MONTPELIER, VERMONT — As the name suggests, VTDigger (pronounced “V.T. Digger,” not “Vermont Digger”) aims to provide deep coverage of local issues in the Green Mountain State. “I wanted to follow stories in-depth,” explains Anne Galloway, the publication’s editor-in-chief. “Not all of our stories are investigative; but we want them all to go deep.” While it’s not all hard-hitting political stories—the day after Christmas, Digger featured a story called “Vermont’s Other Residents,” a photo essay about farm animals—the site focuses primarily on politics and state and local public policy.
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Galloway worked as an editor at the Rutland Herald, Vermont’s second largest daily newspaper, for seven years before she was laid off, along with nineteen other people, in January 2009. But she had become frustrated with journalism long before that. The enterprise reporting in which she specialized was no longer a priority at many of the state’s resource-strapped newspapers.
“I didn’t like the web stuff when I was at the news desk,” Galloway admits. “When you’re understaffed, it’s all you can do to put out the paper product. Web stuff is extra.”
But while unemployed, she realized that the Internet was the means for her to continue to work in journalism. And so she launched VTDigger in September 2009, with the goal of being a Vermont version of ProPublica, the independent national nonprofit that exists to produce investigative journalism in the public interest. At its launch, the site had three unpaid reporters and produced three to four long stories (1500 to 4000 words) a week. By December, the publication had about 1500 readers a month. In January 2010, Digger launched a redesigned website. It now boasts about 20,000 readers a month (this is in a state with only about 400,000 people, less than 70 percent of whom have high-speed Internet access).
Digger now posts about twelve pieces a week, and other Vermont news outlets often take those stories and run them in their own pages. (The site advertises “low-fee” syndication rights.) In a region that’s cutting news staff, publications are eager for content—and Digger provides it.
“We like to start out on a given topic and branch out,” Galloway explains. That means not just one story about an issue, but five or six, exploring different angles. The editor emphasizes that the best investigative policy journalism often means telling stories that are inherently unsexy, making them understandable, looking at every component and trying to make them compelling. “We did a whole series of pieces on a tax commission,” Galloway notes, discussing Digger’s February series on the Vermont Blue Ribbon Tax Structure Commission Report.
This stuff is not inherently exciting, but it’s important to find a way to write those stories, Galloway believes. “What you collect money on and what you spend it on. That’s where your priorities are,” she says. “That’s really what you value as a society.”
Freelancers get paid $100 to $500 a story. Galloway bought a $500 camera but still uses her old computer. Digger made about $12,000 on website donations last year. That, together with grants and some sponsorship, means that the publication has about $80,000 in the bank.
The Vermont Journalism Trust is now Digger’s parent organization and publisher. Galloway hopes to raise about $180,000 for this year. She would like to hire more freelancers and possibly a reporter.
Galloway explains that she has survived only by being patient and frugal. She lives in a house that needs a lot of repairs. She has a garden. She is living “the alternative American dream.”
But while this new model for journalism isn’t lucrative, at least she thinks it’s sustainable. The publication puts out new pieces every day. Plus, “I’m getting paid for the first time next week,” Galloway says excitedly. After seventeen months, that’s not too bad.
Principal Staff: Anne Galloway, editor; Josh Larkin, director of design and technology.
Affiliations: Vermont Public Radio; Vermont Business Magazine; commonsnews.org; the Barton Chronicle.