Stop the presses!

With newspaper circulation in decline and communication going digital, the last newspaper to print in-house finally surrenders

By Guy Page

February 28, 2020 – The Burlington Free Press called me yesterday afternoon with the stunning news: May 3 would be the last day it could print the Chronicle of the Vermont State House, the newspaper I publish for True North Media. 

When I took my first newspaper job at the Free Press as a night-shift intern in 1979, the powerful thrum of the rolling presses and the smell of newsprint spread throughout the building on College Street in Burlington. At that time, almost all Vermont dailies and many weeklies operated their own presses. 

So much has changed. This week, the Free Press was told by its corporate leaders that henceforth from May 3 it would be printed in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, home of a sister paper in the newspaper chain that owns it. A few emails, phone calls, and collegial conversations later, I found that not a single Vermont daily newspaper prints in Vermont anymore. I couldn’t find any weeklies that do either, but there are still many publishing and I can’t say for certain that they all print out-of-state. 

Daily newspapers now being printed out-of-state are the Times Argus and Rutland Herald (New Hampshire), St. Johnsbury’s Caledonian-Record (at the Concord, NH Monitor), Newport Daily Express (Quebec), Bennington Banner and Brattleboro Reformer (Massachusetts). The Connecticut River-area Claremont Eagle and Valley News both are printed in New Hampshire. Once boasting their own printing presses,  the weekly News & Citizen in Morrisville and the Herald of Randolph both print out-of-state. So does the twice-weekly Addison Independent. The St. Albans Messenger and its Chittenden County weeklies now print at the Free Press, so they too must find another printer. 

How did this happen? And – does it matter?

The first question has two answers. 

First, the online purveyors of state and national news – manufacturers of a product that is fast, cheap, plentiful, accessible – have all but won the war against the slow, expensive, increasingly-hard-to-find daily newspaper. Like a pack of raptors taking down a brontosaurus, it’s happened very fast and it’s not pretty. 

To be sure local weeklies are still strong. Online-only media don’t yet competitively turn a buck on community news alone. Print weeklies like those mentioned above and the Barton Chronicle and Vermont Standard and many others enjoy powerful local loyalty, in part because they offer unique local news presented on both online and “hard copy” platforms. Still, online-only media like the Chester Telegraph – whose motto is “all news – no paper” – and the Newport Dispatch are gamely fighting for advertiser and reader market share. 

Second, many local newspapers also ran print shops. These cash cows produced the weekly shopping circulars, Town Meeting reports, and other staples of the pre-digital society in which paper was king. But one budget-minded print job at a time, the internet has silenced this once-thriving local business. Why go to all the time and expense to print, prepare and mail an advertising campaign, when a free email with a website link will do the same job – and maybe even do it better?

Does the disappearance of the printing press matter? To the average reader, not really. Nor much to local businesses, except for the few  that rely on the locally-printed newspaper as either customer or vendor. Nor does it mean anything to younger journalists who have never seen or heard or felt in the soles of their feet the power of the printing press running at full speed. Sitting here in the State House cafeteria on a slow Friday afternoon, I asked a young VT Digger reporter who was the editor of her college paper if she had ever seen a newspaper printed. Alas, no. 

It matters most to the out-of-work pressmen, of course. They used to be the lords of the operation, and they knew it. Mostly “blue collar” skilled tradesmen (and they were all men, those I knew), they were far more valuable to the publisher than the dime-a-dozen, interchangable reporters and editors. Now, they are all out of a job. With luck they will catch on at another printer. If not, they will try to leverage their skills into a “sideways” move into another manufacturing profession.

Besides the out-of-work press workers and flyer “stuffers,” the people who will miss the presses the most are sentimental old newspaper reporters and editors – like me. 

After playing Jimmy Olson at the Free Press, I went to the Caledonian-Record, where everyone from the janitor to publisher Gordon Smith – so no excuses accepted from a hapless reporter – would gather in the press room on Monday afternoons to stuff inserts. At the St. Albans Messenger, I wrote a “hold the presses” story or two that publisher Emerson Lynn agreed just couldn’t wait until tomorrow. The pressmen would shuffle their feet impatiently while I typed furiously an hour after deadline. In my first stint at the News & Citizen 35 years ago, the father-son team of Clyde and Brad Limoge printed two newspapers a week plus a steady stream of circulars and college publications. In my second stint in 2008, the stream had already slowed to a trickle. The presses were abandoned after the paper merged with the Stowe Reporter

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There are advantages to paperless news, of course. For example, an errant reporter can correct a mistake immediately, long before the printing presses roll again. This morning I misidentified the author of the proposed amendment to delay the Act 250 vote until after Town Meeting. In fact it wasn’t Jim Masland of Thetford, it was Thomas Bock of Chester. 

Photo credit: University of Vermont library