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Duke era is ending at Stowe Reporter

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Biddle Duke and the staff of the Stowe Reporter and Waterbury Record. In the driver’s seat is Bob Miller, the new majority owner of the business.

Biddle Duke, who has owned and run the Stowe Reporter publishing company since 1998, is stepping down as publisher and becoming a minority owner of the company. His last day as publisher is Dec. 18. He came to the Reporter from the Evening Post Publishing Co. in South Carolina, where he had worked as a manager, editor and reporter, and before that as a reporter and editor at newspapers in Argentina, New Mexico and New York.

When I started here 17 years ago, I remarked in a column that a favorite editor and boss used to advise that I never get personal in a newspaper column. If I felt the need to discuss my family, my pets or my career, I should see a priest, or a bartender or — and he could barely spit out the words — an editor of novels.

And, honestly, my inclination as my departure neared was to pack my boxes, turn off the desk light, and say thank you and farewell.

But my friend and the editor here, Tom Kearney, advised that I write a few things down.

“You should. You’ll regret it if you don’t.”

Tom knows this has been personal for me. So, let’s get personal.

Thank you.

Thank you to the community of Stowe and to Vermont for everything this place has given this company and my own family.

Thank you to our advertisers for your support, for your feedback, your honesty. You enable us to strive and do what we love to do.

Thank you to our many readers who are demanding, loyal, and full of feedback.

Thank you to an amazing team of people here in this building at 49 School St. You work hard, you care, you give and give, and you understand what making community newspapers, magazines and websites is all about. You get it. You have dealt with and overcome every kind of hurdle and obstacle, from angry readers to 3-foot blizzards. You do your work with grace and diligence and care. Thank you.

Naming names is dangerous, so forgive me if I forget someone. The list is long, and includes many who have made us all proud, some by moving on and thriving in their chosen professions, and at least one who is gone.

At the top of the list of the departed is Peter Hartt, who was editor here for four years in the early 2000s. Pete grew up in Stowe, knew everyone and everything. Stowe was the center of his universe. He adored life and you felt that when you were around him. I loved Pete as a friend, mentor, writer, colleague. He died young, of a heart attack, in 2009, and with that Stowe lost a great one.

I hired Maria Archangelo in 2006 to launch the Waterbury Record and she ended up changing the Stowe Reporter, putting in best practices for personnel and management. Formerly, it was seat of the pants (mostly mine). She now works for a software company in Philadelphia. But we still have her husband, Tom. He’s such a terrific editor that I hired him twice. He’s on his second run now, and if you want to experience a motivated and ambitious newsroom, just come around here one Thursday morning for the news meeting at 10 o’clock. Stowe is lucky to have Tom at the news helm.

When I bought the Stowe Reporter, it was a simpler affair: all black and white (with occasional “spot” color), no websites, the beginnings of email, a guide-style magazine and a staff of 12. The news team consisted of an editor and two reporters. But it was a profitable, successful enterprise with journalism awards to its credit. Much of that was due to then-publisher Trow Elliman, who’d built the business from its single-sheet beginnings in 1958.

Trow would be quick to credit Greg Popa, who was hired here as a photographer in 1986 and subsequently performed every job in the building. By the time, I got here Greg was basically editor and publisher, though Trow still appeared on the masthead as the latter.

Greg left a year or so after my arrival, I suspect driven away by my new-owner’s intensity and my incessant push for change. I don’t blame him. He caught his breath and had a look around, then I drew him back to build our magazine. It was among the best decisions of my 17 years here. Greg reshaped the Guide into an award-winning magazine (seven times winner of best niche publication award from the New England Newspaper and Press Association). Greg also eventually took the helm of our growing sales department, helping us navigate those two nasty storms known as the Great Recession and the “end of newspapers,” which thankfully have only dealt us glancing blows.

I am thrilled that Greg assumes the role of publisher at the end of this month.

A place to learn

We view ourselves as a training center. Many of our best employees are graduates of local high schools and colleges, so we are very much a part of the Vermont web of career success for young people interested in journalism, graphics, sales and, now, social media. It fills me with pride to think of former reporter Scott Monroe, now an editor of a group of daily newspapers in Maine; of former reporter Jesse Roman, a roving reporter for a national magazine based in Boston; of former editor Matt Kanner, now launching his own alternative newspaper in Portsmouth, N.H.

No memory of former staffers would be complete without Marina Knight, who covered ski racing and snow sports better than anyone in my time here (and did much more than that). After a few more years of full-time motherhood, Marina will undoubtedly return to her other passion, journalism.

There was, of course, John Zicconi, somewhat feared and respected as a reporter here. He was stubborn and dogged, including with us: One of his accomplishments was to fight for better company health insurance and get this company to institute Labor Day as a paid holiday. He was quite right. John went on to work in state government, where he surely got decent employee benefits.

There are some folks who were the glue here, and Joan Joslin was one of them. The business manager for more than three decades, Joan knew everything about this place. Most importantly, she knew who would pay their bills and who wouldn’t, and without someone like that around, this business would have failed.

There are many others — including the good team here today — who have made and who make this place hum, with humor, with grace, with skill. One in particular bears mentioning. Photographer Glenn Callahan has hung on the longest, and for good reason. He is good at his job. Glenn began here more than 20 years ago and his pictures, once shot on film and printed in our darkroom (long defunct), are synonymous with these publications. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve remarked that I work here only to be told “I love Glenn’s pictures.”

One of my regrets is that I never organized a show of his work at the Helen Day. There’s one thing to keep on my to-do list.

Changing lives

At times like this, you think about proudest moments. There are the many awards, of course. The Stowe Reporter has been named the best community paper in Vermont by the state press association more than half the years I’ve been here, and there’ve been many awards for coverage, photographs, design, advertising and graphics.

But changing lives — or at least having a positive impact of some kind — is what it’s all about. Former reporter Nathan Burgess is responsible for one of my proudest moments. He’d appeared here in 2007 as an intern from Johnson State College, blown-out Birkenstocks, four-day beard, hair sticking up, shirt untucked, a touch of a “whatever” attitude. “Can we make this guy a reporter?” I asked Tom. I had little confidence.

“He’ll come around,” said wise Tom.

We eventually hired Nathan to cover Waterbury. I braced for complaints that never came. Then he covered Stowe. He was earnest, he cared, he worked hard, and he smoothed out his rough edges. He did really great work.

I wish I could reproduce Nathan’s entire farewell column. In it, he describes growing up amid “real” Vermont — the challenges of hunger, poverty and domestic abuse — and how he regarded Stowe, as do many in Vermont, as a resort town populated mostly with out-of-touch, wealthy transplants.

“My goal in college was to write for a Vermont newspaper that valued the truth, questioned those in power, and was not afraid to rock the boat. Surely, I thought, if there was a publication that fit those criteria, it was not in Stowe,” wrote Nathan.

“… I found, to my surprise, a newspaper asking hard questions. Resorts, powerful families, state officials — writers there weren’t afraid to take on all of them. Then-editor Tom Kearney, publisher Maria Archangelo and owner Biddle Duke had a track record of solid journalism built on respecting readers. At this paper, well-researched, investigative coverage — a rarity in the Vermont media — is based on what readers need to know, and not on the personal vendettas or silly agendas that, in my opinion, tar some other efforts at ‘journalism.’”

And, when he took over the Stowe beat, he found that “Stowe was Christopher Grimes, a valiant, smiling boy who made everybody’s heart melt, right up to — and beyond — the day he died. Stowe was town meeting, residents standing up for themselves and, in many cases, finding common ground. Stowe was chatting town politics with familiar faces at Black Cap Coffee.”

In some ways Stowe lived up to Nathan’s preconceptions. People pushed him — and us — around, occasionally trashed his stories behind his back and questioned his skills. He — and we — were threatened with lawsuits and bullied by people used to getting their way.

“But Stowe also surprised me. I’ve met people with that special gift of making everybody around them smile. I’ve seen town politics as democracy in its purest form. I’ve witnessed how much people in Stowe care about their community. I’ve seen neighbors work out differences. I’ve seen parents who care about their children above all else. I’ve seen people working together to help others. I’ve seen selflessness, well-off individuals quietly sharing with those less fortunate.”

Nathan grew up here as our reporter. His eyes and his experience widened. Nothing could make me prouder. He went on to manage a group of magazines in Boston, and he’s a computer programmer now.

People get upset

The hardest thing about being a newspaper publisher or editor — and I’ve done both those jobs, in addition to salesperson, photographer and reporter — is that you can’t be friends with everyone. I seem to have pissed everyone off at one time or another, and it’s my experience that you just have to be OK with that.

I’m a publisher who goes out of his way to face the music. I vowed to be that way when I set out with this, so now whether it’s a comment overheard, an email, or a phone message, I have done my utmost to urge people to complain and criticize in the broad daylight: to me, in person.

Whether that’s stood me well, I don’t know. In some cases, it has been like running out into traffic, but in most cases I have been able to explain why we do what we do the way we do it. Often my explanations are not enough. And in some cases, I have lost friends or made enemies of people I might have befriended. That’s a newspaper publisher’s cross to bear, at least one with any kind of ethical spine.

For a few years, I was frequently tested with the question, “How can I stay out of the police blotter?” Within my first month, our beloved cartoonist got himself a DUI, and he too wanted to see what I was made of. My answer was always the same. If you’re in, you’re in. That question eventually subsided as folks got the picture.

A month after I arrived here, the colorful and charismatic Arthur Kreizel, Topnotch impresario, threw a party for me, a town-sweeper; everyone from Paul Percy to Donna Carpenter, Pall Spera to Peggy Smith, was there. It was a lovely party and a kind gesture, though in retrospect I probably should have urged Arthur not to do it. Because a few months later, Arthur and Kurt Hansen, better known as Ace the trash hauler, got into a scuffle at the Route 108 and 100 intersection. They arrived at the three-way at the same time and the usual you-go-no-you-go didn’t work, perhaps because the two men had some testy history. The details don’t matter now, but suffice to say vehicles were damaged, tempers flared, police were called.

When Zicconi came back with the report from Police Chief Ken Kaplan, I was crestfallen. It was most definitely a story, partly precisely because it involved two public figures, Arthur and Ace. After the next issue of the paper, Arthur and I had a heated exchange by fax and phone in which he accused us of unprofessionalism, sensationalism, favoring Ace and more. What he didn’t say, but surely was feeling, was, “How could you do this to me, your friend?” Although the specifics would change, that basic story line would repeat itself over the years with other friends and acquaintances. Separating my job as I saw it from my personal life was a conscious and sometimes joyless effort.

Arthur’s incident was eventually resolved, but our friendship remained on the rocks for several years until he broke the ice and we put it behind us. But for every Arthur there is at least one other where the warmth has not rekindled.

The biggest business

Perhaps the biggest challenge of running the local paper in this town is covering the Mountain Company. Every possible stereotype of a newspaper’s clash with the biggest business in its market is apt here.

I covered Taos and the Santa Fe Ski Basin for a group of newspapers in New Mexico earlier in my career, so I have some experience with ski resorts. As in those places, Stowe Mountain Resort is a big deal, arguably the biggest deal in this community. Lots of money, lots of employees, lots of customers, lots of news possibilities.

But not since company president Hank Lunde brought us into the planning process for the resort expansion has the relationship been easy. In my experience, most big players in a marketplace get used to a sort of news scorecard; for every feature story on the longest-serving employee or the mention of the large charitable gift, there’s probably going to be one about the oil spill or the unhappy customer or the labor dispute. That rule hasn’t applied with us and the Mountain Company. We always seemed to be on their blacklist. In fact, on many occasions, friends who are also employees would come back from staff meetings at which top executives had trashed the paper and its coverage. In my publisher’s mind I always felt that actually made us more relevant and probably boosted sales among those in attendance who hadn’t picked up a copy of the week’s paper.

I never felt company execs understood or much cared for our role in the community. When the government stepped in to bail out Stowe Mountain Resort’s owner, the AIG insurance company, we saw it as our chief responsibility to stay on top of the story for our readers. “Bailout gives U.S. 80 percent of resort,” read our headline on Sept. 18, 2008. That was followed by at least one columnist quite rightly joking that perhaps now pass prices would come down.

That Christmas, thinking visitors and locals would want to know the latest on what looked at the time as a possible sale of the company, our lead Christmas story was: “Stowe waits to see who buys the resort.” This infuriated the company (officials later told me that any mention of the bailout that week was completely unacceptable).

What followed was telling. The company pulled our papers from its one rack at the base of the mountain and refused to sell them any longer, and communication between the two of us basically ended for much of that winter. To the Mountain Company’s credit, the top guys were always willing to put aside their anger and annoyance long enough to sit down and talk. After the bailout brouhaha, there was eventually a summit meeting, and we moved on.

It was always a mystery to me how on one hand Mountain Company officials so distrusted us and on the other people would chastise me just as often for being the resort’s eager PR lapdog. That I would get both those messages told me that we were probably doing our job correctly.

There seems to be a welcome thaw in the relationship now. Papers are back in the racks at Stowe Mountain Lodge, and there’s an amicable back-and-forth. I hope it continues. But I also hope the human instinct to get along with the powerful, including the Mountain Company, never stifles our responsibility to do our job.

About democracy

How could I possibly leave all this fun, right? The running and owning of community newspapers and magazines is a privilege and responsibility that can’t possibly be fully described. Many people simply wouldn’t get it.

I take seriously, for example, our right and need to check in regularly with law enforcement. Police, with their guns and other weapons on their hips, wield supreme power in every community. So the newspaper spends time and money to have a citizen (a reporter) show up weekly at the police station and ask: “What have you been up to?”

Out of that comes our well-read police blotter. And most people think that’s the main reason we do it: to embarrass wrongdoers, fill some print space, and sell papers. But who else is at the police station weekly asking: “Why the new guns?” or “I see you have a new squad car,” or “I hear there was some trouble at the mountain?” And, by law, the police have to answer. That’s called the democratic system working.

My own scorecard

I had loads of plans at the start of this. They can all be summed up in a few words: to work hard and make good and trusted publications, be as bold as possible, and care about my community and my employees. You can score that card for me.

One of my goals was also to eventually grow the business and sell it. But don’t ever believe all those people who say business isn’t personal. That might be true for some businesses, but not this one.

Some part of me feels, “How could I leave this cherished community institution?” As if I am abandoning a responsibility and privilege that I myself created. But that’s arrogant and narcissistic. The Reporter company carries on, with or without me. But I will miss the work and my Reporter family very much.

– Biddle Duke

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