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In Age Of Media Mergers And Layoffs, Barton Chronicle Keeps Local Flavor

A white barn with a green roof and the words 'The Chronicle' painted on it.
Erica Heilman
If you work at the Washington Post, you're probably never going to run into the people you're writing about. If you work at the Barton Chronicle, you certainly will.

The Barton Chronicle is a weekly community newspaper founded in 1974 by Chris and Ellen Braithwaite. It covers all the towns of Orleans County, and a little bit of Essex County. In 2014, the Braithwaites sold the paper to several longtime employees who have kept the paper independent. Erica Heilman talked with them about what it means to put out a weekly, community newspaper.  

Chris Braithwaite wanted to make a weekly paper that covered the small towns of Orleans County as seriously as any urban paper covers its metropolitan area. And in rural Vermont, a Lake Region Union High School soccer championship is serious. A story about Glover running out of road sand in March is serious. And an award-winning series about the fate of a local sex offender, that’s serious too.

All these stories are “big stories,” and covered with the same care, the same gravity, at the Barton Chronicle. When I open the newspaper, it feels deeply of this place. And in a time when corporations are gobbling up local papers, this feeling is … rare.  

Here’s news editor Tena Starr: 

Tena: “We’re a community paper. So, we are not just putting ‘Here’s the worst ten things that happened this week’ in the paper. We’re putting things that reflect the whole community. Here’s what the kids are doing. Here’s what the old people are doing. A community is made up of all kinds of people with all kinds of concerns, and we want to address as many of those and as wide a variety of those as we can.”  

"A community is made up of all kinds of people with all kinds of concerns, and we want to address as many of those and as wide a variety of those as we can."— Tena Starr, Barton Chronicle editor

Me: “Can you describe the range of things that you can cover, that you do cover in this paper.” 

Tena:” It could be about anything. One time a woman came to see me, and she was quite desperate. And she said, ‘Could you please write a story about me and tell people that I don’t have AIDS.’ And I knew she was the local prostitute, and she was very distraught because hunting season was coming up, and she said that was her busiest season, and she wasn’t getting any business because the rumor had gone around that she had AIDS.

Tena continued: “And she wanted me to write a story saying she did not, and she showed me her medical report, and I said, ‘Well, I can’t write it just even based on this. I have to get this verified, that this is true. It was on Halloween actually, when she came in here, so I was wearing a square-dance skirt and a cowboy hat and cowboy boots and a little plastic gun in a holster, and that’s what I was wearing, and I had to go to her doctor’s office like that. So her doctor finally agreed to see me and he said, ‘This is true,’ and our lead story that week was that this woman did not have AIDS. It was sort of a public service. So what we do is very wide-ranging.”

If you work at the Washington Post, you’re probably never going to run into the people you’re writing about. If you work at the Barton Chronicle, you will. At the gas station, at the grocery store, an occasional family reunion … 

Tena: “When I first started working here, Chris said, ‘Well, I guess if you can’t write about people you’re related to, you’re not going to be able to write anything at all.’ Yes. From time to time, I have to write about my relatives. Fortunately, I don’t think any of them are criminals.”

Here’s reporter Joseph Gresser:

Joseph: “If I worked for a larger paper, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to run into the people I write about and have them say, ‘You made a mistake,’ or, ‘You did a good job.’ I mean, that kind of feedback is immensely important. I think the reporters on the New York Times would benefit greatly if they ran into people that they write about and had them say, ‘No no no. You missed it.’ It matters, when you live with the people that you’re writing about, that you get things right. Because they know it, you know they know it, and you know who they are.”  

"It matters, when you live with the people that you're writing about, that you get things right. Because they know it, you know they know it, and you know who they are." — Joseph Gresser, Barton Chronicle reporter

Tena: “Some of the statewide media talks about their fear for the loss of local news, and they feel some need to fill in that gap. But there is quite a bit of local news that’s done in a way that they’re just not going to ever be able to do. They’ve got maybe a person semi-dedicated to a region. We have a whole office dedicated to two counties.”  

Joseph: “Every town that we cover has different issues. I mean, you’d think that because they’re all in the same area of the state, an area that in general terms is one of the poorer parts of the state, you would think the problems in every town would be similar. But they aren’t, because what you have in towns are people. And they aren’t all the same. And towns develop a character, and you find that pretty quickly.” 

The Barton Chronicle headquarters is an old house on Water Street in Barton Village. It’s stuffed with archived papers. Router cables snake up one wall and down another. You’re not going to find any hydraulic desks at the Barton Chronicle. Like most newspapers, it is not a lucrative business.  

Joseph: “The subscription price pays for printing and that kind of thing, but if we’re going to make money, it’s going to be because people pay to advertise in the newspaper.”  

Me:  “How is that going?” 

Joseph: “Well, the world is changed. A big change was in 2008, when a lot of businesses struggled to get by. And since then, some of them haven’t been advertising. More important, I think, is the rise of Amazon, that an awful lot of the businesses in our area don’t exist anymore. And we’ve tried to adjust to it, and we continue to try to adjust to it. People buy the ads they can afford to buy, and you know, this is not the richest part of the world. Whether that’s going to be the model that works forever, it’s hard to say. If it were up to me entirely, it would go on like this forever. Almost nothing is up to me.”

Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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