WINOOSKI, Vt. — Jenny Koppang, a 20-year-old cub reporter, felt the butterflies as she sat down to interview the deputy mayor of this old mill town, a small and lively place that is among the most ethnically diverse communities in northern New England.
The interview space: a picnic table on a lawn beside City Hall. The subject: a contested local initiative to allow noncitizens the right to vote in Winooski elections, which Deputy Mayor Hal Colston has been pushing hard.
“If we have these neighbors whom we want to become citizens, why don’t we let them vote in the meantime?” asked Colston, who also is a state representative.
Koppang locked eyes with Colston and listened attentively as he spoke, an exchange that normally would pass as business as usual between a reporter and government official. But this exchange was anything but normal: Winooski hasn’t had a community media outlet in 15 years.
Under a program launched by the University of Vermont, students are being paired with local news outlets — some established, some brand-new — to provide the fledgling journalists with real-world experience, bolster the staffs of revenue-withered papers, and bring local news to readers hungry to know what’s happening at City Hall and down the street.
“If there’s a community news source, people are more likely to be engaged,” said Richard Watts, a UVM faculty member who created the program and directs the university’s Center for Research on Vermont. “We’re doing stuff that nobody else is doing.”
That includes bringing the electronic Winooski News to this community of 7,200 people crowded into 1.5 square miles beside Burlington. The newsletter, available for free, made its twice-monthly debut on June 25. The outlet also has a website where new content will be uploaded more frequently.
“This all feels a little exciting and a little scary because I don’t want to let anybody down,” Koppang said after the interview.
The Winooski effort is part of what UVM calls the Community News Service. The service is staffed by student volunteers, some of whom are pursuing an academic minor called Reporting and Documentary Storytelling, which a year ago brought together journalism courses with nonfiction writing, photography, video production, and related subjects.
“The goal is to help students be better writers and storytellers,” Watts said.
This summer, Community News Service is using 12 students, many of whom are unpaid. In addition, UVM has embedded student interns with Vermont Public Radio, The Burlington Free Press, and The Other Paper, based in South Burlington.
The effort is an extension of UVM’s collaboration with other spokes in the state’s higher-education system. During the academic year, students at Castleton University and Northern Vermont University submit stories to local papers. Beginning this fall, Community College of Vermont will come on board.
It’s an exercise in learning journalism by doing it. And what some of UVM’s rookie reporters lack in a paycheck, they make up for in curiosity about the profession at its most basic.
“The truth can be really beautiful and compelling,” Koppang said.
The program seeks its stories in a state with a long, feisty tradition of grass-roots news-gathering. But Vermont‘s media have been hit hard, as have newspapers across the country that continue to be shuttered and downsized.
At the Hinesburg Record, a monthly that is delivered free to every mailbox in a town of 4,400 people, the students have been a godsend, said Kevin Lewis, a semi-retired graphic designer who is president of the Record.
“These kids require little, if any, hand-holding. It’s a definite win,” said Lewis, sitting at home in the room where he designs the Record by computer. The office also serves as his guest room, and the bed is a place to lay a few of his files.
“This paper is something that’s vital, and against the odds we have such a unique situation,” Lewis said. “It doesn’t seem like it’s going away.”
Community News Service has provided student-written stories free of charge to the Record, which uses them to complement the releases, listings, and announcements that make up much of the rest of the paper.
“It’s the right thing for this local community,” Lewis said.
Olivia Nye, who will be a UVM junior this fall, wrote a feature for the July issue that chronicled how a local family transformed its farm into a golf course that has been a community mainstay for 25 years. She also has written about a free food pantry that offers help to families stressed and stretched by the COVID crisis.
“I’m busy, but I’m enjoying it. This stuff is getting me out there in the world,” said Nye, a 21-year-old who also spends her summer working as a cake decorator. The reporting “gives a voice to some people who wouldn’t have a voice otherwise.”
Another of UVM’s partners is the Waterbury Roundabout, an online publication created after the weekly Waterbury Record closed in March. Others include VT Digger, The Citizen, The Other Paper, Shelburne News, The Essex Reporter, and Charlotte News.
So far, the Roundabout has 888 subscribers, who register online for its free newsletter. Hinesburg has 916 online subscribers, in addition to its town-wide print circulation, and Winooksi has 125.
The stories presented there receive professional scrutiny before publication, much of it from Lisa Scagliotti, a longtime Vermont journalist who is editor of Community News Service and helped create the Waterbury Roundabout. Another respected journalist, senior editor Jim Welch of VT Digger, provides regular feedback.
“They have to figure out what’s news,” Watts said of the students.
Sometimes, that means asking him if it’s proper etiquette to bring written questions to an interview. Other times, it means reminding them to think about photographs to illustrate the story and to keep an ear cocked for the strongest quote.
The news service’s managing editor, UVM senior Julia Bailey-Wells, said the work has helped her connect better with the communities she helps serve.
Winooski is one example.
“We said we were going to cover it, but it didn’t mean much until we started doing it,” Bailey-Wells said.
Watts said he has been impressed with how much the students buy into the grunt work of small-town news.
“They’re really into these local things, the human connection. People care about these things. I thought they’d just want to cover the bigger stories,” Watts said.
Indigo Glaza, a 21-year-old from Mystic, Conn., can relate. The UVM senior-to-be was about to head from Burlington to Waterbury, where he planned to interview municipal officials about a downtown reconstruction project.
“I had never had any experience in journalism,” Glaza said. “But I feel like I’m writing about things that are pertinent to people, even if it’s small-scale.”
Nye agreed. She’s an English major who loves to write, and covering Hinesburg is taking up a chunk of her summer, a time when many college students are relaxing and rebooting their brains.
It’s an intriguing and satisfying challenge, she said. But Nye had another obligation before she could write her next story. There was that cake decoration job, after all — the one that actually paid.
“I have to go soon,” she said. “I have to get some frosting done.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at email@example.com.