• Sisters hold faith in local newspapers
     | August 19,2013

    King Lear’s three daughters had their lands and loyalties to fight over. Jane Austen’s Dashwood sisters had the prospect of marriage to occupy them, and Anton Chekhov’s three sisters had local military officers to brighten their days.

    None of them ever contemplated a future as risky as newspapers.

    For a long time, neither did the Lynn sisters, even though they are a fifth-generation newspaper family. Polly, Christy and Elsie Lynn left behind their father’s dusty but cozy newsrooms for college and careers.

    Now they are back. Elsie, 26, moved back to Vermont in 2010 after a stint teaching English in Taiwan and traveling through Asia. She is the managing editor of two of her father’s weeklies in the Burlington suburbs of Colchester and Essex, which are co-owned by her uncle Emerson Lynn.

    Polly, 29, returned in 2011 from Denver, and has thrown herself into running the weekly newspaper in Killington, the popular ski town. Christy, 28, moved back in June after her boyfriend finished graduate school in Vancouver. She helps her father, Angelo, running the business side of Middlebury’s paper, The Addison County Independent.

    It is conventional wisdom that newspapers are a fading enterprise. Last month, the Tribune Company bought 19 local television stations even as it sought to sell its portfolio of papers, and twice in August, big-city papers changed hands: The New York Times sold The Boston Globe and other properties for $70 million, after paying $1.1 billion for The Globe 20 years ago, and the Graham family said it would sell The Washington Post after eight decades of ownership.

    But instead of fleeing the newspaper business, the Lynn sisters have embraced it, and not just because it is part of their heritage.

    “I’ve grown up in the papers,” said Elsie Lynn. “But I don’t think that’s the reason I’m in it. The future is exciting for me. We have this chance and this opportunity to be pioneers and change our career and change this industry.”

    The papers the Lynn sisters help run have been surprisingly profitable. They have not faced bankruptcy like newspapers of the Tribune Company including The Los Angeles Times and haven’t cut coverage like The Times-Picayune of New Orleans. In these parts of Vermont, where Internet connections are less reliable and winter snowstorms can block roads for days, readers often prefer print.

    Angelo Lynn said that he had run his newspapers debt-free for more than a decade. While his papers aren’t making big profits yet from their digital efforts, his newspaper, phone book, magazine and digital businesses generate about $4.5 million in gross revenue.

    “We can’t afford not to make money,” Angelo Lynn said as he sat in his office here surrounded by photographs of his daughters, the family dogs dozing loudly nearby. “There’s no future losing money in any of these papers.”

    It helps that he has a long history in the business. His great-grandfather, Charles Scott, bought The Iola Register in Kansas in 1882, a paper that has remained in the family and is published today by Lynn’s younger sister, Susan. Angelo Lynn and his siblings were raised upstairs from the offices of another nearby Kansas paper called The Humboldt Union run by his father, Emerson Lynn Jr., who took over operations of the Register in 1965 and remained active with the paper through the spring of 2013.

    In 1984, Angelo Lynn bought The Addison County Independent in Vermont and started building up his chain of papers. His older brother, Emerson, owns two papers with his wife, Suzanne (the St. Albans Messenger and Milton Independent), they co-own the Colchester Sun and Essex Reporter with Angelo, while Angelo and his daughters operate the Addison Independent, The Reporter in Brandon-Pittsford-Proctor, and the Mountain Times in Killington, as well as Vermont Ski & Ride Magazine. A new acquisition for Lynn, effective Sept. 1, is the popular magazine Vermont Sports.

    Angelo Lynn speaks fondly of the newspaper life. He spends his weekends hiking and skiing with his daughters and weekdays churning out enterprising local journalism.

    “Once you become part of a community, you see the good that a paper does,” he said. “That’s very fulfilling.”

    His daughters’ newspaper futures were less certain. When Elsie Lynn arrived at the newsroom of The Colchester Sun and The Essex Reporter, she had never studied journalism or held a journalism job. She wasn’t convinced she wanted to work with her father and uncle.

    “I’ve said, ‘Man, I don’t know, Dad, if this is what I want to do,’” she said as she sat in her threadbare newspaper office in a converted stable space on the outskirts of Colchester. “He said ‘No pressure.’”

    She settled in, typing up wedding announcements, but before long her father asked her to review the papers’ finances. Elsie discovered they were owed $120,000 from advertisers. In three months, she collected $90,000. She also saved her father labor costs by absorbing multiple job titles. Elsie said she often logged 13-hour days writing and editing stories and promoting them on social media.

    Polly Lynn was living in Colorado working for an educational tour company with her partner, Jason Mikula, when her father received an offer to buy The Mountain Times in Killington. Angelo Lynn mentioned the opportunity to the couple (both graduates of Middlebury College) when they were back for a wedding at The Mountain Top Inn that summer, and after a few short weeks they moved back to Vermont to run it. The couple took over in September 2011 just as Tropical Storm Irene hit and Killington was hit with some of the storm’s worst flooding. She produced the first editions with the previous owner, Royal Barnard, from his dining room table.

    Since then, Polly Lynn said, she has kept a nonstop schedule of publishing deadlines and has designed a hyper-local news app for Killington. She spends evenings attending town planning meetings and winters skiing with sources and advertisers.

    There has already been a payoff. Polly Lynn and Mikula increased the paper’s revenue by 15 percent, or about $100,000, by improving editorial content and strengthening its advertising relationships, according to Angelo Lynn.

    Mike Miller, a Killington business owner and former selectman, said local businesses appreciated the couple’s forthright approach: when they made early mistakes on advertisements, they admitted they were wrong, fixed them and even offered to make more creative advertisements. They also appreciate the couple’s efforts to participate in the community.

    “I’m just amazed at their energy,” Miller said. “If there’s something that there are going to be more than 10 people there, they cover it.”

    In some ways, Christy Lynn had the toughest transition. While her sisters work at papers an hour’s drive from their father, she works steps away from him. Her father focuses on editorial content, and she oversees the advertising sales team and comes up with new promotions. Angelo Lynn said that advertising revenue grew 6 percent in this year’s first quarter under Christy’s watch.

    Gary Greene, a newspaper sales broker, said successful community newspapers shared specific traits. Unlike larger newspapers, local community papers have little debt and don’t depend heavily on classified advertising. They hire enough employees to report on town meetings and sports events and publish material people can’t find elsewhere. They are in county seats, where they receive legal notices and advertisements from local businesses.

    Greene, who sits on the boards of small newspaper chains nationwide and sees their financial statements, says those qualities are critical to profitability.

    For now, newspaper analysts say these papers’ futures remain promising as long as they remain the sole information source. Alan D. Mutter, a newspaper consultant who writes the Reflections of a Newsosaur blog, said that there was still value in information like school lunch menus and high school sports scores.

    “Weeklies in healthy communities that do a good job reporting on local news and serving local businesses are by far the healthiest of publications,” he said.

    “The Messenger has been in business for 150 years,” said Emerson Lynn, referring to one of his Vermont papers, The St. Albans Messenger. “Do I think Google is going to be in existence for 150 years? Not a chance.”

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