In 2017, should the state of Vermont still be supporting a promotional magazine? That’s a question lawmakers put forward in this year’s state budget.
The magazine in question is the iconic Vermont Life, which the state has published since 1946. Over the years, it's accumulated a little over $3 million in debt. So officials are considering their options, including selling the magazine.
Earlier this week, Gov. Phil Scott was in Burlington, signing a bill to expand the state's program to bring local food into schools.
Standing in the bright sunshine, Scott was asked about the future of Vermont Life magazine. For years, the publication has helped establish and market a certain image of the Green Mountain State: natural beauty, quaint towns and dairy farms. Scott says the magazine has been integral to Vermont.
“But it’s time to change,” Scott said. “We’re going to have to move on to something else. We hope to keep Vermont Life going in some capacity, but we’re going to have to work together in trying to determine what the 21st century brings for Vermont Life.”
There are a few ways the state could go.
“It could be working with another entity … it could be an online capability,” Scott said.
The state could also sell or license the magazine, or it might merge Vermont Life more closely with other marketing arms of the government. If language in the most recent version of the budget goes forward, the state would open up the bidding for Vermont Life by this fall.
It's about time, according to Republican Senate Minority Leader Dustin Degree.
"The investment isn't really showing a great return,” said Degree. “So if there are other places within the Department of Tourism or within the Agency of Commerce that could increase the return on that money, I think that's our job, is to make sure that we use taxpayer dollars as effectively as possible."
Degree thinks a public-private partnership could work well.
He also recognizes the historic role Vermont Life has played in attracting people from out-of-state. That includes people like Bob Arthur.
“My perspective of Vermont is a bucolic place that kind of transcends time,” Arthur said.
Arthur lives half the year in the Washington, D.C., area, where he’s an architect. The other half of the year, he lives in Jeffersonville, Vermont. He subscribed to Vermont Life in the early 1980s, and says the magazine played a role in his decision to buy property here.
He dropped his subscription about four or five years ago, though he collects old issues dating back to the 1950s.
“I'll sit there, and I'll go back and re-read articles I've read a dozen times, and they still engage me,” Arthur said.
Ten years ago, editor Mary Heggarty Nowlan took over the magazine, which has editorial independence from the state. She made some changes to its format and content. Bob Arthur, 58, said that’s when he started to lose interest.
"It was more about the food culture, the artisan beer, which is fine, I like all that,” Arthur said, “but it got away from the essence of what I read the articles about, which was almost a history of Vermont. But a perspective that I think a lot of us have — an older generation of Vermont — that wasn't there anymore."
Heggarty Nowlan has said her goal was to focus the magazine on a few areas: outdoor recreation, the arts, food, the working landscape and entrepreneurship. She's now stepping down.
She did not return calls for comment for this story.
Heggarty Nowlan struck a good balance, and her departure is a loss, according to Michael Schirling, the head of the state's Agency of Commerce and Community Development, which oversees the magazine.
Still, with the changes at Vermont Life, and in the print industry generally, subscriptions have shrunk. It’s been operating with annual deficits, but Schirling says Vermont Life isn't going away.
"It's got a strong team, it's got a really rich heritage and legacy in Vermont, strong subscriber base, and great advertisers, so we're confident that there is a future, and we'll find the path forward in the months to come," Schirling said.
Schirling doesn't favor any one option for the future of the magazine, but the potential sale has at least one media outlet considering a bid. Paula Routly, the publisher of the alt-weekly Seven Days, says her company is interested, though they're waiting to see the state's final request for proposals. Routly adds it would be an honor to keep Vermont Life going.