A Vermont newspaper trade organization has declined to change its definition of a newspaper to include online news organizations.
The move by the Vermont Press Association effectively denies full membership to web-based news sites like VTDigger. However, the association did vote to allow such outlets to become non-voting, associate members.
The Vermont Press Association defined the term "newspaper" in its organization’s constitution when it was written in 1948. VPA Executive Director Mike Donoghue says the organization has tweaked the definition over the decades, but it has remained substantially the same.
Journalist Paul Heintz says the definition is outdated.
He offered wording for an amendment to the association’s constitution that would include online publications, such as VTDigger, that operate as a news outlet but don’t publish physical newspapers:
"The term 'newspaper' shall be defined as a journalistic enterprise that reports Vermont news first-hand, disseminates it chiefly through the written word, employs professional reporters and editors, and publishes regularly in print or online," Heintz read before the vote.
Heintz is a board member of the Vermont Press Association but the majority of the board, and its constitution committee, did not agree with the change. In fact, the board proposed its own amendment, which would allow non-voting associate membership for online news outlets.
On Thursday, members of the Vermont Press Association considered both amendments.
The Herald of Randolph was the only newspaper to vote in favor of Heintz’s amendment. Thirty-one other papers — including Seven Days, where Heintz is a staff writer and political editor — voted no.
Michelle Monroe is executive editor at the St. Albans Messenger.
Here’s how she explained her paper’s vote:
"We believe that the VPA is a trade organization," she said. "It’s a trade association, it is not a society of journalists. And so, as a trade association, its function is to represent the interest of businesses who publish newspapers. And that’s what we are. And that gives us interests that are separate and sometimes opposed to online news organizations."
Another point of contention was the newspapers’ desire to maintain revenue from legal advertisements. Some raised the concern that if the association redefines the term "newspaper," it might open the door to allow legal ads to be printed online instead of in local papers of record.
However, the membership voted unanimously to allow online publications to join as associate members.
VTDigger founder and editor Anne Galloway was there for both votes.
"I was disappointed that we didn’t become members today, that we don’t have that opportunity to become members," she said. "But I also understand where they’re coming from and I’ll do my best to try to help them understand that we want to collaborate and compete. We do both."
Galloway says VTDigger will join as an associate member, which will allow the site’s reporters to enter some journalism contests, including the contest sponsored by the Vermont Press Association.
Update 7:15 p.m. This post has been updated to incorporate comments by Vermont Press Association Executive Director Mike Donoghue.