By Bill Porter
Editor’s note: This commentary first appeared in the March/April 1996 issue of The Bridge, when the paper was just two years old.
Sometimes, just as you’re about to abandon a cherished hope or give up in disillusionment on a favorite institution, something happens that renews your spirit. Remember Montpelier’s response to the Great Flood of March 11, 1992, when the city suddenly became a symbol for rebirth of the fuzzy concept called “community?” That’s the kind of phenomenon I mean.
The Bridge is another one. Who would have believed that in the 1990s when Rush is the media rage and Newt is the soul of democracy, an honest, local, text-heavy newspaper could survive past birth?
Not only has The Bridge survived, but now after two years and 10 issues, it has just hired its first paid staff people. This success story may be the best news for Montpelier since the ice on the Winooski finally broke up on that March day four years ago.
The paper’s founders and the volunteers who have nurtured it deserve full credit for this success. But as with almost every other enterprise, they probably could not have made it work if the timing had not also been right. The Bridge has survived because Montpelier was ready for it.
And that fact, the readiness of the community to accept an independent, under-funded, serious-minded newspaper is cause for optimism for anyone who hates the counter trend that is so evident across the country. Elsewhere, the separation between entertainment and information has become blurred to the point of disappearing. The most successful media outlets are the largest, the most shallow, and, it seems to me, the most cynical; the news sellers who set out merely to tell us consumers what we want to hear.
Maybe the survival of The Bridge means the market, at least in Montpelier, is smarter than the marketers, that glitz and celebrity gossip, the fast food of the information industry, is not the only palatable diet. Maybe we have reached a place in time when truly local papers can succeed by publishing news that is truly important to their readers.
What does a local newspaper offer its customers? Evidently, judging from reports in past issues, The Bridge is struggling for an answer to that question. Some may want it to be a mirror for the community, simply an accurate reflection of routine life in a particular town. The logical extension of this sort of vision is a newspaper that polls the citizens, then reports what the survey finds. This is the sort of journalism that, in the words of E.B. White, is practiced best by “brightly colored birds with split-tongues and chimpanzees who can type.”
Some would be satisfied with a local newspaper that served essentially as a bulletin board, announcing future events and reporting on the facts of events that have just happened. This view assumes, of course, that facts are the same as information, which they are not.
Others would create a newspaper in the image of a cheerleader, a booster for the community that sees, hears, and speaks no evil. This Doctor Feelgood type of newspaper is perhaps the most dangerous of all since it discourages a community from taking its own temperature.
Many of journalism’s most ardent supporters believe that the mission is to advance partisan positions on the current issues that are important to a community. This is the Thomas Paine school of newspapering, and it has a long and honorable history. The flaw is that it presupposes the existence of a second, maybe a third, fourth, and fifth, newspaper to take the other positions in a debate. Most towns, including Montpelier, are very lucky if they have a single local paper.
So, what is a good local newspaper? All of the above, at various times, and more. It is, at its best, a community’s First Citizen, the one who attends the meetings, researches the questions, considers the options, identifies the problems, assesses the strengths, explains the circumstances, solicits others’ opinions and efforts. A local newspaper does what every good citizen would do for the community if he or she had the time, the energy, and the wit. And it does so without regard for its own self-interest and without fear of any other citizen.
In addition to performing the duties of First Citizen, the newspaper has the further responsibility of communicating with all the other citizens in an interesting, informative, simple, and timely manner. Furthermore, the local paper has the duty of bringing back to the community information from the outside that would be useful. It should, for instance, tell the other citizens what the shenanigans in Washington will mean to Montpelier and it should tell the local taxpayers how their burden compares with the citizens in other towns.
Perhaps The Bridge has not yet mastered all of these functions. But it’s trying and it will get better every year. If Montpelier continues to support it, the paper some day will turn into the local institution that every community needs, the leader in public affairs that does not change with the political seasons, that does not die or become out-dated, and does not move on when an opportunity arises to make more money somewhere else.
Bill Porter died in April 2022. He was a former editor of the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus and was director of corporate relations for Green Mountain Power.