By: John Curran
Ed Shamy’s got a column to write.
His deadline can wait, though. It’ll have to. First, there’s the newsroom trash cans, which are overflowing again. And the bathroom is getting skanky, so he’ll scrub that down.
In between the cleaning tasks, the phone calls and pushing a newspaper-laden wheelbarrow to the outdoor recycling bin — “wheelbarrows don’t go so good in snow, I’ve found,” he says — he’ll write his column. This week, it’s about an entrepreneur’s new shuttle service for people wanting to visit loved ones in Vermont prisons.
Next week, who knows. For Shamy, a veteran newspaper reporter, editor and columnist, that’s life at the County Courier, a small-town weekly where he’s carving a niche for himself.
Laid off from his job as a columnist at the Burlington Free Press in August, the 50-year-old with the bushy mustache and the clever creative streak is getting a crash course in the business side of newspapering.
As publisher, editor and lone full-time employee of the County Courier, he does it all. And he believes there’s a future in papers like his, even as the Internet continues to siphon readers and advertisers away from big-city dailies.
“I believe, in (Samuel) Clemens-ish style, that reports of the death of the newspaper are greatly exaggerated,” he said. “I don’t know that the future of newspapers is big metros, but this place is so rock-solid embedded in this community, it has a lot of life.”
Indeed, the paper occupies a unique spot in this dairy farming community in northern Vermont, a 20-minute drive from the Canadian border.
It publishes a “Life on the Farm” column and a deer harvest report, middle school honor rolls and obituaries, letters to the editor and high school sports stories with photos.
And its newsroom — a one-room storefront on Main Street — is a kind of village green in tiny Enosburg Falls (pop. 1,443), with locals stopping in to drop off classified ads, shoot the breeze or vent about last week’s issue.
“It’s really a valuable piece of the community,” said businesswoman Suzanne Hull-Parent. “People were concerned when it went up for sale that we’d lose our paper.”
Shamy, a newspaper industry journeyman who’d worked for 26 years for papers in Maryland, New Jersey, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., before moving to Vermont 10 years ago to take a job at the Burlington paper, was an unexpected buyer.
Laid off on the day before his 50th birthday, he and wife Kim Asch wanted to stay in Vermont but knew that finding work at a newspaper would be difficult, if not impossible. They learned the County Courier, whose roots go back to 1878, was for sale and bid on it.
Rejected by commercial lenders when they sought help with financing, they turned to the Economic Development Council of Northern Vermont, a St. Albans nonprofit that makes business loans for expansions and startups. Neither Shamy nor the previous owner would divulge the purchase price or how much the council loaned for the deal.
“He’s got a lot of great ideas,” said Donna Reed, business and support administrator for the council. “He really did his homework, and went out and talked to people before he bought it. He’s got some good plans.”
So far, he’s put out nine issues of the 75-cent tabloid — in the process getting in touch with menial tasks he’d never handled before.
He opens mail, stuffs envelopes, fields complaints and helps unload the advertising inserts from a tractor-trailer that pulls up once a week outside the brick building, sending all hands outside to lift the stacks of fliers off the trucks and carry them inside.
And he writes a column, of course — about the traffic bottleneck at the Swanton municipal complex, about Vermont’s penchant for elections, about the local guy who found a battered book of mysteries along a roadside and set out to find its owner.
What he doesn’t have yet is a paycheck, but that’s his own decision.
“This is the opportunity of a lifetime for me, to stay connected to people because this paper already is connected, in the most intimate way possible, to the people who read it. My job is to expand that pool, possibly convince a new generation of their role.
“By reporting on the news, by telling people who was born and who died, by telling people about that big fire, you are keeping the glue of a community together,” he said.
Shamy believes papers like the County Courier are the future of newspapers, not the past. And he’s not the only person who thinks so, as daily newspapers in much bigger markets struggle to stay above water despite shrinking revenues and readership.
“These smaller newspapers really are in a very good position, and they’re in that position because they’re delivering the news that’s important to people in that community,” said Al Cupo, vice president of operations for Suburban Newspapers of America, a Traverse City, Mich.-based trade association for suburban and community papers.
“People go to different sources for national and international news in a lot of places. But they’re not getting the information about their school districts from too many other sources,” Cupo said.
Shamy, while admitting he’s terrified of the challenges ahead, is taking them on with optimism and humor.
Sitting in a creaky chair in the newsroom on a below-zero day recently, he was philosophical about his new venture.
“This is the future of newspapers,” he said. “The future of newspapers is rooted firmly in 1878. Some guy was doing … 130 years ago, exactly in a place like this … what I’m doing right now. Except he had a better heating system.”