The State of Our Media 2014: A Selected Overview

There have been some major changes in Vermont’s media landscape in recent months. I thought it was time for a scorecard of sorts: who’s doing what, and how well they’re utilizing their resources.

A couple of caveats: My focus here is on media that cover (or claim to cover) state politics and government. And I’m leaving out the TV stations because, frankly, I don’t watch them very much. (I will note that, for all their shortcomings, both WCAX and WPTZ are much better at covering substantive news than most big-city TV operations, which are obsessed with violent crime and produced as if their audiences have ADD/ADHD.)

The new year has seen the emergence of a clear Big Three, and they aren’t the ones you’d expect. After that, there’s a big newspaper on the decline, a smaller paper hanging in there, and a rare throwback to the golden age of radio.

Still the champ: VTDigger, which continues to maximize its limited resources and provide an essential stream of news and information. In the Desert Island scenario, if I had to choose one media outlet, it’d be VTDigger. Anne Galloway has built (is building) something really remarkable. And it’s not easy being the Tampa Bay Rays of Vermont media: constantly losing reporters to bigger outlets and developing the next crop of talent.

Number 2 is Seven Days. Its newly beefed-up reporting staff is knocking out three or four can’t-miss stories every week. At a time when many free weeklies are falling apart — mainly thanks to corporate ownership — we’re lucky to have local ownership at Seven Days, who are investing their healthy ad revenues into a vibrant news operation.

Close behind, and poised to overtake, is Vermont Public Radio. VPR was a sleeping giant for a long time; most of its longer-form stories were rehashes of whatever was in the morning papers (or on VTDigger), and I never felt the need to catch VPR’s local news segments or listen online. That’s changed since the first of the year. Now I try to visit VPR’s website at least once a day, and there’s usually at least one story (often by Peter Hirschfeld) that hasn’t been reported elsewhere.

I downgrade VPR somewhat because it has so many resources, it could do even better. VPR has a huge staff and top-heavy management, and it’s such a fundraising powerhouse that it sucks a lot of the oxygen out of the nonprofit environment. Which means VPR should meet very high expectations; lately, it’s begun to approach them.  More, please.

Those are the new Big Three. Together, they provide a healthy amount of news coverage, especially given our current age of media decline and unpredictability. They’re not perfect, and a lot of news goes uncovered; but we’re hella lucky compared to many other, larger markets.

After the jump: kudos to Steve Pappas and Mark Johnson; another raspberry for the Freeploid.

Haven’t got to the Freeploid yet, have I? Nnnnnope. After the Big Three, in this order:

The Mitchell Family Organ. The Times Argus and Herald are sadly underfunded, and the MFO’s capital bureau is again reduced to a single reporter. But hell, I give the Mitchells a lot of credit for just continuing to publish a daily paper in two small markets. And, more often than not, the MFOs deliver at least a couple of good stories every day. I’m a Times Argus reader, and its editor, Steve Pappas, is one of my Heroes of Journalism: he has a tiny budget to work with, he deals with constant turnover on his news team, and he produces a lot of copy himself while also riding herd on the entire operation. I hope the Mitchells realize how fortunate they are to have him. And if he ever leaves, any other news organization would be wise to snap him up ASAP.

— Ah, the Burlington Free Press. Doubly enfeebled by declining ad revenue and its money-hungry corporate owner Gannett. It’s also become less relevant to anyone outside Chittenden County due to its obvious diminishment of State House and statewide political news in favor of purely local content. The Freeploid has two State House reporters, but they don’t produce as much as the MFO’s one (now Neal Goswami; formerly Peter Hirschfeld). I can’t say that’s their fault; I suspect it’s a matter of editorial priorities. The Freeploid is now the most underperforming player in our media landscape (performance compared to resources), now that VPR has upped its game.

— And finally, but this is no disgrace, WDEV. Its news service is mainly rip-and-read, but it is dedicated to local programming. In itself, that’s a big plus in this age of mega-media. But its crowning jewel is The Mark Johnson Show, an invaluable platform for public discussion and debate. While VPR has a swarm of producers around everything it puts on the air, Mark single-handedly gets the most important guests and asks the key questions. If VPR wasn’t so timid about breaking the modern public-radio mold (nothing longer than 4 minutes), it could do Vermont a huge service by giving Mark a daily platform to engage a statewide conversation.

Yes, I know, Vermont Edition. That’s nice, but it’s limited. I’d like to see VPR — and other public radio stations elsewhere — step out of its comfort zone and fill a couple of daily hours with local conversation. The midmorning and midafternoon ratings aren’t that strong anyway; why not take a bit of a chance? And in the process, do more to justify your place in the nonprofit world and the media landscape?

VPR produces more local programming than most public radio stations, but even so, the vast majority of its broadcast day is spent airing programs produced elsewhere. Many of those programs are worthwhile, but if you look at where the hours and resources go, VPR is no more a “local” station than any of the commercial talk or music stations that are basically repeaters for national programming.  

So there’s my State of the Media report. Your thoughts are welcome, as always.  

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