Vermont Journalism Trust aims to produce journalistically sound investigative articles for distribution through traditional and emerging outlets to help Vermonters make civic policy decisions based on informational integrity. VJT ‘s goal is to provide scrutiny to under-covered issues, not to replicate or compete with traditional or emerging news media.
Environment: Vermont’s 620,000 people live in 237 towns and nine “cities,” of which only three have more than 10,000 residents. The work of paid town employees is supplemented by myriad volunteers sitting on town commissions, boards and public safety groups.
Though Vermont often trails national economic indicators, it is recognized nationally as a leader on other fronts -- educational quality, healthcare access, civic involvement, healthful living.
Problem Statement: For the last 200 years, newspapers, and later radio and television, have helped Vermonters develop a common understanding of problems to be addressed in its annual Town Meetings and winter legislature.
But that traditional news media role has been challenged by the well known threats to the business of journalism, leaving Vermonters with significantly less substantive news coverage and even less investigative coverage. The net effect is a heightened concern that Vermonters are losing the decision making ally they have increasingly relied upon. The decline in the economic model supporting daily newspapers has led to the layoff of experienced beat reporters and senior journalists, who have traditionally been the source of hard news on issues facing Vermonters, especially those related to civic life and community governance.
1. Forty years ago, United Press International and the Associated Press in Montpelier competed vigorously with robust news-gathering teams from local papers. Today AP’s capitol staff is skeletal, UPI is defunct and many of the state’s news outlets have closed their capitol bureaus.
2. The expansion of Vermont Public Radio’s (VPR) broadcast reach, and NPR’s news initiatives, has filled the gap for national and international news. And though VPR has increased its in-state coverage, Vermonters still look to daily and weekly newspapers for in-depth news, often with disappointment.
3. Several statewide digital news experiments began in 2009, but only one, VTDigger.org, provides independent journalism not tied to a partisan political viewpoint. The partisan news efforts are tied to ideological funding sources. VT Digger, being independent, is financially challenged.
Purpose: VJT was formed to address the decline in in-depth news sources available to Vermonters and eventually the NE region. Responding to the broadly acknowledged tenet that an active and free press is essential to a functioning democracy, VJT supports quality journalism at the local level, believing that it is essential to the health of small communities.
To better understand changes and challenges in Vermont news media, VJT and The Windham Foundation organized a conference in January 2010. This brought together publishers, owners, editors, academics and working journalists to discuss problems and solutions.
The three most desired initiatives:
1. Commission articles of critical importance to Vermonters and make them available to all existing news media.
2. Fund beat reporters who can develop expertise in areas that get little or no scrutiny.
3. Assist in the creation of a body that would make government data of all kinds more easily available.
The good news is that the ad revenues and paid circulation of community weeklies is proving somewhat more resilient than for the broad-reach Vermont dailies. The bad news is that neither community nor state papers can afford to maintain “beat” or investigative journalists. Like other rural states, Vermont communities face issues that are particularly hard for a state of modest resources to deal with. Journalistic and governance initiatives are widely felt to be shifting from prospective to reactive, undermining the basis for solid civic decision-making.
When challenged to specify stories not seeing the light of day, conference participants had no trouble identifying topics about which there is little prospect for adequate, intelligent coverage. Examples included the fate of Vermont’s aging nuclear facility owned by a company in Alabama, the progress of local and state efforts to conserve and generate renewable energy; the current state of the State’s largest university, the ability of Vermont’s 300,000 tax filers to support a government of 9000 employees and a host of public services, the costs of accelerating out-of-state incarceration rates, the economic impacts of the disappearance of Vermont’s commodity dairy farms and the emergence of artisan, value-added food producers, and the lack of affordable land for either.
The Board of Directors