Island Type

by Bill Simmon

If it’s news in the Islands, George Fowler knows it

Twenty-four years ago, George Fowler bought The Islander, a community newspaper for the northern Champlain Valley and the Champlain Islands. In the intervening years, he and his newspaper have become a community staple. So have Big Foot, Fowler’s cat, and Sonny, a neighbor’s dog that also spends each day in the office.

In 24 years of publishing The Islander newspaper, George Fowler has never missed an issue … except once. It was a few years after taking over the reins of the Grand Isle County community paper. 

After working 365 days a year for a few years in a row, Fowler decided it was finally time to take a day off. He put the current issue to bed and took his family up to Montreal for the day, leaving the delivery of the newspaper to a young man he’d hired to help him out. “He ended up getting arrested and my vehicle was impounded and the paper couldn’t get out that day,” says Fowler. “I decided that’s the last day I’m going to take off for a while.”

Since then, Fowler has managed to get every issue out, and he even takes some time off every now and then.

Fowler sees The Islander, which serves the northern Champlain Valley communities of Alburg, Grand Isle, Isle La Motte, Milton, North Hero and South Hero, and Rouses Point/Champlain, N.Y., as an important part of his community. “I have a philosophy that as a newspaper person, I’m somewhat of a trustee of the community,” he says. “I’m providing a pretty important service to this area out here, and I’ve got to make sure it’s done right; that it’s something people can rely on and trust in.” 

Fowler and his wife, Elaine Sinclair-Fowler, purchased The Islander in 1982 from its founding publisher, Phil Gimli-Mead. Prior to that, Fowler had been the editor of The Northern Logger, a logging industry magazine based in Old Forge, N.Y. 

His move into the community newspaper business was prompted by a desire for self-employment. Settling in Vermont made sense geographically, because it was halfway between Fowler’s hometown of Wolcott, N.Y., and Elaine’s family in the Boston area. 

Fowler describes Elaine as his “silent partner.” She co-publishes The Islander with him but is not involved in the day-to-day operation. She spends her time as an elementary school teacher in Fairfax. 

He and Elaine met on a blind date 38 years ago as sophomores at the University of Maine in Orono. They will celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary in June. “We’ve been partners a long time,” says Fowler.

Like the communities it serves, The Islander’s circulation is modest, though it does experience a bump in the summer months. “We’re a seasonal newspaper,” says Fowler. “In the winter we have about 5,000 [copies] in circulation; in the summer we go up to 7,500 because Grand Isle is a tourist area.”

Leafing through an issue of The Islander offers a glimpse at the minutiae of small-town life. Announcements for spaghetti dinners, town hearings and knitting circles can be found alongside current news items such as road closings, burglaries and legislative updates. 

Occasionally a big story will grab the attention of the citizenry. Tonya Poutry, The Islander’s graphic designer and production and sales manager, says that a 2004 double murder in Isle La Motte occupied much of the staff’s time. “Two local residents that everybody knew were killed by these two teenagers,” she says. “That kept me on my toes quite a bit. That was the biggest news item to happen up here in a very long time. It was very emotional up here.”

There are also public controversies that divide the communities. “Periodically every town has some kind of big controversy,” says Fowler. He recalls an issue over a sea wall in Isle La Motte, and once, during a school board controversy in Alburg, some local residents were so incensed by the issue they took all of one week’s copies of The Islander off the newsstands in that town. “They went into all the stores and took them just after they’d been delivered,” says Fowler. “I guess some people were upset with the way my correspondent was addressing the situation.”

While computers have made things easier in the publishing business, there is now an Internet edition that must be put online each week. Selling ads for the online presence has been a challenge. Tonya Poutry, The Islander’s only office employee, is the graphic designer, and handles production and sales.

The current brouhaha is over what to do with North Hero’s Town Hall. “They’re trying to decide if they’re going to tear it down and build a new one or restore the one that’s there,” says Fowler. “It’s so divisive up there between the two that it’s just about split the town in two.”

Fowler is careful not to let his personal feelings influence how the paper is perceived. He has opinions about all the controversial issues, but he keeps them close to his chest. “If I write an editorial, I may make half of the people happy, but I might make the other half mad at me,” he says. 

Fowler’s neutral editorial stance seems to be working. “I’ve got one arch conservative in this town who accuses me of being a die-hard liberal,” he says. “Then I’ve got some liberal Democrats who consider me the most conservative Republican in town!”

The Islander isn’t the only way that Fowler is engaged with his community. He spent years on the board of his local chamber of commerce, serving as treasurer and president; he sits on the board of the Franklin/Grand Isle United Way; and he’s the treasurer of the South Hero Congregational Church. He’s also active with the Lead Program, Franklin and Grand Isle counties’ leadership training venture.

Fowler’s fellow citizens are aware of his commitment to the community. Yve Mumley is a Realtor in the islands who has advertised in The Islander for 25 years. She describes Fowler as a fixture in area. “He’s very involved in community activities,” she says. “I don’t care if it’s a wine tasting in South Hero or a local tragedy — he’s very sympathetic.” Mumley says that every Friday, Fowler comes to see her in her office and they chat. “Unless it’s hunting season,” she adds.

A visit to The Islander’s South Hero offices will immediately reveal Fowler’s taste for hunting. Deer and elk heads adorn the walls. He enjoys hunting in the Rocky Mountains and in the Adirondacks, where he belongs to a hunting club that maintains an 18,000-acre game reserve. “I’ve been involved in that club since 1960,” he says, “and a member since ’72. My father belonged to it, and I’ve been going there for 45 years.”

Fowler also enjoys traveling, though not as much as his wife, who has traveled extensively. “She’s traveled all over the world,” he says, “though not necessarily with me.” 

Elaine’s travel destinations have included Australia, New Zealand, China, Thailand, Kenya, Nepal, most of Europe, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean.

Her traveling must have rubbed off on their sons. George Jr. — “We call him George II,” Fowler quips — joined the Peace Corps and spent two and a half years in Nepal. Their younger son, Jason, spent time in Spain and is now a Spanish literature graduate student in Illinois. 

All the hunting and traveling and community service work wouldn’t have been possible when Fowler began publishing The Islander. Back then he was all alone, doing everything himself, and the physical process of putting the paper together and getting it ready for printing was much more labor-intensive. Fowler remembers clearly the day he switched over from the old chemical typesetting process to a computer-based system. “The computer was unbelievably big and huge and heavy,” he says. 

Now, The Islander uses the latest hardware and publishing software. “I try to upgrade the computers, if not every year, at least every other year,” he says. “We try to keep pace with technology here as much as possible.”

One way that technology is changing the newspaper business is through the Web. “The Web has impacted daily newspapers tremendously,” says Fowler. “Their classifieds are taking a tremendous hit from the Web.” Fortunately, The Islander has not been hit as hard by the new media revolution. “Grand Isle County has very limited broadband access, and that’s probably helped us to a degree,” says Fowler. 

The Islander does have a Web presence, however. At champlainislander.com, Web surfers can read much of what they’ll find in the print edition of the paper. “We put the editorial on it every week,” says Fowler. 

Paying for the online edition is another story. “It’s especially tough to convince mom-and-pop stores that they need to have a Web presence,” says Fowler. “That’s a real tough sell at this point. It’s probably our next big project — selling ads online.” 

Having an online edition also means that Fowler needs to make sure it, like the print edition, is published when promised. “A lot of people yell at us if it doesn’t come out right on time.”