Clippings: 1966 series was a labor of love

I’ve become an archive nerd.

I know there are some people who will read this and cheer, but for the other 99.9%, I’ll explain.

A couple of years ago, in attempt to understand the finer points of various discussions in the Mount Abraham Unified School District, I created an “Act 46 file.” It contained all of the Act 46 stories, editorials and letters published in the Independent in 2015-16, plus Addison Northeast Supervisory Union Act 46 Study Committee documents, plus some other interesting articles and reports. The file ran to 313 pages. I read them all and took notes.

That’s when I discovered William Mathis’s “The history of school consolidation battles,” which VT Digger published in September 2015.

One sentence stood out to me:

“Side-stepping a legislative committee, Commissioner Richard Gibboney used a 4-3 state board vote to attempt implementing a model reorganization plan in 1966 which had Addison County combined into one high school, three middle schools, and an unspecified number of elementary schools under a single board.”

Wait, what?

I made a beeline for our archive room, which contains (so far) 149 bound volumes of the Independent, 23 inches tall and 14 inches wide, going all the way back to 1946. It wasn’t long before I was staying after work or coming in on weekends, poring over fragile, yellowed pages filled with ads for products and places I’d never heard of. When I found a school-related story or editorial, I photographed it with my cellphone.

The mini-archive I created for what would become the “We’ve been here before” series includes 213 articles, editorials and letters. Because they were often broken up across multiple pages, this required 488 photographs.

Again, I read them all and took notes, and by the time I had finished writing the “We’ve been here before” series, my research files contained 46,356 words — slightly more than the novel “Fahrenheit 451.”

I’ll confess that in the beginning, a part of me hoped I’d find, and resurrect, some cool forgotten idea that would solve all of our current school funding and enrollment challenges.

What I found instead is harder to articulate.

For one thing, people in 1966 said pretty much the same kinds of things about schools as they say today.

Senator Ruth Hardy noticed that, too, and the weird sense of déjà vu made her stomach hurt, she told me earlier this month.

Another thing I noticed was how different the Independent was in 1966, not just because of its smarmy academic strain of Vermont conservatism, but also because of its relentless, unforgiving approach to reporting.

“What is the role of a newspaper editor in a small town?” one reader was prompted to ask that year. “To stir up dissent so as to keep up reader interest and therefore circulation? … Should he editorialize on the front page in the guise of presenting facts?”

The Independent responded with a petulant editor’s note that twisted the reader’s words into an argument she hadn’t made, in order to dismiss her.

On the other hand, when the reporting was good in 1966 it was really good, with the rhythm and music of the golden age of newspapers — easy to recognize but hard to emulate.

And the headlines — surely I’ve learned something from reading thousands of headlines.

Engaging in such media criticism, facile as it may be after 55 years, has helped me better understand my own biases and potential for bias — as a human being and as part of a media environment that thrives on conflict.

“The school mergers that get written about are the ones where people are having trouble working together,” Rebecca Holcombe told me a few weeks ago. “Those are the ones that get the ink. And that makes sense, for pragmatic reasons, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t other districts that haven’t found ways to work together and move forward. So another question to ask is, ‘Where have people been able to create opportunities?’”

But Holcombe was hesitant to tell me the answer to that question.

“I actually think it’s better if they don’t get media coverage,” she said, laughing. “Because I think every time it becomes toxic in the paper it just becomes toxic to have those conversations.”

Her comment wasn’t directed at me or this paper, but it did make me wonder: Had I told the story of 1966 as a search for school solutions, or as another instance of conflict?

How much is “people in 1966 said pretty much the same kinds of things about schools as they say today” a function of my picking and choosing what to print?

What about my regular reporting? Have I been looking too much for disagreement and not enough for collaboration?

There are many more such questions, and they’re not easy, but it’s important to keep asking them.

Perhaps those questions are the real treasure that was buried in our archives.

The storytelling was fun too, of course, and I hope readers have found it worthwhile, but I believe I’ve learned more about the media in the last couple of months than anything else.

To be sure, if I get another chance to dive into our archive someday, I won’t be thinking, “What cool solution can I find and resurrect?” Instead I’ll be asking, “What kinds of conversations could this spark?”

Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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