Shrinkage.

Last week the Rutland Herald, like so many other ladies of a certain age and distinction, got a facelift. The result is a slimmer paper that, despite costing a quarter more and being an inch-and-a-half thinner, is still our same old daily.

Rutlanders have a complicated relationship with the Herald. While I’ve never understood the derogatory “Russian Herald” moniker (is it run by communists?), the name speaks a certain disdain some readers have for our local paper—a paper, I might add, that is the oldest continuously-running, family-owned local newspaper in the country. While so many independent news organizations have been gobbled up by corporate media behemoths like Tribune and Gannett, it’s heartening to see our local paper trying to stay alive.

I am by no means an apologist for the Herald. There have been editorial choices that I’ve disagreed with, and I will continue to remain critical of the content, focus, and tone of the reporting when necessary (as any responsible reader should). Nonetheless, it’s our paper—free of corporate influence and outside interests. And despite your political leanings, you cannot say that the Herald doesn’t present a thoughtful and earnest local perspective.

Naturally, this sounds good to a raving localista such as myself. But we all must recognize the significance of the fact that we still have an independent daily paper. Complain about the Herald all you want—that’s your right—but at the end of the day, we all need to support it. If the Herald were to fold (that’s the only pun, I promise), we would be left with no local reporting—no eye on city government, no local sports coverage, no one to egg on my “feud” with Rutland Town.

Some have suggested that bloggers may benefit from the demise of local papers. God help us if that’s the case. Have you ever read a blog? As a blogger myself I can attest to the fact that 92% of everything we write is libelous and inaccurate (the other 8% is celebrity gossip and Lost fan-fiction).

But like so many newspapers across the country, the Herald is going through a difficult time that is only going to get worse. In the Digital Age, the printed word is struggling to compete. While I do prefer reading a physical paper, I appreciate the convenience and efficiency of the Web—I consume less paper, and am able to read it anywhere for free (sorry, but free is an incentive). Aside from the environmental benefits, the Herald’s slimming saves them $200,000 annually. A savings like that is invaluable right now. However, it’s hard to say if that will be enough. With that concern in mind, I’ve got a couple-few unlikely suggestions on how the Herald can up its sales:

1) Start a “Page 6”-style local gossip section. As any longtime Rutland resident can tell you, there is no dearth of scandal and intrigue in our town. Let’s report on it. Where are Rutland’s favorite local celebs dining? Who was at Muckenschnabel’s last Friday night? Which Rutland hottie was spotted without makeup ordering a latte at Café Terra last weekend? Juicy stuff, right? Paper sales would skyrocket, but you’ll probably have to give back the Pulitzer.

2) Citizen reporters. Judging by the volume and quality of comments on the Herald’s online message boards, there seem to be a number of engaged and articulate readers who should be given a wider forum. Let’s give these eager, thoughtful, and even-tempered folks press passes and set them loose on the community. This does, however, bring up one important question: can all these new reporters call themselves “None None”?

3) Do more twittering. I’m not entirely clear on what Twitter is, but apparently it’s really important and everybody’s doing it. Get on board, guys. This does mean you’ll have to limit all your stories to 140 words of less. On the plus side, this will make the Alderman beat more bearable for Stephanie Peters.

I could keep going, but if I do, this might be my last column. Suffice to say, if local papers are to survive, they need to be current, nimble, and innovative. In any medium, an independent daily needs to demonstrate its commitment to the community and its dedication to local issues. The Herald has provided this service for generations. While we may eventually lose our battle to preserve the print edition, we must ensure that the entity remains. The Herald’s task now is to be ready—to develop a blueprint for the transition to a Web-only format that is economically viable while still maintaining comprehensive and critical local coverage.

(originally published in the Rutland Herald 2/11/09)

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