The Beat Goes On

A 10-year journey to the largest newsroom in Vermont

by Will Lindner

vt-digger-anne-galloway0319Anne Galloway was editor of the Sunday Times Argus and the Sunday Rutland Herald in January 1990, when, as part of a downsizing, she lost her job. By that September, she had debuted VTDigger, an online news organization dedicated to investigative and enterprise reporting.

Anne Galloway’s last baby (as in “most recent”; who knows about final?) was born in 2009. It was unplanned at first, but then meticulously, unrelentingly planned.

For, as opposed to her first two babies — daughter, Ceilidh, born in 1989, and son, Finn, 1994 — this one was an idea. Galloway had almost everything riding on it: her commitment to truth-seeking journalism; her determination to find a way for it to thrive while newspapers were fading; her family’s welfare, when two incomes are de rigueur (her husband, Patrick Kane, is an architect, self-employed) and hers had abruptly been terminated; her very identity.

“I always wanted to be a writer,” says Galloway. “I always wanted to be in journalism.”

It had been a winding road. She was 14 when her family moved from Columbus, Ohio, to Lexington, Kentucky, where her parents enrolled her in a tiny religious school. She met Kane at the University of Kentucky and earned a B.A. in English literature in 1987. The next year, they moved to East Hardwick, Kane’s hometown.

Galloway’s journalistic initiation came with jobs at local weekly newspapers, until she was hired by The Times Argus of Barre and Montpelier, starting as a proofreader and eventually becoming editor of the co-owned Sunday Times Argus and the Sunday Rutland Herald.

Galloway was attending a conference in New York in September 2008 when news broke that the investment bank Lehman Brothers was collapsing. “I was sitting with all these reporters from Reuters, the Associated Press, the (New York) Times,” she recalls, “and I’m this little fish out of water from Vermont, and these guys — they were mostly men — were completely freaking out about the financial situation.”

She returned and wrote an article about the implications of the collapse for the financial industry here. But this was a dispiriting time for newspapers anyway, as they struggled to contend with the flight of readers and advertisers to the Web. On January 16, 2009, Galloway lost her job.

“It didn’t surprise me that lots of people got laid off,” she says. “What shocked me was that I was one of them. I was such a hard worker.”

It created a family emergency. Galloway filed for unemployment and rearranged financing for Ceilidh’s tuition at Smith College. Then she turned to the future. “I knew what I wanted to do, immediately. I wanted to start an online news organization.”

This was to be her baby, and coincidentally (or not), VTDigger, now issued and updated continually from a suite of informal offices in Montpelier, with a following of some 270,000 monthly readers, debuted in September 2009 — a gestation period of nine months.

Those were months of nose-to-the-grindstone planning and research for Galloway, with intermittent side jobs thrown in to help pay the family’s bills. The Web was alive with content by 2009, and larger players like Slate existed, with high-profile national news and commentary, but locally oriented sites were mostly in their infancy.

“I made a spreadsheet about the websites that existed and were actually producing news — The Texas Tribune, MinnPost in Minneapolis, the New Haven Independent,” she says, “figuring out what their business models looked like, whether they were free or subscription, nonprofit or for-profit, whether they published every day or occasionally.”

She also did a competitive analysis, examining the content of Vermont’s newspapers to determine what niche her online publication could fill. It fell right in line with her thinking.

“What was missing was the kind of journalism I loved the most, which was in-depth investigative and enterprise reporting. I didn’t have much experience myself, but I wanted to start a news site and become an investigative reporter.”

Journalism was a third, at most, of the challenge before her. Perhaps more critical were the technical elements — designing and constantly adapting a vibrant, approachable website — and deciding how to finance it. She enrolled in a small-business development class to learn how to write a business plan, and took classes on web development.

“I put a business plan together and shopped it around to 100 people — business owners, people in philanthropy, anyone I thought might be interested in media and supportive of what I was doing. I used their feedback to refine the plan and figure out what was doable.”

She settled on a model similar to National Public Radio: “Great content, (opportunities for) membership, some form of underwriting, advertising support, and grant funding.” Her first grant proposal was to the Vermont Community Foundation. Others followed.

She managed to secure $16,000 in funding, and the Connecticut-based Online Journalism Project invited her to organize financially under its nonprofit 501(c)(3).

It was happening. A handful of people agreed to form an advisory board. Galloway tapped two established and experienced investigative journalists, Mel Huff and Terry Allen, hired Web developer Josh Larkin, and began launching content.

“Our first story was about Jody Williams,” says Galloway, referring to the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize winner from Putney, known for her work with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Next was a controversial story revealing that Vermont’s U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, was “earmarking” significant appropriations to defense industries, then another on mental illness in Vermont’s prison population.

However, the imperatives for growth were unrelenting in all three categories of her operation: journalism (“We were never going to make any difference if we weren’t publishing every day”), technology (constant fine-tuning, exploring new platforms), and revenue.

A great step forward came in 2011 when the Vermont Journalism Trust — a small band of civic leaders seeking ways to support journalism — offered to merge with VTDigger. Its members, says Galloway, had “street cred”; their reputations provided a major boost to her fund-raising efforts.

“Anne had launched Digger, and it was clear that this was a completely different business model,” says Steve Terry, then a member of the Trust. Terry’s extensive career in Vermont public affairs included a decade (1975–1985) as managing editor of the Rutland Herald.

“The vehicle that was already proving to bring added value to journalism was VTDigger,” he says, “so supporting Digger became the sole activity of the Vermont Journalism Trust.” Terry served a term as president of Digger’s board.

VTDigger has a 23-person staff — “The largest newsroom in Vermont, certainly,” says Terry — and an annual budget exceeding $1.5 million.

Stability, always a questionable concept in journalism, is great, but most important is Digger’s mission. Terry is unequivocal. “VTDigger is the only place you can get consistent, regular, reliable Statehouse reporting.”

Galloway held true to her vision as her enterprise grew, emphasizing investigative — what she calls “iterative” — fact-finding journalism, with a focus on state government. Except for those covering southern Vermont and Burlington, her reporters have beats that are topical, not geographic, such as energy and environment, business and economy, or education.

She demonstrates the intricacy of covering them, using health care as an example. “That person has to understand CMS documents (related to Medicare and Medicaid), have a relationship with the Division of Licensing & Protection to understand what’s happening in nursing homes, understand how Medicaid impacts hospital budgets, understand Medicare and commercial insurance and the regulatory process, ...” She lists a dozen more topics, and notes that every beat is just as complex.

Politics enters into it, she says, “but politics is about the horse race so much of the time. I think it’s important for reporting to have more of a focus on what policies mean for real people. That’s why we’ve been more of a policy-reporting shop than a political-reporting shop.”

Another of Digger’s concerns has been to help knit the state together, because, as an online publication, equally accessible everywhere, it has no local-coverage obligation like newspapers have.

Digger has covered the financial crisis at the Springfield hospital, the EB-5 investment scandal at Jay Peak, groundwater contamination in Bennington, suicide at the Brattleboro Retreat. This effort has been particularly meaningful to Curtis Koren, board chair.

“Southern Vermont had not been covered very well [with statewide exposure],” says Koren, a Brookfield resident who once worked for Ms. magazine. “A couple years ago we had an event where we invited people from towns like Manchester and Bennington to come out and talk. It was standing room only,” she says.

Events like this, Koren believes, have helped revitalize people’s involvement in public affairs in their corners of the state. “Community does matter, which is why Vermont has been a good laboratory for Anne to build this enterprise, this powerhouse — because it’s become a national model for online statewide news.”

Yet there’s no resting on laurels. Galloway, now 54, and Kane still live in East Hardwick, in a house with 25 acres close to where Kane was raised. Ceilidh, 30, lives nearby and runs an arts-focused after-school nonprofit in Greensboro. Finn, 25, “got the politics bug,” as Galloway says. After graduating from UVM he served internships with political leaders in Washington, D.C., and did campaign work for the Democratic Party in New Hampshire.

In winters Galloway and Kane ski (downhill and cross-country), and in warmer weather they tend an ambitious vegetable garden. Often she is accompanied on her commute to Montpelier by her affectionate chocolate Lab Gertie Lou, who is a calming presence in Digger’s offices. While they drive, Galloway’s mind turns, by necessity, to the next idea for the website, and never-ending financial issues: How can she persuade more local businesses and Vermont candidates to advertise on Digger instead of Google and Facebook — to “buy local,” supporting a local enterprise?

And she’s still bothered by the state of journalism in Vermont.

“Digger has grown,” she acknowledges, “but we’ve lost a lot of people in journalism, and stories are not getting covered. It hurts our state, it hurts our community, it hurts democracy.”

She recalls a quote from the Federalist Papers: “If people were angels, we wouldn’t need government.” Then she adds her own twist: “If people were angels, we wouldn’t need journalists, either.” •