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Newspaper competition

10/04/02 12:00AM By Allen Gilbert
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(Host) Newspaper readership may be down, but a battle has broken out between two papers in Chittenden County. Commentator Allen Gilbert is watching it with special interest.

(Gilbert) I once worked in newspapers and, as the saying goes, the printer's ink stays in your veins. You feel a special attachment to the industry.

It's been hard not to notice changes over the years in newspaper layout and design, and changes in how stories are played. The recent makeover at the Wall Street Journal, for example, received national attention. But even our local papers here in Vermont have changed. The Burlington Free Press now carries advertisements on its front page, for example. And nearly all Vermont papers now also publish on the Web.

Newspapers are competing for eyeballs, and the competition's been tough. First was television, then the Internet. Newspaper executives have sponsored exhaustive readership studies to find out how they can hold onto their audiences. They know that in 1975 slightly more than 75% of adults were regular newspaper readers. By 2000 the figure was below 60%. Interestingly, though, local weekly papers often fare better than bigger dailies. All this makes newspapers defend their share of readers - and of advertisers - with particular zeal. It's in this context that the fight in Chittenden County, in the town of Colchester, is so interesting.

Ever hear of the Colchester Sun? It's no wonder if you haven't. The Sun is a brand new weekly that's set up shop in one of Chittenden County's fast-growing suburbs. Normally that wouldn't be particularly newsworthy. But the alternative weekly newspaper Seven Days pointed out in a recent story that the launching of the Sun may have a David and Goliath undertone to it.

Colchester, like many suburban communities, has had its own little newspaper for years - the Colchester Chronicle. The biweekly has been well read in this town of 17,000 people. Ad revenue has been boosted through an advertising consortium put together by other local papers in Chittenden County.

Small local papers are threats to established dailies. The weeklies and biweeklies siphon off readers and advertisers. The established daily in Chittenden County, the Free Press, had apparently considered dealing with the Chronicle by buying it. Seven Days says that the Free Press's corporate parent, the giant Gannett news chain, has been testing the viability of operating alternative weeklies in specific market areas. Swallowing up the Chronicle would fit that trend.

But true to what's so darned interesting about life in Vermont is that two local newspaper publishers have decided to launch their own paper in Colchester. Brothers Angelo and Emerson Lynn, who have their own group of four local papers, have founded the Colchester Sun. They plan to go head to head with the Chronicle - and the Gannet Corporation, if the Chronicle sale goes through.

Lucky Colchester. Readers are almost always the winners when there's stiff competition for the news. Hats off to the Lynns for joining the fray. The printer's ink in any newspaper lover's veins has got to be coursing.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert of Worcester is a writer an parent who is active in education issues.
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