At its beginnings, The Bridge was then, and in many ways is still, a very grassroots enterprise.
I have a strong memory of that very first moment in May 1993 when Phil Dodd and I sat down over a cup of coffee at the old Horn of the Moon Café on Langdon Street and talked about founding a Montpelier community newspaper.
Phil and I were quickly joined by about 20 to 30 other people, all volunteers—people who kept their involvement with the paper—Bernie Folta, Jake Brown, Nancy Schulz, Greg Gerdel, Kate Mueller, Dan Pfister, Dan Renfro, the list goes on and on.
We met about once a week or so for six months to lay the groundwork for the first issue of The Bridge that was published in December 1993.
As I remember it, the push for a community paper had its roots in wanting to dig harder and know more about what was happening in Montpelier and a need for better, more in-depth, reporting.
We started with very little. We had ourselves. But we had no money, no office, no track record of putting out a paper, and nobody got paid a dime.
But we knew we wanted to create a community paper that would celebrate the wonderful life and diversity of Montpelier. We wanted a paper that would tell readers what was happening in Montpelier, at City Hall, in our schools and colleges. And what about the Montpelier Farmers Market? What about downtown? And what about the increasingly dynamic books and arts and theater and night life scene?
I continue to marvel at the support we enjoyed from the downtown business community as business owners bought advertising in our first paper. We had nothing to show. We had never published a paper before. And yet they were buying ads in The Bridge—for me—an unforgettable act of faith.
For that first issue, some of us reported and wrote stories. Some of us sold ads as well. Steve Larose designed our first issue on his computer and it was printed by Upper Valley Press. We simply took the money we got from selling ads and paid the printing bill.
We were not an overnight success—far from it. We put out that first issue in December 1993 and may have published four issues in 1994. We ran the paper by committee. We rotated editors, reported stories, sold ads, distributed the paper ourselves, and crawled forward. At some point during our first 10 years of life, we managed to publish 12 issues a year—or once a month.
Getting our first office was a very big deal. Paying out a small commission to a few people who sold ads was another step forward. Over time, we assembled a very small, part-time staff. Eventually we began paying freelance writers by the word and we still pay freelance writers by the word.
The committee structure was democratic but cumbersome. We didn’t always agree. We didn’t agree about publishing a story about Berlin Pond because Berlin Pond, the source of Montpelier’s drinking water supply, is situated in the Town of Berlin and not everyone approved of our publishing a story that was outside of Montpelier. We wrangled about whether or not to accept paid advertising inserts in The Bridge. Not everyone liked inserts. Inserts, many felt, were trashy. But they provided needed revenue. We disagreed with our board of directors about whether or not The Bridge should publish its own editorial comment. The board didn’t like the idea and we held off on publishing our own clearly marked editorials for a number of years.
After a time, Jake Brown and I proposed to the board of directors that we buy the paper and change it from a not-for-profit into a private business, with the aim of putting out a paper that was good enough to make money. In a split vote, the board agreed and The Bridge became a limited liability corporation (LLC).
Jake and I had a dynamic and joyous business partnership. But running the paper as a business didn’t produce the money we wanted. In the heyday of our partnership, each of us took home a paycheck of $400/month, a meager return on our efforts.
Many people who experienced the moment, never forgot exactly where they were and what they were doing on September 11, 2001 when the terrorist planes flew into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, and later, as the towers collapsed.
After the 9/11 attacks, something changed forever. We were still running The Bridge, selling ads, reporting the news. But both the national and the Vermont economy suffered in the months and years after those attacks. As a nation, we became aware of our vulnerability and in due course, America was at war overseas.
In 2004, Jake Brown left the business partnership but on genuinely friendly terms.
Suddenly, I was owner of The Bridge and running the paper as editor and publisher.
I remember a friend, himself a very successful businessman, meeting with me and saying candidly, “Nat, you don’t have a single business bone in your body.” He was right. I was running a paper and trying to even out the revenues with the expenditures.
Running the paper was a ride—sometimes a very bumpy ride. When our then business manager embezzled some $14,000—that hurt. Then we decided to become a weekly. But when the big banks began to fail in 2008 and 2009 with the federal bailouts that followed, we found ourselves racking up a mountain of debt—and the paper almost folded.
But The Bridge did not fold. It did not fold because we scaled back our publication schedule, we moved the paper’s office up to space at Vermont College of Fine Arts. And we didn’t fold because people in Montpelier and surrounding communities wanted to keep the paper alive and contributed their own money to make that happen.
Slowly, and over a number of years, we dug ourselves out of debt.
As we emerged from debt, I began feeling, strongly, that although I was owner of The Bridge, the paper really belonged to the community that was there for us when we needed help.
In 2013, as we marked the 20th anniversary of the paper’s founding, I knew, and a few of my close personal friends knew, that at some point I would want to step aside as editor and publisher and open the door to fresh leadership.
Over the past three to four years, and Phil Dodd has often been in a leadership role here, The Bridge has once again become a community-owned and directed not-for-profit organization.
It’s humbling to know that as we approach our 25th anniversary this coming fall, The Bridge is still here and laying plans for the better and sharper and more useful paper we want to become.
What would that more useful paper be like?
Well, as described by my friend Bill Porter, who for many years was managing editor of the Times-Argus, a useful paper can be described as the community’s “first citizen.” That first citizen is doing what any citizen would do if he or she had the time attending and reporting on meetings, digging into complex local stories. But none of us can be in all places at once. But a paper that’s delivering on its mission is at City Hall, at the State House, at School Board meetings, talking to business owners downtown, and telling the stories that people need to understand if they are going to be well-informed and effective citizens.
At city meeting last March, we voted about $23 million for Montpelier schools and about $9 million for the City of Montpelier. Montpelier has two representatives in the Vermont House and three state senators who represent Washington County. Wherever there is tax money being spent, a useful paper would insist upon accountability. Locally, we have business and corporate players and their contributions to our discussions are critical.
A useful paper would be smart and probing on the local issues. It would offer timely and informed leadership when indicated. It would affirm and draw attention to the work of artists, teachers, writers, actors, and musicians in our midst. A useful paper would honor the charitable organizations that add so much to our community: the library, our churches, colleges, the nature center, meal sites and shelters, health centers, clinics and hospitals.
It’s no secret that the past 25 years have been a profoundly difficult time for news gathering and reporting organizations, even for the First Amendment itself.
Many papers have cut their newsroom staff. Many papers have seen a sharp decline in readers. Some papers have shut down. Some papers have backed away from their investigative and reporting responsibilities because of a shortage of resources.
In many ways, regrettably, the field of play has been take over by vested interest groups, huge corporations, pressure groups and their politicians-for-hire—and the U.S. Congress is awash with lobbyists and influence peddlars.
Personally, I worry. I haven’t figured everything out. But I’d like to think that our American system of government—so precious, so fragile, so imperiled—can be renewed in our time. And it must be renewed. It must be renewed because democracy cannot be any stronger than the free press that informs and protects it.
I’m leaving and I will miss the paper. But the paper is here and its mission continues. In no way do I regret stepping aside and making space for fresh— and I hope—adventurous, new leadership. It’s time.