of Its Former Self

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Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
TIM NEWCOMB
  • Tim Newcomb

A lawsuit alleging that the general manager and another top salesperson stole advertising customers on their way out the door is the latest sign of trouble at the once highly respected St. Albans Messenger.

Since the O'Rourke Media Group purchased the newspaper from Emerson and Suzanne Lynn in 2018 — and the Lynn family-owned weeklies in Colchester, Essex and Milton soon after — the new owner has reduced the Messenger's print edition from six days to two and cut the news staff at the four papers in half. The longtime Messenger news editor quit abruptly last year. The papers' willingness to cover controversial issues has been questioned. And employees, present and past, have shared critical reviews of working conditions under the new owner, Jim O'Rourke.

The apparent decline is important because the Messenger, founded in 1861, is the newspaper of record in growing Franklin County. Weekly papers, and VTDigger.org, an online news service that recently hired a novice reporter to cover the county, can't provide the same depth of coverage as a local daily.

"It's definitely gone downhill, I'm sad to say," said Carolyn Branagan, a Georgia Republican who served 16 years in the Vermont legislature, through 2018. "They used to be a pretty reliable way to get news about what's going on in Franklin County, and that's just not the case anymore."

Branagan said the main reason she and her friends still subscribe is to read high school sports stories and Emerson Lynn's twice-weekly editorials.

"I'm heartbroken," said Michelle Monroe, who quit last December as executive editor after, she said, the paper's news staff was reduced from 11 to 5.5 positions. All but one newsperson she hired has left the company, she added. A review of the four papers' mastheads shows similar staffing levels today.

"It's like being stabbed in the heart," Monroe said of the Messenger's decline. "I loved that paper. I put 13 years of my life into that publication. I care deeply about this community, and serving the community was important to us at the Messenger. That was the goal. We were there for the community."

The Lynns owned the paper for 37 years. Then-governor Peter Shumlin highlighted the Messenger's work when he signed the Vermont Clean Water Act in 2015. Its investigative reporting on dairy antitrust issues exposed the lack of competition in New England's school milk market. The local recovery movement credited its series on substance abuse with motiving people to seek treatment, Monroe said.

"Our work helped people in Franklin County engage with their communities. You don't do that with a listicle," said Monroe, who now works at the Islander, which covers the Champlain Islands. The top-read items early Monday on the Messenger's website, samessenger.com, included a story with a list of area residents who won the moose hunting-license lottery, a wedding announcement, "4 things to do this week in Franklin County" and a feature about a local bakeshop. The most popular story with news value was a piece about whether to use school resource officers in St. Albans City.

In an email, O'Rourke rejected the notion that the paper's news coverage has declined and readers are dissatisfied. He dismissed complaints about workplace conditions as coming from disgruntled employees. He said O'Rourke Media Group was "bootstrapping and building a business that saves newspapers and creates jobs." In its short history, he said, the company had acquired 10 local media companies that were likely to go out of business and saved those communities from becoming "news deserts." Since its launch in 2018, O'Rourke Media has acquired publications in Arizona, New Mexico, Minnesota and Wisconsin, in addition to Vermont.

"We acquire hyper-local, print, and digital community newspapers and apply our strategic playbook that results in digital transformation," the company's website says. It uses "a contrarian business mindset to the media industry and maintains a low-cost corporate infrastructure and decentralized approach to running our business."

O'Rourke runs his media business from Chicago but said in an email that he was committed to and understands the importance of local news coverage in Franklin County. Readership is up, he maintained. The digital audience is five times greater than when he bought the papers, he said, and that constitutes a success at a time when newspaper circulation and advertising revenues have declined precipitously nationwide.

O'Rourke said revenues from Vermont were now evenly split between the print and digital editions — another success, considering national studies show that getting more than 40 percent of revenue from the digital side is the new ideal.  

The new owner-publisher highlighted the Messenger's recent expanded coverage of Olympian Elle Purrier St. Pierre, a hometown hero from Richford. And 95 percent of the staff received a raise this last year, he said. This month, the company plans to launch new digital sites to cover news in South Burlington and Williston, according to its website. 

O'Rourke, who once ran the circulation department at the Burlington Free Press, declined a telephone interview, describing me as another "salacious" reporter "hunting for the negative vs. the positive." (Hmm. Last time I checked, Merriam-Webster defines "salacious" as "lecherous, lustful," which doesn't exactly describe the information I was looking for.)

Emerson Lynn also declined to speak on the record. The sale of the papers to O'Rourke was private, and terms were not disclosed. O'Rourke has also held publishing posts for a group owned by Digital First Media and Gatehouse Media in his more than 25-year career.

Several current employees have anonymously shared harsh views of working conditions on the employer-review website glassdoor.com. One reporter praised the "hands-off management for the news department, fast-paced work environment" but said O'Rourke Media "tries to do too much with too few employees." A Vermont salesperson described working conditions as "awful," citing "erratic, often bullying, behavior at all levels of management, especially CEO. Very arrogant without the skills to back it up." 

The salesperson added: "Treating people with basic respect will not kill you."  

In his email response, O'Rourke said making every employee happy was impossible and questioned whether every current and past Seven Days employee would speak highly of the organization.

The lawsuit O'Rourke Media filed in March against ex-salespeople Ben Driver and Christopher Baker claims that they "intentionally undermined the relationships with customers by persuading them to leave with them" when they quit the company without notice at the end of 2020 and started a new marketing company. Their efforts, the suit says, led to a "significant decline in income."  

The suit, however, notes that the two salespeople did not have a noncompete clause in their contract that could have prevented them from opening a similar business. In court documents, Driver and Baker deny any wrongdoing. Driver, who grew up near St. Albans in Georgia, declined to be interviewed and referred questions to his attorney, Megan Manahan. She dubbed the suit "unfortunate" before declining further comment.

There have also been questions about the Messenger's news coverage. In June, the newspaper rejected a version of a story about a Juneteenth event in St. Albans prepared by the Community News Service, a University of Vermont project in which students write news stories, edited by experienced journalists, to help fill gaps in local news. The story ran in VTDigger mostly as written but was revised significantly before it appeared in the Messenger, according to CNS editor Cory Dawson.

Dawson said the Messenger was "nervous about the story" CNS provided, fearing that it would be controversial. Instead, the paper wrote its own story and included parts of the CNS piece but made no reference to white nationalist activity in the community, which CNS reported. Dawson said he regretted not pushing back harder with the O'Rourke Media Group editor in Texas, with whom he talked about the story.

"It's unfortunate for the communities when they don't get these stories," Dawson said. He said he worries that the Messenger and its sister weeklies, which share significant amounts of content, could become "ghost newspapers," a trend in which newspapers keep publishing, but with such diminished staff and content that they are shells of their original selves. The weeklies went all-digital during the pandemic. 

O'Rourke said the company will be "thriving for decades" and that it was moving in the right direction, with plans to hire more staff and add more digital news sites.

"Keep an eye on us though. It's a good story given all the disruption and chaos in the media these days," he wrote.  

That's a deal, Jim. And I'll watch with both eyes.

No Heir Apparent?

Every news story speculating about whether Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) will run for reelection next year routinely identifies fellow Democrat Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) as the next in line if Leahy opts out. 

Not so fast, says longtime political analyst Eric Davis, who says the "heir apparent theme" is the product of Washington, D.C., and Montpelier reporters who put too much emphasis on Welch's incumbency and "not how he would be perceived by the voters as a potential candidate."

Davis — who, like most observers, thinks Leahy will run for reelection — noted that there are many public figures in Vermont under the age of 50 who would be qualified to serve in the Senate. Unlike 74-year-old Welch, such candidates could potentially serve four or five terms in the Senate and build up the seniority required for real power there. He predicted a vigorous Democratic primary with numerous candidates once a Senate seat opens up, whether it's Leahy's or Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.); the latter is up for reelection in 2024.

In a telephone conversation last month, Welch told Fair Game he also rejects the "heir apparent" label and, in any case, expects 81-year-old Leahy to run for reelection.  

"I don't make that assumption" of being next in line, he said. "I think you have to earn trust, never presume it."

Whether he himself would make a good candidate given his age, Welch said, will be a fair question should he want to move up to the Senate or stay put.  

"Once a person decides they're going to run for office, all questions are fair game," Welch said. He regularly runs and works out, and he said he recently hiked 17.5 miles near Mount Washington in New Hampshire, with an elevation change of 6,800 feet. 

"Even if I run for reelection" to the House, Welch said, voters and any opponents may raise the age issue, as well.

Mary Powell Goes Solar

One name you can remove from the congressional sweepstakes next year is Mary Powell, who acquired a national reputation for groundbreaking, climate-friendly policies when she ran Green Mountain Power for 12 years.  

Powell, who stepped down from GMP in 2019, has been mentioned by analysts as a candidate if a federal opening occurs next year and had indicated openness to the idea.

But put that speculation on hold for now. Last week, Powell was named chief executive officer of Sunrun, one of the biggest installers of residential solar in the nation. She said she would be based in San Francisco and Vermont.

"For me, being on the front lines of the climate battle is right where I'm supposed to be," she told Fair Game. But she also didn't rule out a future political bid, adding: "Who knows where life takes us?" 

Amen to that.