Keeping The Presses Running

Ed Shamy is doing his best to keep small-town journalism alive. Just don't call him a crusader

Story and photos by Benjamin Pomerance

The interview isn’t even ten minutes old, and already the interviewee has turned the tables. Leaning on his desk in the office of the Franklin County Courier, Ed Shamy is doing what he does best: asking questions. “Remember this?” he quizzes, holding up a copy of Webster’s Complete and Unabridged Dictionary. ‘When you look something up in the dictionary, you learn more from the guide words on the page than you do from the word you were looking up.” He turns the book over, stabs his thumb between two pages, flips open the volume to his random selection. “So you’re looking for something on this page,” he continues, “and then — Wow, look at this. ‘Kidskin.’ What’s a kidskin?” Hearing no answer, the journalist moves on. “‘A skin made from a young goat.’ That’s one word, you know. Kidskin.”

A well-thumbed dictionary on the corner of his desk, Ed Shamy is at home in the County Courier's office

Now Shamy moves in for the kill. Putting the lexicon down, he leans forward in the chair, staring in like a lawyer ready to punctuate his closing argument. “That’s what reading a newspaper is like. You have a thousand words on one page, you have a thousand entry points to learning something new. You peruse through the paper looking for one story, and you find several other things you didn’t expect along the way. Online, you don’t get that. It’s too neatly packaged for you to have that experience of discovering something new as you’re going along.” He finally relaxes, satisfied that he has made his point. “That’s why I think we will always have traditional paper-copy newspapers. We’ll always have people who want that experience that a traditional newspaper provides, no matter what anybody else says.”

"Right now, I’m trying to learn the ropes of all this and move slowly"

For nearly three decades now, Shamy has sought the experience that traditional newspapers provide, no matter what anybody else has said. No matter what anybody else has done. No matter what anybody else hasn’t done. Nearly a year has passed since Shamy was laid off from his columnist position at the Burlington Free Press — a wound still noticeably fresh on Shamy’s mind today — and still the veteran journalist has not given up the paper chase. In fact, as he grapples with his multi-faceted role at the County Courier, a 131-year-old weekly where Shamy is at once the editor-in-chief, co-publisher, frequent columnist, occasional reporter, and everyday all-purpose man, the longtime member of the press says he is enjoying his chosen profession more than ever.

“It’s very humbling,” Shamy says of his crash course in running a small town paper. “Right now, I’m trying to learn the ropes of all this and move slowly. It’s not easy, and I’m blessed to work with terrific folks that prop me up and carry me at every turn.”

Shamy began cramming for Newspaper Management 101 last August, when he found himself unemployed at age 50 after a series of peculiar events. Being laid off from the Free Press — the first time, Shamy says, that he ever left a job involuntarily — shocked him, but what still rankles Shamy today is the way he says the newspaper handled his departure. “One day, out of the ether, I disappeared from the Free Press’s print pages and its Web site,” Shamy says. “Poof. No sign. What were members of the reading public supposed to think?” Shamy believes salary cuts, not personal vendettas, were the true motivating factors behind him losing his job, but he wishes the Free Press had explained this concept to their readers. “It was — and still is — hurtful that the newspaper never explained that,” he states emphatically. “I have to do it, person by person, encounter by encounter.”

"People come and go, and I don’t post something each time somebody leaves"

Burlington Free Press Executive Editor Mike Townsend says he never intended to inure Shamy’s feelings or reputation. “In hindsight, I probably took it down too fast,” Townsend says of Shamy’s work. “At the time, I just felt it was necessary to take his stuff off our site. Plenty of staffers who leave the Free Press for any reason don’t have their stuff up anymore.”

While the work of some departed Free Press writers does still remain on the Free Press’s Web site, Townsend says the decision to remove Shamy’s columns was not an indication of any dislike harbored by the newspaper. And the executive editor states that he does not understand why anybody would assume Shamy left under a cloud simply because the Free Press did not post a notice explaining the newspaper’s motivations. “I’m not sure how to respond to a lack of information,” Townsend says. “We don’t always explain why everybody left. We’re a large operation. People come and go, and I don’t post something each time somebody leaves.”         

Ed Shamy stands on the steps of the County Courier's Enosburg Falls office

Regardless of the reason, though, the journalist was still out of a job. And finding a new place to work, Shamy knew, wouldn’t be easy. Since returning to the U.S. after a three-year, post-college stint in Paraguay with the Peace Corps, writing and reporting had been the only profession Shamy had known — and the only career he had wanted to know. Papers in New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. had carried his byline. Now, at a time when large print outlets were collapsing and pundits seemed to be prophesizing daily about the “death of the newspaper”, Shamy found himself out of a job.    

So Shamy created his own job. Several jobs, in fact. Learning that the County Courier was for sale, Shamy placed his bid on the paper and leapt into somewhat uncharted ink-filled waters. Together with his wife, current co-publisher Kim Asch, Shamy bought the Courier, appointed himself editor-in-chief, and moved into a one-room office on Main Street, wedged tightly between a coffee shop and the village green. Piecing together his staff — a photo department of one, a graphic designer, two full-time ad reps, and a four-person circulation staff, together with people Shamy calls “a cornucopia of freelance writers and lots of other folks who perform tasks large and small” — the lifelong newshound was back at home.

"That’s good material for a movie, but it’s not reality"

Sometimes, that home can become crowded. Wearing so many hats provides its moments of both tension and tedium. The romantic image of a small-town newspaperman breaking four big stories before his first cup of coffee does not, Shamy says, apply to him. “It’s not easy,” he explains, “but it’s not challenging to the point of being dramatic day in and day out. That’s good material for a movie, but it’s not reality.” Instead, Shamy says, it’s the mundane stuff that buries his workdays. Like cleaning the bathroom. Like taking out the trash. Like fielding calls from business owners wanting articles that amount to little more than free advertising and visits from locals demanding 16 pages of birth notices in the next edition. “Most interesting to me is how so many readers and advertisers haven’t a clue how a newspaper survives financially,” Shamy says. “I guess because I’ve worked in it my entire life, I understand that this is a business. But people don’t. They want the paper to exist, but then they also want us to print their information free of charge, so they’re demanding the very thing that puts newspapers out of business.” He sighs. “They just don’t see it.”

With a coffee shop on one side and the village green on the other, the County Courier's office occupies less than one block in Enosburg Falls

What Shamy doesn’t see is why so many people are claiming that the Judgment Day of newspapers is at hand. He presents a number of examples, including his dictionary-reading analogy, in support of his case that print journalism can survive even in the digital age. “Newspapers,” he says sarcastically, “will be around in print for at least 12.4 more years.” Then, more seriously, he continues. “Will there be an endpoint for traditional newspapers? Maybe. Someday, the sun’s going to burn out, too, but it’s not going to happen for a while. And that’s the way I feel about newspapers. The next several generations will be reading newspapers in print.”

St. Michael’s College journalism professor David T.Z. Mindich agrees with Shamy’s assessment. Author of the 2005 book “Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don’t Follow The News”, Mindich says he believes newspapers will be around for many generations to come. “The top national papers will still be there,” Mindich says, “and there will also always be a need for smaller newspapers like the County Courier. There is and will be a civic need for them to survive. The question, though, is whether the economic model can ultimately sustain them.”

Answering this question, Mindich continues, could determine whether more newspapers become partially or even exclusively Web-based. Some American papers have already shifted all of their content to the Internet, including established media outlets like the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. And while Shamy says comparing the Franklin County Courier’s situation to that of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer is “like comparing Schroon Lake to the Indian Ocean,” the Courier does maintain its own Web site — a possible cost-cutting outlet for smaller newspapers around the world, according to Mindich. Going online, he points out, is a much cheaper alternative to traditional print media, eliminating the substantial expenses of ink, paper, and delivery.

Even for readers in a rural readership area like Franklin County, Mindich says, converting a print publication to an exclusively online newspaper will not be a hardship for too many readers. “I think the latest figures show that 80 percent (of Americans) go online at home on a regular basis,” he explains. “Of course, that does speak to 20 percent who would be excluded. But with so many libraries and other places providing Internet access now, I’m sure people who really want to read the paper will find a way to get online.”

Regardless of whether a community or regional newspaper is provided online or in print, Mindich says, the most important element is that the publication is still providing the news. Local news, primarily, just as Shamy says he’s trying to do with the County Courier. “The last 10 to 20 years has seen a decline in reporting on City Hall, reporting on the courts, reporting on the farm bureaus, and so on,” Mindich explains. “What happens is that today we are civically poorer when there’s nobody to hold leaders accountable and tell people about local doings. Journalists like Ed Shamy play a huge role in this sort of media.” 

"I’m not much of a dreamer, really"          

Yet if in fact they do, Shamy will be the last person to tell you. “I’m not much of a dreamer, really,” he says dismissively. Don’t call him a one-man band, either, as other commentators have done. “Without this staff, and I mean this sincerely, the County Courier would not survive,” the editor/publisher repeats time and time again. “I’m really not spending all my time here. I’m pacing myself. I’m just trying to get a rhythm for what I’m doing right now.”

Insisting he is "not much of a dreamer," Shamy says his goal is always to get out the next issue

What Shamy is, really, is a journalist. For 27 years, that designation has been enough for him, whether writing for a daily in New Jersey or writing about Jersey cows in rural Vermont. Every Wednesday, a fresh 16-page tabloid is delivered to the readers of the state’s second-largest county, reporting the local news that is, as Shamy puts it, “keeping the glue of the community together.” And today, older and more tenured and certainly juggling more jobs than ever before, the journalist says he still remains excited by the sight of a brand-new issue. “It’s something you take pride in,” Shamy says. “We’re never sure how, but it always seems to come out. And we want to keep it coming out for a long time.” Rest assured. Neither layoffs nor skeptics nor holding more jobs at once than some people work in a lifetime could keep this newspaperman from the craft he loves. With Ed Shamy at the helm, one can expect the presses will keep running.

Have you ever read an issue of the Franklin County Courier?