A Limited Edition

The Valley’s Type Face

valley_reporterLEAD0012Al Benjamin, a veteran of big-stage urban politics and high-profile journalism in Massachusetts, retired to Vermont in 1971. By 1982, he was back to work as editor and publisher of The Valley Reporter in Waitsfield.

Lisa Loomis had just made the transition from ski bum to newspaper reporter and was receiving story assignments from her boss, Alvan R. “Al” Benjamin, editor and publisher of The Valley Reporter in Waitsfield. Benjamin was ticking off a few story ideas as Lisa took notes and tried to keep track, when, spontaneously, he interrupted himself and unlocked for her the secret of journalism.

“Everything is interesting,” said Benjamin. “Go do it.”

She did. And she’s been doing it ever since that conversation in the spring of 1986, although her status has risen from staff writer to editor of the weekly newspaper that serves the Mad River Valley. The valley’s constituent towns are Warren, Waitsfield, Fayston, and Moretown.

Benjamin’s status has changed, too. In 1986 he had owned The Valley Reporter for just four years, having purchased it in 1982 from Trow Elliman, who also owned the Stowe Reporter.

Benjamin, now 84, retains the title of president of the newspaper, but has turned its daily functions over to Loomis and Publisher Patricia Clark. Locally, though, his status has ascended to that of an “elder” in the Valley — not merely a reflection of his age, but of the regard many residents have for the Malden, Mass., native who moved to Vermont to retire from a high-profile radio and television career but ended up launching a second career at The Valley Reporter.

“I think Al and Lisa have done a terrific service for the community,” says Warren resident and writer Mary Gow, who contributes to science textbooks for a New Jersey publisher and sits on the Harwood Union High School board. “It’s interesting today, in a landscape of changing journalism, that a community weekly newspaper like The Valley Reporter is still so important and relevant, that it’s so successful in reaching people across the towns of the valley with local news. They don’t have a boundless budget or an endless staff, yet they manage to identify issues that are of broad community interest.”

Of Benjamin, she says, “Al is well-known and well-liked. I think we’re lucky that he brought all that experience with him.”

Benjamin began collecting that experience in the U.S. Army — he joined at age 17 in the waning days of World War II, then rejoined to serve in the Korean conflict. At Boston University, he earned a bachelor’s degree in advertising and marketing. His plan from the start was to go into public relations and politics; fortuitously, a component of the BU curriculum was business administration, and looking back from the vantage point of a newspaper owner, those studies, he says, “served me well.”

Upon returning from Korea, Benjamin and two associates formed an advertising agency, “with an emphasis,” he says, “on politics. One of his early clients was Endicott Peabody. Peabody later served as governor of Massachusetts (1963–1965), but when Benjamin provided public relations and speech-writing services for him, Peabody was campaigning for an elected position on the Governor’s Council.

Undoubtedly, though, the highlight of Benjamin’s career as a political staffer was when he worked for Gov. Foster Furcolo.

“He was a great guy,” says Benjamin. Furcolo, previously elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and treasurer of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, became governor in 1956 and served until 1961. Al Benjamin joined his administration as media secretary.

“For the first time in Massachusetts history we opened up the governor’s press conference to TV,” he recalls. “It was a big deal, and the scribblers [newspaper reporters] didn’t like it at all. They got used to it.”

(Governors seem, somehow, to have been in Benjamin’s sphere. He was named after Massachusetts Gov. Alvan T. Fuller, 1925–1929, who was also from Malden.)

Benjamin’s next transformation was into journalism. He covered the Kennedys and other Massachusetts figures in the early ’60s, but the political savvy and insider’s knowledge he had acquired from working with figures like Furcolo and Peabody enabled him to segue into commentary. He was a featured political analyst for WNAC radio and TV for 14 years.

And yet he was leading a double life — shedding his reportorial persona as often as possible to come skiing in Vermont. “I started coming here in 1964, strictly as a weekender, and a flatlander as the natives called it,” says Benjamin.

In 1971 he bought a condo in Warren, which pretty much sealed his fate. “I could walk to skiing, by cutting through the woods.” He was smitten, and eventually retired here.

Except that he didn’t.

“Somewhere along the line…,” he begins, trying to explain what happened. Then he cuts to the chase: “You want to own your own newspaper,” he says. “I called Trow [Elliman, of the Stowe Reporter] to see if the Valley edition was for sale. Originally he said no, but after 11 months of negotiating we reached a deal.”

Thus Benjamin, veteran of big-stage urban politics, narrowed his vision to the confines of a peaceful green (or white — choose your season) Vermont valley, encompassing four small towns, with ski slopes looming at the western edge, a brisk commercial sector built on the tourist trade, a diverse population of natives and urban expatriates, and a river running through it (the mighty Mad). It was enough for him.

“I tell people from Boston that if something happens three towns away and it has no effect on our valley we don’t care,” says Benjamin. “Our paper is about what happens here” (he verbally underlines “here”), “who does it, and why. We report on what people are doing, and what they’re interested in. We want to know what the planning commissions are doing, what’s happening at the schools; we’ll report on the Rotary and the Lions clubs. We don’t have an ax to grind, and we’re hopefully as accurate as possible.

“And I’ll tell you this,” Benjamin continues. “It’s a responsibility, and a privilege. And apparently people like it, because we have a very active letters [to the editor] section.”

Loomis says she takes her cues from the guy who gave her her job.

“Al loves community journalism,” she says. “You either drink this Kool-Aid or you don’t. All of us have. We’re pretty committed to what we do.”

The full-time staff — whose ranks are supplemented by a handful of freelancers — consists of seven employees: Clark (the publisher), Loomis (editor), a community editor (handling birth and wedding announcements, honor rolls, and the achievements and milestones of people’s lives), and others variously involved with reporting, photography, advertising, and production.

They have job titles that imply that their duties are circumscribed and discrete, but it’s a fiction. “Everybody does everything that needs to be done at a given moment,” says Loomis, who still covers her share of stories.

Like Benjamin, Lisa Loomis is a refugee from what some would consider a headier career. With degrees in international political science and languages, she worked in Germany for Dow Chemical, handling press relations and translating. This was followed by a public relations position with Merrill Lynch in Connecticut. But in 1986, after time off for skiing in Vermont, she concluded (as she says now) “I am so not going back to Connecticut.”

She cast around for work, and interviewed for The Valley Reporter.

“Al asked me, ‘Why do you want to come to work here?’” she recalls. “And I said, ‘Because I can’t wait until Thursday when the paper comes out to see what’s going on.”

That was more than two decades ago, yet her reply still captures what’s distinctive about The Valley Reporter: its vibrancy, which seems to emanate from the combination of a dedicated staff and an unusually active and involved community. It’s almost as if the outside world didn’t exist. Local news, local sports, local entertainment, local reviews, local history, local controversies — even those rooted in global issues — like the debate over whether to amend the Waitsfield Town Plan to allow for wind turbines on the Northfield Ridge — fairly explode from the pages. The letters section and “In My View” — an opinion column for readers and residents — reflect the shared conviction that what happens in the Mad River Valley towns matters enormously.

Like every newspaper, The Valley Reporter is subject to criticism of its accuracy. But few question its devotion.

“I might not always agree with it, and the paper occasionally makes mistakes,” says Waitsfield resident Brian Shupe, a planning–policy consultant with a long history of involvement with town government. “But you always read it. Everybody reads The Valley Reporter. It’s committed to an open exchange and debate. Al and Lisa are invested in the valley, and it comes through.”

Benjamin’s hands-on days at the newspaper are behind him now. Clark has been the publisher, and Loomis the editor, since 1998. But he puts in an appearance three days a week, most notably on Wednesday when the paper prepares for production. “He’s here at the crack of 1 o’clock,” Loomis jokes fondly, “sometimes the shaft of 1 o’clock. Sometimes 2.”

Benjamin is equally fond of his staff, saying, “Lisa is turning into a magnificent editor, and Patricia runs the place and does a great, great job.

“But I check every page of the paper. The staff is outstanding, so it makes my job easy. But I still have the responsibility.” •