Greg Dennis: Early days at the Valley Voice

You’d have to be a little crazy to start a weekly newspaper in rural Vermont today. The economics just aren’t there.
You also had to be crazy to start a weekly paper here 40 years ago. But that didn’t stop a bunch of us from doing so, when we launched the Valley Voice in the summer of 1974.
The inspiration, and the money, came from John Michael White, who took profit-sharing funds from the Madison Avenue ad firm where he’d labored for years, bought a house, and moved to Middlebury.
John Michael came to Addison County with the idea that he would launch a new radio station.
The FCC required would-be new stations to do a survey of their proposed broadcast area. But when he did the survey, he heard one steady refrain: “We don’t need a new radio station here. We need a new newspaper.”
WFAD was in its heyday. Nearly everyone tuned in to its classic mixture of weather, farm reports, sports, news and pop music. The staff featured a mix of radio veterans and two rising stars in the form of Chris Graff, who later became Vermont AP bureau chief, and a future governor in Gentleman Jim Douglas.
By contrast to WFAD, though, the then-owners of the Addison County Independent — “Colonel” William and Celine Slater — had alienated many readers with the Colonel’s acerbic style. Plus the Indy practiced an older kind of journalism, which lacked the sophistication that a growing number of new transplants to Vermont expected in their local paper.
To be fair, Col. Slater was a classic country newspaper editor. He once vowed not to reset a story in the bulky old linotype trays “unless shirt is spelled without the ‘R.’” And many people said Celine was quite a nice person. She was also one of New England’s groundbreaking female journalists, at a time when the trade was dominated by ink-stained wretches of the male persuasion.
Once John Michael realized that the opportunity was in print and not radio, he conceived the idea of a paper that was, for its time and place, wildly innovative.
Rather than charge for it, he made it free to everyone with a postal address — meaning he could potentially provide advertisers with greater reach. He also printed it in a tab size rather than the customary broadsheet.
Hoping to lure ad dollars from the dailies, he circulated the paper all the way from Shelburne to Brandon — crossing several traditional boundaries and creating a new geographic identity. And he named the paper the Valley Voice, in a nod to his New York roots and the many people from “away,” whom he wanted to reach with a different kind of paper that had echoes of the Village Voice.
John Michael hired a midlife graphic designer to put together the ads and make the paper presentable. His name was Fred Benz. (“Benz!” he would pronounce in his New York accent, “Like the car, but without the money.”)
Looking for someone who could help on the journalism side, he called the college paper to see if anyone was looking for a job.
I had spent my senior year learning rudimentary skills as news editor of the paper, and I decided it wouldn’t hurt to talk to him. Liza Williams, my girlfriend throughout college, and I soon interviewed with John Michael.
Within a few days we both had newspaper jobs — at a newspaper that didn’t yet exist. I started at $100 a week.
We had essentially no idea what we were doing. But somehow we muddled through, and the paper came out every week. Even if it meant we had to stay up all night to put it to bed.
Fred gave the paper a look and logo, including an Ethan Allen-type figurehead that evoked the Bicentennial fervor of the time. John Michael hit the road to take photos and sell ads. He was soon joined in the office by his hardworking wife, Betty. Susan Smiley became our stalwart typesetter, initially setting every issue on an IBM Selectric typewriter.
We eschewed the traditional journalism of covering meetings, instead writing about whatever caught our attention. Liza turned her eloquent pen to writing feature stories about quirky old farmers and even quirkier new hippies.
She became identified in readers’ minds with “Valley Heritage,” for which she spent hours digging through the Sheldon Museum archives to write a weekly column. She also created regular Q-and-A interviews with old-timers — people who remembered Vermont before the interstate, even before electricity.
The interviews brought us a readership among longtime locals, and the column was an early force in reviving an interest in local history beyond old furniture and portraits of Gamaliel Painter.
We launched the paper as the country was coming apart over Watergate. But thanks to Woodward and Bernstein, journalism was ascendant in the ’70s. Political coverage was trendy, and as a longtime political junkie, I thrived on that.
Vermont was going through a tidal wave that would eventually turn it from one of the nation’s most conservative states to its most liberal. In 1974 the state attorney general, Jim Jeffords, was running for Congress as a new kind of Republican. An ambitious, likable prosecutor from Burlington by the name of Patrick Leahy decided he had a shot at becoming a U.S. senator. As a Democrat, no less.
Jeffords, Leahy and a host of other political figures made their way up the steep stairs of the Battell Building to our hot, second-floor office, to do interviews and make their political pitches.
We interviewed them as they sat on a bench, all of us literally sweating through the process in a one-room office that lacked air conditioning, or even a slight breeze.
One day I caught wind of a new law that designated the first-ever national wilderness areas in the eastern U.S. The law included Bristol Cliffs, and it was sponsored by Vermont’s legendary Sen. George Aiken, who was retiring as the Senate’s senior member after decades of service to Vermont.
I called Aiken’s D.C. office because I knew nothing about the new law, expecting I would speak to an aide. But his secretary said, “The senator is right here. I’ll put him on the line.”
It was heady stuff for a kid who had just graduated from college.
* * *
There’s a lot more to say about the Valley Voice, but that will have to wait for another column. In the meantime, I want to say that I’m one of many who were saddened by the sudden passing of John Illig, a Lincoln resident and the popular, groundbreaking squash coach at Middlebury College. I knew John and his lovely wife, Lolly, through our mutual love of the game. He was a very bright light, and a cool guy.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email: [email protected]. Twitter @greengregdennis.

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