In Vermont, one hyperlocal newsroom aims to fill a void
By Lauren Harris
When the Waterbury Record ceased publication at the end of March, Waterbury, Vermont was on its way to becoming another news desert. At the time, Lisa Scagliotti—a longtime Waterbury resident who used to work as managing editor of two of the Record’s sister weeklies—was running a journalism internship program at the University of Vermont: training students, offering editing and feedback, and helping aspiring journalists place work in local publications. When COVID-19 interrupted daily life, students' schedules were upended, and Scagliotti’s local paper shut down. So she and her students seized the moment and launched their own publication: the Waterbury Roundabout.
At first, the Roundabout was digital-only. A student named Julia Bailey-Wells built the website using WordPress; Scagliotti and her students wrote stories about mail-in-ballots for an upcoming school budget vote, grant funding for re-imagining the town’s main street, and summer rallies against racism. When the Roundabout began publishing a weekly email blast highlighting the most important local stories of the week, the Waterbury community responded with interest.
Soon after the Roundabout’s launch, local publications began picking up and running the site’s stories. The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus asked the Roundabout to partner with their existing initiative to reach more local communities with printed weeklies; the Waterbury Reader—supplemented by Roundabout stories, printed and delivered by the Times Argus—was born.
The Roundabout isn’t the first scrappy startup to materialize in hopes of filling a void in a local community. In Del Rio, Texas, a local man turned his events website into a weekly tabloid after the local paper shut down last November. Five years after the closure of a local paper in Eudora, Kansas, students from the journalism school at the University of Kansas have begun to meet course requirements by reporting stories for an online startup called The Eudora Times. Scagliotti and the team at the Roundabout have a foot in both worlds: at present, the publication is Scagliotti’s passion project—aided by a few recurring team members like photographer Gordon Miller—and it’s supplemented by freelance contributions and, during the school semester, by student work.
Damian Radcliffe, a Tow fellow and journalism professor at the University of Oregon, has done research on small-market journalism for more than a decade; during the economic crisis in 2008 and 2009—another moment in which the decline of local newspapers became a focal point for many media commentators, citizens, and politicians—Radcliffe researched the emergence of hyper-local publications in the US, UK, and other parts of the world. “At that time, there were quite a large number of new hyper-local publications, typically online-only, certainly online-first,” Radcliffe says. “And the people behind them tended to be either journalists who had been laid off and decided to do something entrepreneurial, or concerned citizens who saw an information deficit in their community. They were doing this, in many cases, as a labor of love. They'd often have a day job, and, often, they would be the only source of fresh and original news from that locale.”
Scagliotti fits this description, but the Roundabout is her day job. Her position at the University of Vermont was frozen at the end of the spring; after the Roundabout took off, she chose not to return in the fall. Her work is largely a labor of love, with a little creative entrepreneurship that allows her to pay for minimal expenses, to begin paying professional contributors, and to take an occasional stipend herself. At the end of 2020, Scagliotti registered the publication as a nonprofit. The Times Argus pays to syndicate the weekly stories they print. The Roundabout has made some money from community donations, with assistance from the New England Newspaper and Press Association, a nonprofit entity that funnels charitable giving to local news organizations. Local community members have contributed reporting and writing for free. Today, the publication’s newsletter has around 1,400 subscribers in a town of 5,000 people (they picked up forty more subscribers this week).
“Everybody asks me, how sustainable is this? How long can you keep going? And I don't know the answer,” Scagliotti says. “We didn't sit down and do a lot of business planning. I wasn't even sure I was starting a business. We didn't really think it through that much. We just started doing it. More than anything, it was a time where people just needed information.”
Radcliffe notes that when hyperlocal newsrooms crop up to fill a void, the spontaneity can create vacuums in both the business model and available resources for fostering innovation. “It's very difficult in these circumstances, to do new things and do things differently,” Radcliffe says. “There’s a really important question for us in the industry to grapple with, which is to say, how do we support these really small newsrooms—which are the bulk of newsrooms in the US—to enable them to become more sustainable, to enable them to do things differently, given all of the constraints that they are operating with?”
For now, though, Scagliotti is taking things one day at a time. “No matter what happens to the business, people still need news,” she says. “Sometimes, what needs to be done is right under your nose.”
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EXPLORE THE TOW CENTER’S COVID-19 CUTBACK TRACKER: Over the past nine months, researchers at the Tow Center have collected reports of a wide range of cutbacks amid the pandemic. Now there’s an interactive map and searchable database. You can find it here.
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Below, more on recent media trends and changes in newsrooms across the world:
- NONPROFIT NEWS IS ON THE RISE: Nonprofit local news thrived in 2020, Rick Edmonds reported for Poynter, lining up interviews with some of the biggest players in the world of nonprofit local journalism. ProPublica expanded its local news efforts; programs offering grants to local news startups have increased their offerings. Edmonds adds that many of the same local outlets regularly appear in lists of grant recipients, but that more media consumers appear to be supporting their local newsrooms with donations. (Elsewhere, in a recent survey by the Medill School of Journalism, 99% of journalists expressed concerns about the sustainability of local news).
- PUBLIC HEALTH ADVERTISING COULD HELP LOCAL MEDIA: For the Philadelphia Inquirer, Steven Waldman—president of Report for America—and Susan Coffin—a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania—proposed that the Biden administration could address both the low confidence in vaccinations and the crisis in local news by running paid public health advertising in local news publications. “The same cure can help two different ailments,” Waldman and Coffin write. (Elsewhere, for Editor & Publisher, Matt DeRienzo argues that local newsrooms need to reimagine their advertising model).
- IDAHO EDITOR BEMOANS LACK OF RESOURCES, LOSES JOB: When an editor for the Idaho Statesman tweeted that she was unable to provide Excel access for a new staff member, McClatchy fired her, saying she had violated its social media policy, the Washington Post reported. “To fire an editor for advocating for resources and encouraging people to subscribe is a remarkably disappointing decision by McClatchy management,” the Statesman union wrote in a statement. “This is a devastating blow to the morale of a newsroom that is already chronically understaffed.”
- BIDEN APPOINTS NEW FCC CHAIR: Joe Biden has appointed FCC member Jessica Rosenworcel to serve as the commission’s acting chair, NBC reported last week. Rosenworcel supports the restoration of net neutrality, VICE reported, though her power to effect change is currently limited by partisan gridlock. She’s also been a vocal proponent of expanding broadband in underserved communities. “Even with the FCC in deadlock, experts said they also expect Rosenworcel to try to release billions of dollars in funds to help students obtain access to Wi-Fi hot spots and other technologies needed to get online,” Tony Romm wrote for the Washington Post.
- TWITTER TAKES ON NEWSLETTERS, NORTH EQUITY GROWS: Twitter has acquired newsletter publisher Revue, Axios reported yesterday. And venture firm North Equity will acquire Domino Media Group, a magazine and digital media company first launched by Conde Nast.
- BUSINESS INSIDER SUCCEEDS WITH BUSINESS AS USUAL: While the pandemic wreaked havoc on much of the journalism world in 2020, Business Insider managed to increase revenues without making changes, the Wall Street Journal reported. The company’s dependence on programmatic ads—a unique approach at present—and its subscription growth led to a thirty percent increase in revenue in 2020, while many other publications were forced to make cutbacks.
- LOCAL VACCINE REPORTING PROVES INDISPENSABLE: Local reporters across the country play an active and vital role in supplying their communities with information about local vaccination programs, CNN reported last week. In some cases, local reporters are communicating with individuals looking for vaccine information even as they report daily news stories, as Kristen Hare reported for Poynter in early January. “A focus on service journalism has been good for business, though it has contributed to a drop in attention on investigations,” Kerry Flynn writes.
- AUDIENCE WORK MATTERS: For Poynter, Samantha Tomaszewski argued that audience work is vital to the field of journalism. Audience editors cultivate a wide variety of skills, Tomaszewski writes, and they offer newsrooms valuable resources. (ICYMI, last week, I spoke to Iowa Starting Line’s Pat Rynard about the importance of getting stories in front of local audiences.)
- MORE LAYOFFS: NBC Sports has laid off three additional staffers in Chicago, Barrett Sports Media reported. Kristen Hare continues to maintain a list of journalism layoffs for Poynter.
JOURNALISM JOBS AND OPPORTUNITIES: MediaGazer has been maintaining a list of media companies that are currently hiring. You can find it here. The Deez Links newsletter, in partnership with Study Hall, offers media classifieds for both job seekers and job providers. The Successful Pitches database offers resources for freelancers. The International Journalists Network lists international job opportunities alongside opportunities for funding and further education. And an organization of fifty writers called the Periplus Collective recently announced a mentorship program to serve early-career writers who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color.