Op/Ed

Opinion: Why good journalism must survive

There is no more important factor for the health of a community than a strong and viable source of trustworthy information.
Those of us living in Addison County have known for years that the Addison Independent has admirably served that function. Now more than ever the survival of the Independent is crucial, and for some residents, it is a literal matter of life and death.
I say that not as hyper sensationalism, but as a critical component of our ability to fight and survive the pandemic caused by COVID-19. Clearly, the future of a financially strong Porter Medical Center, and its associated medical professionals, is the other local institution that contributes to our collective health security and quality of life. 
Fortunately, Porter will escape financial destruction by the pandemic due to its affiliation with the University of Vermont Health Network.
But will the Addison Independent survive?
It is fighting tough odds based on the declining health of the media business nationwide, especially print journalism, during the past 12 years. Google and Facebook have hollowed out the advertising support for most newspapers. The result is that, according to the LA Times, since 2008 nearly half of U.S. journalism jobs have disappeared, leaving fewer than 38,000 reporters, photographers and editors.
In many areas of the country, especially in rural America, we have “news deserts” where no media exists any more to report on basic community activities, like selectboards, school boards, or local sports. 
Fortunately, Vermont has thus far escaped this dire fate. But since COVID-19 hit Vermont, daily and weekly newspapers, already under heavy financial pressure, have had either to reduce staff or days of publication. The same is true for publications like Seven Days, VTDigger, the Burlington Free Press and the Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus. 
Media outlets are turning to readers for donations to help them survive the economic disaster caused by COVID-19 as many Vermont businesses, such as restaurants, movie theaters, book stores, cultural organizations have been forced to close down. When that happens, advertising dries up and media revenue sharply declines or just disappears.
The same is true for the Independent, which has had to furlough some staff and reduce its twice weekly publication to one.
So how can the Independent be supported so that it may continue to provide its essential services to our community?
First, the most obvious and important way is through more paid subscriptions to the paper, as well as outright cash donations, until regular advertising revenue returns. When that will be depends on when Vermonters can safely return to work with more normal economic activity. 
Secondly, since the Independent is a for-profit corporation, it may have to affiliate itself with a separate non-profit arm so it can more easily receive reader donations, much like Vermont Public Radio, Vermont Public Television, and VTDigger do from state and national sources. Reader donations could help support keeping Independent reporters and editors on the payroll. This non-profit structure for donation would not change the overall corporate form of the Independent, which is a for-profit business. 
Any donated dollars for the Independent ideally should be segregated and fully transparent for the community to monitor how they are being spent. Reader or other donated funds ought to be strictly earmarked for news gathering to keep the community informed of all-important developments. 
At the present time, readers can make donations to the Independent. The same is true for Seven Days in Burlington, which has created a “Super Reader” category for its loyal supporters.
The good news, so far, is that readers are beginning to step up to support private news enterprises, based on reports from the Independent and Seven Days.
Vermonters are rallying to help each other as evidenced by their response to this virus.
It has been my experience that Vermonters also value and want to keep alive local trusted sources of information. It helps them to make their own independent decisions and judgments, a core character trait of this state. Now is our opportunity to make sure good journalism survives this pandemic.
Stephen C. Terry is the former Managing Editor of the Rutland Herald. He lives in Middlebury.

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