STOWE, Vermont — "What's the deadline for classified advertising?" comes a disembodied voice from somewhere inside the modest but airy offices of the Stowe Reporter. "Caller wants to know."
"Noon today!" is the firm response from the same general location. It was typical no-frills dialogue to be heard at lots of newsrooms, not just one nestled in a famous and bucolic ski resort. But this newspaper is overseen in a most unconventional way.
For sure, The Reporter is part of an area media amalgam that attests to the abiding relevance of the irrepressibly local.
There are stories this week on the heartfelt return to town of a school teacher who had heart transplant surgery in Boston; a shortage of EMS volunteers; state help to rebuild the storied Stone Hut house atop nearby Mount Mansfield, which burned to the ground due to an accident involving kids staying there; and word of 1970s' rocker Todd Rundgren ensconced in the fabled Trapp Family Lodge founded and long run by the Von Trapps from "The Sound of Music."
But the small two-story wood structure also serves as a window onto workplace life in the press. In this case, the editor in chief, perhaps decked out in New England tweed or charcoal gray L.L Bean chamois, tends not to be found in a corner office or even nearby in some rustic mountain chalet.
No, Tom Kearney is by and large in Philadelphia, or roughly 430 miles away.
"I've never heard of a remote editor for micro-level weeklies, but I know the communities, the people and the newspapers very well," says Kearney, whom I met during his long tenure as executive editor of The Keene (New Hampshire) Sentinel.
He oversees three weekly papers with a total staff of 23 in towns along route Route 100 in a state of 625,000, meaning its got the usual two senators (one named Sanders) but just one congressman, all Democrats. The Reporter (circulation 5,000), founded in 1958, offers two sections for a mere 75 cents. Its hometown is a renowned ski capital with some high-end hotels and resorts, many seven-figure homes, a big percentage of second homes and a range of citizens from telecommuting finance executives to ski bums. The paper has been voted New England's best in its category twice in the last five years.
The freebie Waterbury Record, 10 miles south, is a relative newbie, started in 2007, with a 5,000 circulation. Its home is a big beer locale, with its best-known brewery being The Alchemist, whose products include Heady Topper. But the town was creamed by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 and has taken all this time to return economically.
The News & Citizen of Morrisville, which is 10 miles north, is also free and with a 13,000 circulation, as it's distributed throughout all of very rural Lamoille County, except in Stowe. Its editor, Mickey Smith, died at 45 of a heart attack last year, with Kearney then becoming editor of all three.
But, as I saw, his remit includes several glossy magazines, too. Stowe Guide and Magazine, a twice-a-year effort for tourists, is also award-winning. Greg Popa, who is publisher of Stowe Reporter LLC, is publisher and editor of the magazine. He runs the company day-to-day.
In addition, they crank out Stowe Weddings and Green Mountain Weddings, both annual publications, and 4393 Awards. 4393 Awards? It's named for the height of Mount Mansfield in Stowe, the state's highest peak. Readers vote for best pizza, bartender, etc., and it discloses the results. Finally, there's an annual mountain-biking section called Ride and two Home and Garden sections per year, among other special section. At first glance, they are all richly imbued with a sense of place.
Kearney's boss of bosses is Bob Miller, the majority owner, who was once the youngest publisher in Sports Illustrated's history. He rose in the Time Inc. chain when that iconic print world thrived and was involved with startups such as Martha Stewart Living and Vibe (with the legendary musician-producer-conductor Quincy Jones). He lives in New York, where he has other properties, including Tennis magazine, and runs The Freedom Institute, an alcoholism treatment center. He was a minority owner of the Vermont operation until he took a majority interest from former publisher Biddle Duke (who still owns a share) two years ago.
And, then, there's Kearney, who joined the Sentinel as a reporter in 1968, moved up the editing ranks to city editor, managing editor for news and, from 1984 until 2005, executive editor. While there, "He was absolutely one of the good guys in the media, a driving force in insisting on openness in government and taking The Sentinel — and other New Hampshire papers — into front lines of court battles to force open government," says Frank Dobisky, a former newspaper editor who ran a national higher-education communications firm in Keene during that period.
Kearney joined the Stowe Reporter as managing editor right after that, left for 18 months on a startup project in 2014 and, after that folded, returned to Stowe, where he's executive editor of the three papers.
When I popped into their offices, one Kearney colleague said that, no huge surprise, there have been some "hiccups," but that generally things have gone quite well with the arrangement. It justified finding out a bit more from Kearney, a member of the New England Newspaper & Press Association Hall of Fame.
Tom, how did you wind up in Philadelphia, editing publications in Vermont?
My wife, Maria Archangelo, took a job as publisher and executive director of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, a nonprofit that examines issues in Philadelphia’s public schools and pushes for improvements. I talked to Greg Popa about the possibility of working remotely three weeks of every four, with the fourth week in Stowe. We agreed to try it. I’ve never heard of a remote editor for micro-local weeklies, but I know the communities, the people and the newspapers very well, and I do a lot of communicating with the public by phone and email. The staff and I communicate every day by phone, and constantly by email and in a chatbox. I attend meetings via video.
How do you balance sitting in Philly with going back up there to see the staff and getting a feel of the area?
Time in the office is important; I can hear and overhear conversations, get a feel for morale, have heart-to-hearts with staff members about things on their minds and reconnect with the entire operation. Plus, I think the temperature in the newsroom goes up when I’m in it, and that really helps with managing and motivation.
This is an age, obviously, of telecommuting, or whatever one might call working — in your case editing — from afar. What are the lessons learned so far? There has been copy-editing going on for quite some time from elsewhere. I once had a Daily Beast piece edited abroad so it could save on expenses late at night at headquarters in New York. In print, digital and TV, there's been a lot of centralization of editorial functions. But what's the challenge in actually managing an editorial staff from another location, as you are doing?
When I was working at Hibu Community Magazines (the startup that he was at), I spent six months building a copy desk in India. We had a 30-minute conversation every morning about American speech patterns, idiomatic expressions and how to deal with conversational English. By the end, the India editors were editing all staff copy for 500 monthly magazines and doing a terrific job. We also had about 100 magazine editors working remotely, and I figured out systems for rating the quality of their work and for organizing training sessions based on what we were finding. So, I had some experience with managing and motivating a remote team.
We have a young news team, and I think of us as a teaching newspaper — a real-world graduate school where we’ll teach inexperienced reporters how to do things well. The handicap in working remotely is that I can’t hear the conversations that indicate a story is going south in a hurry, or that a reporter is taking "no" for an answer when there are six other ways to get the story. However, I have two excellent assistant editors, Hannah Marshall and Tommy Gardner, who keep me posted on those matters so I can get involved as needed. I’m also doing most of the editing on staff stories, so I can critique and suggest and explain through email, phone, chat or videoconference.
Are the traditional editing duties easier to handle than, say, the unexpected personnel matters? Somebody wants a raise, or is unhappy about some matter, or any occasional office tensions, etc.? Do you ever say, "Boy, I had best handle this in person when I get back?"
There’s certainly the potential for that, but it hasn’t been a real issue yet. I think my time in the Stowe office comes often enough that issues don’t fester.
We tend to write about changes in media from the perspective of the larger players. For every story about a small operation, there might be 50 about The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN or BuzzFeed. Having been an adroit practitioner at smaller, local enterprises for most of your career, what do you see from your perspective? How has this new world — replete with giant economic tumult and digital transformation — impacted, say, small news operations in New England?
I think one of the untold success stories in American journalism is the micro-local community newspaper, provided it is run well and managed smartly. There’s a real connection between those newspapers and their communities; we are the place where the community story is being told and where people in the community talk to one another.
We do a high percentage of enterprise stories, ensuring people get news from us that they can’t get anywhere else, and I think we tackle the important stories in the community, helping to set the agenda for community discussion. We make sure we have a lot of voices in the paper, and we print a lot of small news — dean’s list, school lunch menu, family reunions, birthdays — that’s the kind of information that helps to keep a community connected. We have a strong online presence, too; stowetoday.com is a portal to our newspaper sites, and it’s less about news than it is about things going on in town, giving you a feel for the community.
Finally, if you had a crystal ball, what would you like to know about the news business in coming years?
I believe an informed citizen makes a good decision, but many citizens are less informed than they once were. I worry that people aren’t getting a well-rounded picture of what’s at stake in our democracy. Will people consume fragmented, narrow-issue information and think they’re getting the whole picture, or will they realize that they need a broad grounding in the issues of today and turn to high-quality news operations that can provide it?