The new owners of the Hardwick Gazette plan to continue the paper's focus on local events, and take their cues from their readers.
Ray and Kim Small of Stamford, Connecticut, took over the Northeast Kingdom paper last week, after former owner Ross Connelly tried unsuccessfully to hand off the paper via an unusual contest.
The contest involved a 400-word essay and a $175 entry fee, and Connelly said he needed a minimum of 700 essays to make the contest work. After extending the deadline twice, he only received 140. But Ray Small was among the contestants.
VPR spoke with Small on Monday, his first official day editing the Hardwick Gazette.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity. Listen to the full audio above.
VPR: Why did you want to own a small-town newspaper?
Small: “The answer is on two levels. One is sort of the national, the societal level. Given the trends, which are not just the last year or so, towards infotainment or fake news or whatever your term of choice, I think this is a very good time to support journalism.
“And by that I mean fact-based journalism, which sounds redundant, but in this day and age it isn't.
“I read about the essay contest to give away the paper a number of months ago. and two days later I was in Hardwick interviewing people to see what's real here, get a sense for the town, get a sense for the area and get a sense for the paper. And I was just struck by how enthusiastic people were about the paper. It is a an important part of their weekly or their daily life.
“It covers things that aren't covered elsewhere. It informs the community, it helps build community and I would say that people were very enthusiastic about the paper. But they were also very worried about losing it.
“And so if you combine sort of the high-level motivation and just, you know, the role that the paper plays not just in Hardwick but in the surrounding towns that it serves, it just seemed like a very good way to spend my time and energy.”
And you still wanted to own the paper, though even though the contest itself was canceled?
“That's correct. I would have loved to have entered and won and gotten the paper for $175. It didn't work out that way, but my wife and I thought about it and we said, 'This is this is still very much a worthwhile undertaking.' And [Monday was] my first day editing content.”
What’s your journalistic experience?
“I started off, my very first job out of school was, in effect, a business journalist. I went through all of the discipline of journalism. I worked for a company where we had editorial meetings. I was assigned a topic, I was assigned a deadline, I had to interview people, I had to go through editorial review and then we published, and we did that again.
“And it was ultimately the first job that I had. And as I look back, I've done a number of different things over my career — it's the job that I loved the most.”
What are your plans for the Hardwick Gazette?
“I think the Gazette serves the community and so to some degree any changes that I make have to come in a sort of a dialog with the community.
"I think that certainly there are things that we can think about and there are many different options … Yes, markets are changing and people's expectations are changing and we want to evolve to meet those. But I think it's a relatively slow process. It's in dialog with the community.
“If I came in here and took the Gazette in a completely different direction and our readers didn't follow that direction, well then it's all a waste of time. I have already been talking to people, I'm going to continue to have meetings with people. My wife and I are going to try to organize some meet-and-greet get-togethers in each of the towns. From that feedback, I think I'm going to get a very clear idea about what if anything needs to change.”
The newspaper industry has taken a lot of hits in recent years. A lot of local papers have shut down. How do you plan on maintaining a successful business?
“I think it comes back again to the role that the paper plays, and my wife and I have come into this with eyes wide open. It's not a great time for the newspaper industry writ large, but that said it really comes down to what is it you're providing: You're providing information. And what are the competing sources of that information?
“So the Gazette doesn't cover the Red Sox, the Gazette doesn't cover earthquakes or droughts. It covers local news, and it's news that really you can't find anywhere else.
“So how did the local basketball team do? What is the debate like around the proposed expansion of the library? These are things which from afar may not be terribly interesting, but for people in the 10 towns that we serve are of vital interest.”