Winooski's Eagle may be off the endangered list
Sharon and Dick Galperin didn't know the first thing about the newspaper business when they volunteered to help publish The Eagle, Winooski's free community paper. But they quickly learned its two basic rules: Don't expect to make money; and when you want people to show up for board meetings, serve food.
Neither of the Galperins fit the part of the young and idealistic Citizen Kane. Both are retired high-school history teachers who moved to Winooski from Alexandria, Virginia, three years ago. Sharon, who was also an archivist at George Washington University and a researcher for the Smithsonian Institution, is now The Eagle's jack-of-all-trades, doing some writing, photography, circulation and other clerical duties. Dick, the self-appointed "bean counter" for the paper, sells ads and manages the finances without the help of a computer.
The Galperins -- who insist they aren't the ones handling the bulk of the work -- belong to a small but enthusiastic group of Winooski residents who are infusing new life into the town's only newspaper. "We're somewhat a group of dreamers because the idea is to produce a model of a nonprofit paper that's focused on the community," says Sharon Galperin. "And I must say, the community has been very responsive. They love to read their little newspaper."
The Eagle -- often referred to by its original name, The Winooski Eagle -- could just as easily be called The Phoenix for its tendency to perish and then rise from the ashes years later. The Eagle has been published off and on for the last 22 years but has never quite gained enough momentum to become a financial success. Nevertheless, throughout its various incarnations, the scrappy little rag has generated plenty of local interest because of a fundamental principle of community journalism: Ordinary people like to read about themselves and the accomplishments of their friends and neighbors. And in this city of 6700 people that has long struggled with an inferiority complex, The Eagle has become a source of community pride as it chronicles what Winooski is doing right.
The free monthly tabloid with the pink-and-gray banner had its humble beginnings in 1981 after cub reporter Guy Page got fired from his third newspaper job. "The Burlington Free Press, The Burlington Citizen and The Caledonian Record all discovered they had no need for my services anymore," Page recalls laughingly. Finding himself unemployable in Vermont's newspaper industry at the tender age of 23, he decided to start a paper of his own.
Page set up shop in a small, walk-up apartment just off Main Street in Winooski. In his off-hours from a part-time security job, he handled all the paper's business -- writing, reporting, editing, sales, even hand-delivering 300 to 400 papers each month. Since Page couldn't afford a layout artist, he typed all the articles on adding- machine tape, which he fed into an electric typewriter -- receipt tape being roughly the same width as a standard newspaper column.
For the next year and a half, The Winooski Eagle reported on various and sundry community happenings in the Onion City. Page soon discovered that his readers especially enjoyed hearing about the seemingly trivial events that his former employers at the bigger papers ignored, like a spelling bee at St. Francis Xavier School. "Wow, were people interested in that!" Page exclaims.
"Winooski is where I really learned about community journalism," he adds. "People really care about their community, and therefore, they care about their community newspaper."
Page eventually sold The Winooski Eagle to Essex Reporter founder Tim Callahan and went on to purchase the now-defunct Colchester Chronicle, which Page ran for years. But The Eagle folded shortly thereafter and didn't resurface for more than a decade. In October 1993 it was resurrected by Jodi Harrington, who had moved to Winooski from Manchester a year earlier and was stunned to learn her new town didn't have a newspaper of its own.
"I was so shocked when my son started at this school district, which I found to be the most wonderful little gem in Chittenden County, and the only stories [about Winooski] that would show up in the daily newspaper were drug busts and murders," says Harrington. "And I said, wow! There's all this good stuff, and no one knows what's going on."
At the time, Harrington was taking a computer class at Winooski High School, where she met Janet and Rick Bonneau, owners of the Winooski Press printing house. With an investment of $200, a rudimentary understanding of computer layout and help from the Bonneaus, Harrington got The Eagle back up and running. Page, the former owner, even donated The Eagle's original banner, which his aunt had reproduced from a drawing of the eagle façade on the old Winooski Block building.
Unlike Page, Harrington had no journalism experience whatsoever. She was, however, a real history buff, and over the next seven years often tapped into her adopted city's rich past for her articles and columns. "When you have a sense of history, you realize that's what a little paper gives a town and its kids," Harrington explains. "It gives them a sense of where they come from."
For example, Harrington learned that during World War II, the U.S. Navy had a tanker called the U.S.S. Winooski that would receive care packages from the people of Winooski. Harrington was able to get a copy of the ship's log that recounted its far-flung travels, which she published over a six-month period. The series was very popular among readers, and it so pleased the ship's veterans that they celebrated their 50th reunion at the Winooski VFW Post. "The World War II veterans just loved it," Harrington recalls. "It was a living history."
Not all the stories in The Eagle were a source of community pride. Harrington rarely shied away from controversy and her editorials often forced people to face problems that might have otherwise been swept under the rug. "I probably offended everybody at some point or another," Harrington says proudly.
During her tenure, Harrington wrote about abuses at Winooski's youth services office and helped force the resignation of a city manager who wasn't doing his job. One of her favorite stories told how Winooski Police Chief Steve McQueen forced his predecessor from office. Though she doesn't take credit for all those revelations, she says The Eagle stirred things up. "We did a lot of controversial things, but we also got people to wake up," Harrington says. "I kind of got nicknamed the 'Peter Freyne of Winooski.'"
Like her predecessors, Harrington eventually felt it was time to pass the torch. So after 65 issues, she sold the paper in 2000 to The Addison Eagle. Though The Eagle had never earned Harrington a living, it did teach her a thing or two about community development. Harrington is now community outreach coordinator for City Market in Burlington and has just begun her second year on the Winooski School Board. "I attribute a lot of that education to The Eagle," she adds.
During the two years the conservative Addison Eagle put out the paper, local coverage diminished and community interest faltered. The shift in focus became obvious when the new owners changed the name from The Winooski Eagle to The Chittenden Eagle. In the spring of 2002, a group of local residents bought it back for about $2500, jettisoned "Chittenden" from the name and agreed to publish a "Winooski paper" again. One of the buyers, state Rep. Steve Hingtgen, called it "an act of love."
But by the end of 2002, The Eagle was still struggling and looked as though it might not take off. At one point, there was even an offer to consolidate it with The Colchester Chronicle, which was later rejected. "We couldn't bring in enough money," Dick Galperin recalls. "So several of us got together and reorganized it."
"We also pulled out our checkbooks," Sharon Galperin chimes in.
Though every Winooski home receives The Eagle free in the mail -- monthly circulation is 3200 -- the paper doesn't come cheap. Dick Galperin explains that it costs more than $1100 per month to put out an issue, including printing, labeling and postage costs. "I can honestly tell you that no one who works for The Eagle breaks even," Dick says. And the paper wouldn't be solvent without the generous support of its volunteers, local advertisers and a public radio-style membership. The City of Winooski also kicks in $5200 each year to post its announcements, board vacancies and other community events.
The latest incarnation of The Eagle is not as controversial as it once was, opting instead to feature hometown news about high school football games, Halloween and Christmas decorations, graffiti cleanup projects. For example, there's been no coverage of the biggest Winooski story of the day -- Chief McQueen's no-confidence vote.
That isn't to say the paper lacks a social mission. One of the goals of the nonprofit group running the paper is to promote adult literacy. "This city has a lot of immigrants," says Sharon Galperin. "So we think about that when we're writing and make sure it's clear and not difficult. No 75-cent words."
Each month the paper is assembled by a small, volunteer crew. Most of the writing is done by The Eagle's lead reporter, Bobbi Perez, and is laid out by Hingtgen, their computer "master craftsman." They also get some editorial help from Winooski High School freshman Grace Campbell, who writes a bubbly monthly column called "Thoughts from Grace." Volunteer Jess Wilson is putting together the paper's Web site and computerizing its finances.
Admittedly, this fledgling troupe has made a few mistakes -- like last February, when they tried to deliver all 3200 papers themselves, in sub-zero temperatures, instead of relying on the mailing house. "That was insane," Sharon recalls. "The kitchen table was covered in newsprint."
Still, they're making progress. "We're learning. Each production is a little like putting a fire out," Sharon Galperin says. "We're up until 2 or 3 in the morning. It's fun. It's like a party. But maybe one day we can get to bed by midnight."