by Greta Solsaa, Community News Service.
The Vermont Journalism Exchange Conference last Thursday kicked off with news from University of Vermont Provost Patricia Prelock.
“For us, it’s core to our land-grant mission to really support people in our state and to educate our communities,” Prelock said. “So today, I am pleased to announce that we will be investing over $650,000 over the next three years to support local news in Vermont.”
This is on top of the support UVM already has given to local and student media through the Community News Service program and the national Center for Community News. As part of the $650,000 investment, the university is funding a full-time, year-round position for an editor of student stories with the Community News Service at UVM.
At the end of her welcome, Prelock revealed more good news. “We actually have some ideas about the possibility of creating a university-wide center for local news … I didn’t tell them I was going to announce that, but we’re going to work on that so that the university sees that as a strong commitment, as a university-wide center that can be then a model for higher education across the country.”
More than 80 editors, reporters and publishers turned out for the event in the college’s Dudley H. Davis Center, hosted by the Community News Service. Some of those attendees were excited about Prelock. “The $650,000 that UVM is committing to support student and local journalism is a huge step forward … UVM should be proud,” said Anne Galloway, founder and editor of VTDigger.
Richard Watts, director of the Center of Research on Vermont, which oversees the Community News Service, introduced the event’s four keynote speakers.
Melanie Plenda, director of the Granite State News Collaborative in New Hampshire, gave a presentation on how the collaborative is a model for cooperation and partnership among news outlets.
“The hope is that together we provide more information to more communities across New Hampshire than we could individually,” Plenda said. “So essentially, the collaborative exists to fill the gaps, and those gaps are typically people and resources.
”By coordinating rather than competing with other news outlets in the collaborative, journalists can share content and services and cover a wider array of stories. Another goal of the collaborative is to diversify newsrooms by training reporters from emerging and freelance backgrounds.
Plenda expressed hope for more collaboration between Vermont media due to the turnout Thursday.
“It’s hard. It’s a lot of thinking through. But there are no challenges that you cannot — this sounds kind of Pollyannaish — there really aren’t any challenges once you start collaborating that you can’t overcome,” Plenda said.
Stephanie Murray, executive director of the Center of Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, presented on public funding to help local news survive. She highlighted states including Washington and New Mexico that have funded local news fellowships for recent graduates; New York and Chicago, which have used government advertising budgets to put millions into local and ethnic-based outlets; and California, which has given $25 million to a new program to train and support early-career journalists and $10 million for ethnic media.
Murray also discussed the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, of which she is a board member, as another model for public funding. Through lobbying efforts in New Jersey, “the idea that the state should perhaps invest in media as infrastructure, as a public good, stuck,” said Murray.
Legislators there passed a bill in 2018 to create the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, a nonprofit that gives grants to make local news more accessible and combat news deserts and misinformation.
“The goal is to build a $50 million endowment from private funding that we can draw off of every year so that we don’t necessarily have to rely on the state budget,” Murray said.
The next speaker was Duc Luu, director of sustainability and initiatives at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, who added to the idea that news sources need financial autonomy.
“For us, sustainability … means independence. Jack Knight told us that you cannot call yourself an independent newsroom if you do not have financial sustainability.”
Luu discussed how major events in the past two decades like the 2008 recession, the Covid-19 pandemic and emergence of the internet and social media all negatively affected revenue streams for news outlets, adding to the decline of local news.
“As social investors with our bet in local journalism, we have been a driver in the effort to rebuild local news, experimenting and learning for decades and emphasizing authentic local decision making, because I think that’s what local news can really help communities do,” said Luu.
The next presentation by Meg Little Reilly, director of communications for the Convergence Center for Policy Resolution, built on the idea that local journalism is essential for healthy communities and functioning democracy, citing studies measuring split-ticket voting that show the relationship between the lack of local news and political polarization.
She spoke about how national news facilitates cultural warfare and distrust and hostility towards the political opposition, especially online, while local journalism strengthens people’s perception of shared identity and goals.
“The presence of local news is keeping us connected to our neighbors. It is truly an antidote to that kind of affective polarization. And the reason it works that way is that it’s grounded in proximate, real-world concerns, things that defy easy binaries of politics,” said Reilly.
Luu also expressed concerns regarding local news deserts being a threat to democracy. “The absence of local news being filled by national news is particularly poisonous … The analogy I would equate it to is like your air supply. It’s particles of air poisoning your air supply, and it happens very slowly. It happens silently, and then all of a sudden it happens very suddenly and you’re just walking around in polluted air without even realizing it. And I think that’s what’s happened here.”
Working conditions for young reporters were a concern too, with both Plenda and Murray discussing mechanisms and standards implemented by their organizations to ensure livable wage for journalists.
Luu brought up a colleague’s idea of “the three Ss” — safety, salary, sanity — as important markers for working conditions in journalism as reporters are often underpaid, overworked and at risk of verbal or physical attack due to heightened polarization and mistrust in media.
Randy Hulhut, editor of The Commons in Brattleboro, expressed the desire to retire, but before then he wants to ensure young journalists are prepared and that journalism continues to be a respected and financially viable profession. “You say it’s important — pay them for it,” Hulhut said.
Attendees also heard from Michelle Monroe, communications and outreach representative for U.S. Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., about federal two bills to address concerns discussed at the conference.
After the presentations, attendees split into breakout sessions to discuss topics like collaboration, fundraising and public funding, the national news landscape, support for new reporters, the importance of journalistic standards and accountability and public access in journalism.
“It’s great to take a break and talk to Vermont journalists and figure out what we can do better,” said Cathy Resmer, deputy publisher of Seven Days.
Said Bridget Higdon, managing editor of the St. Albans Messenger, “I’m here to get reenergized with new ideas. It’s a great reminder of why we do what we do.”
David Goodman, a journalist with VTDigger and host of the Vermont Conversation radio show, appreciated the conference as “one of the only gatherings of Vermont journalists of its kind, and it comes at a time of enormous pressures on journalists.”
“Information sharing is what keeps us innovating and supporting each other … Journalism is reinventing itself right now, and Vermont is on the cutting edge.”