The good news is that we live in an age of instant, global news.
The bad news is that we live in an age of instant, global news.
The good news is that we can find out what’s going on around the world 24/7.
The bad news is that much of what’s broadcast is repeated on a twenty-minute cycle, which is why it’s good news that there are still newspapers for those of us who like to process the news slowly and thoroughly only once in a while.
It’s particularly good news that we have two local newspapers where I live, despite Windham County’s low-population density, where fewer than 44,000 people reside in 23 towns spread across 798 square miles.
The Brattleboro Reformer first rolled off the press as a weekly in 1876, became a daily paper (publishing six days a week) in 1913, and has served as our paper of record since then.
It was a remarkably good paper in the second half of the twentieth century, and I was proud to be an editorial columnist at the Reformer from 1992-1994 and a book reviewer for over a decade. But the bad news is that the paper, which had been privately owned until 1995, was sold, first to a regional corporation and then to a national one, and the quality of the reporting declined along with the number of reporters on staff. These days, the pages are filled with syndicated columns and celebrity gossip, with a sprinkling of news from western New England, and a local story or two accompanied by large photographs to make up for skimpy text. Even the human-interest columns about nature, nurture and culture arise in western Massachusetts, which is good if that’s where you’re from, but less so if you live in eastern Vermont.
The good news is that I have an alternative: The Commons, an independent, non-profit source of news for Windham County.
The Commons started publishing as a monthly paper in 2005, in direct response to the decline of the Reformer. It’s now published weekly, and provides in-depth reporting of truly local issues and a wide variety of opinion pieces by local residents.
The paper is distributed free of charge, which is of course good news for the readers. The bad news is that the paper isn’t free. It costs money to produce, so like most Vermont non-profits, the whole enterprise benefits from truly dedicated and talented staff and volunteers – and it runs on fumes.
The Commons, Commonsnews.org and the Media Mentoring Project all fall under the umbrella of Vermont Independent Media, a non-profit source of news and media education in southern Vermont. [Full disclosure: I’ve supported The Commons from the start; written for them on and off, though not currently; and taught media-literacy workshops they’ve sponsored for school children and the general public.]
Quality and content aside, it’s the corporate structure that differentiates these two papers most significantly. One is a national for-profit corporation whose allegiance is to its owners and not to its readers; the other is a local, mission-driven non-profit, dependent on its readers for support for providing what is essentially a public service. The Commons hires local reporters to write local news – the kind of information that is of intense interest to those of us who live here, and of little to no interest to anyone else, except when that news is spectacularly bad, as when a natural disaster strikes, or a particularly gruesome murder occurs.
Of course, there are some things The Commons doesn’t have that the Reformer does: Dear Abby, Zits, and a crossword puzzle that’s so easy I can do it in ink and pretend that I’m smart. It’s also a daily, which is good news for those of us who heat with wood.
The Commons is not the only independent, non-profit news source in Vermont; they’re everywhere, including on-line (VTDigger) and on air (Vermont Public Radio). It’s this insistence on the values of local news and independent thought that makes me so grateful about living in place.
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