On this day 218 years ago, proprietors S. Williams and S. Williams published the first edition of the Rutland Herald. These two men remain in Rutland to this day, buried in a cemetery on North Main Street in largely neglected graves.
They bought their press from the son of Matthew Lyon — who was famous for being jailed on sedition charges after criticizing President John Adams, and who then was re-elected to the U.S. House from his jail cell.
The mission the Johnsons laid out on the front page of that first edition retains its integrity to this day: “The most proper way of soliciting the public’s favor is to deserve it: This shall be our constant endeavour. The end we mean to have steadily in view is to make the Herald an Instructive, Entertaining and Useful paper, uninfluenced by parties, and as free as possible from any mixtures of prejudice.”
The newspaper, which was four pages in its first week, was offered at nine shillings per annum, delivered, and it carried mostly international news from Europe, along with publishing the laws enacted by the young state of Vermont — at that point just three years old.
The labor the two men began has been carried forward to the present day by an unbroken chain of reporters, editors, publishers, printers, carriers, sales people and family owners. Vermont has been unusually well stocked with newspapers, both daily and weekly, throughout its history, but the Herald is the oldest — in fact the oldest continuously family-owned newspaper in the United States that has been published under the same name and in the same city since its original issue.
The Herald began daily publication during the Civil War, when demand for news and the advent of the telegraph created the necessary conditions for this innovation. Like many other newspapers of those days, the paper was filled with wire reports, letters home from soldiers far away, and tiny tidbits of local news.
After lean years following the Civil War, the paper emerged stronger in the first part of the 20th century, prospering as Rutland and Vermont prospered. Beginning under the Clement-Field family in the late 1800s and continuing on through the Mitchell years in the ’40s and onward, the Herald earned a statewide perspective and influence through incisive reporting, reasoned and principled editorial stances, and comprehensive coverage of the communities in southern Vermont during a period of intense change in Vermont’s makeup and political orientation.
The reputation of the paper was affirmed by the state’s first Pulitzer Prize for newspapers in 2001.
But at this point in its history, the Herald’s story is more concerned with the future than its past. There are families in southern Vermont who have been receiving the Herald in the same house for four generations or more; the current generation no longer reads the print paper, instead relying on the e-Edition, website or tablet edition.
This transition away from the old model — which is by no means unique to Vermont — has led some to pre-write the obituary for the Herald and indeed most newspapers, predicting that in the brave new world of electrons and innovation, ink on paper is not just dead, but inevitably so.
That evaluation misses the point that ink and paper is not the totality of a newspaper. While the Herald has fewer print subscribers today than it has in recent memory, the news published by this paper has more readers, across print, Internet, mobile and social media, than it has had in its history. During major news events, like Tropical Storm Irene, the readership has spiked to become larger than the size of Vermont’s population, albeit for just a few days.
The numbers are an easy touchstone, but the enduring and future role of this newspaper is as the strengthening bond for a community, a community made up of thousands of people across Vermont, the United States and to some extent the world. This community seeks a connection to something tangible, that place called home — during military deployments the community has stretched across the world to France and Germany, Guam, Saipan, Okinawa, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.
We do not create this community, but we make it stronger, introducing young athletes and musicians to the community, marking the passing of our loved ones, telling the stories of our citizens and promoting their endeavours; holding public figures to account and bringing the message of advertisers to the public at large.
At times — such as during the debate over civil unions, or further back during the McCarthy era — the newspaper acts as a conscience for this community, standing up for what is right. At other times, it acts as a prod, or a watchdog, or as a trailblazer. In today’s fragmented world of virulent opinion, micro-targeted blogs and social media, a newspaper is one of the communities that still cuts across divisions of politics, race, class and age.
The only sure thing is that the future is headed our way: What lies ahead is uncertain, but we aim to hold true to the values of integrity, independence, justice, frugality and service that have brought us this far, no matter what the future brings.