BRADFORD, Vt. — The Bradford-based Journal Opinion changed hands earlier this month, but readers can rest assured that the new owners are familiar with the weekly paper and the community it covers.
Longtime Journal Opinion employee Michelle Sherburne, along with her husband, Rodney, officially purchased the newspaper from previous owner and publisher Connie Sanville on Oct. 1, ensuring a sense of continuity for the paper and the 32 Upper Valley communities it serves.
“We are trying to have a seamless transition,” Michelle Sherburne, a Newbury, Vt., resident, said. “Connie has done a wonderful job for 35 years … We want to follow that legacy and keep the (Journal Opinion) out there covering the news the best we can.”
While Sanville did receive interest from potential out-of-state buyers, she prioritized selling it to someone with local roots.
“It was extremely important to me that someone would buy it that knows the local area and what people want to read in the newspaper,” said Sanville, a Haverhill resident who began working at the paper in 1985 before buying it from then-owner Robert Huminski in 2007. “I want it to be here in 15 years, or even 100 years from now.”
The Sherburnes’ takeover of the paper, which has a print circulation of about 2,500 and around 550 digital subscribers, is welcome news to Patti Clark, the Bradford branch manager of Wells River Savings Bank, the Journal Opinion’s largest advertiser.
“I don’t think there is anyone better to take ownership,” Clark said. “Michelle’s been here. She knows, and is vested in, the community. And she’s very creative and has a lot of energy.”
Michelle Sherburne’s involvement at the Journal Opinion first began in the mid-1980s when just days after graduating from Blue Mountain Union High School in Wells River she took a production job at the paper, eventually finding herself also writing and editing articles, and taking photos. She then moved on to a typesetting position at the Caledonian-Record in St. Johnsbury where she worked her way up to the newsroom as a copy editor before returning to the Journal Opinion in 2000, where she has been ever since. Prior to the ownership change, she was the paper’s advertising and marketing manager.
She said her experience in nearly every aspect of local news operations, from production and printing to sales and being a reporter and photographer, has prepared her to tackle the myriad tasks she will encounter as publisher. That is especially handy at a small paper like the Journal Opinion where it’s common for staffers to wear many different hats.
“At small papers you get to learn how everything is done,” Michelle Sherburne said. “When you have a small staff and the (police) scanner goes off and something is happening, whoever is available to go, goes, even if they are not in the newsroom.
“I’ve done everything there is, the paper route, putting labels on the paper, being a reporter.”
Sanville said Michelle Sherburne has the required industry experience.
“(She) knows the ins and outs of newspaper publishing,” Sanville said. “Not everyone does.”
The Sherburnes’ purchase comes at a time when newspapers, and especially small-town weeklies, have struggled to adapt to digital disruptions to the print paper business model that have led to losses of advertisers and readers.
According to the University of North Carolina’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media, more than 2,000 newspapers — one-fourth of the nation’s total — have closed since 2004. Of those, the vast majority were weeklies like the Journal Opinion.
In just the past month Vermont has seen two print publications either move entirely online or cease operations altogether. As reported by Seven Days at the end of September, the University of Vermont student newspaper Vermont Cynic ceased its print operations and will now publish online only, while the weekly Waterbury Reader shuttered its operations entirely. Earlier this week, the Burlington Free Press‘ parent company, Gannett, announced several cost-cutting measures that, according to the New York Timesinclude a week of mandatory unpaid leave and voluntary buyouts. In announcing the moves, according to the Times’s story, Gannett’s chief executive cited a “deteriorating macroeconomic environment.”
The Sherburnes are all too aware of the prevailing market trends, but they said a close look at the Journal Opinion‘s history of surviving even the most dire times gave them the confidence to move forward with the deal.
“When the opportunity arose, we decided to really do our homework and what we came up with was that the Journal Opinion has a unique history and a unique territory,” Michelle Sherburne said. “It’s an established, self-sustaining business and Connie shepherded it through the 2008 economic crash. And then we had the (COVID-19) pandemic hit. We realized that with those huge tests, the (Journal Opinion) can get through the very worst. We are still standing and that is a testimonial in itself.”
To one longtime newspaperman who closely follows the Vermont newspaper industry, the Journal Opinion’s history and location make it well positioned to continue weathering the industry’s headwinds.
“People know that the Journal Opinion has been here for a long time, generations, and people turn to it for their news and it’s well respected within the local community and the journalism community,” said Mike Donoghue, the executive director of the Vermont Newspaper Association who spent nearly 50 years as a reporter at the Burlington Free Press and has on occasion been a freelance reporter for the Journal Opinion and the Valley Newsamong other outlets.
“And businesses on both sides of the river support the paper,” Donoghue said. “That’s their market. If they want to sell and be profitable, they really need to be in the local newspaper.”
While they don’t plan to make too many changes, Michelle Sherburne said she and her husband would like to grow the paper by gaining more advertisers. “More advertising means more pages, which means more coverage,” she noted.
Rodney Sherburne will help in that department by putting his years of experience in local sales to work as a part-time advertising sales representative.
And a website update is also in the works.
“In the next six months we’d like to update our website so that it’s an active website, not just a placeholder,” Michelle Sherburne said. “There is a large demographic of younger people who we want to reach and right now we really can’t reach them.”
One thing that won’t be changing is the Journal Opinion’s undivided devotion to covering local news.
“It’s crucial to have a newspaper keeping the public informed, and especially in smaller towns it’s good to keep a lookout for things that don’t seem right,” Michelle Sherburne said. “We have no Associated Press or national or state news. It’s all community news that you can’t get just anywhere. There is no source that is covering what’s happening in Fairlee, Piermont, Orford or Bradford. Our job is to cover communities not served anywhere else.”
Justin Campfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.