Sharpen that pencil! Essay winner will become owner of Vermont newspaper
When Ross Connelly “croaks,” he doesn’t want it to be in front of a computer screen while he’s trying to make the deadline for next week’s newspaper.
So the 70-year-old is offering to pass the torch and give away The Hardwick Gazette, a weekly newspaper nestled in the Northeast Kingdom in Vermont that he’s owned for 30 years, to the person who writes the most compelling essay explaining why they’re deserving of running his cherished publication.
“I’ve been doing this for 30 years, but I’m having another birthday this weekend,” said Connelly. “I just know that I no longer have the energy that the newspaper needs and the readers deserve.”
Connelly, who first dove into the industry as a reporter at several publications in Massachusetts after getting his master’s degree at Boston University in the early 1980s, purchased the paper with his late wife, Susan Jarzyna, in 1986. The couple sold their home in Chatham during a “real estate bubble,” he said, and settled in Vermont to run the newspaper, which has a paid circulation of about 2,200 and covers Hardwick and nine surrounding communities.
Ready to retire just a few years after his wife passed away, Connelly said finding a new owner was part of a larger plan to “downsize” his lifestyle.
“It’s going to be a change, but it needs to happen,” he said by telephone Wednesday.
The contest runs from June 11 through Aug. 11, or until the maximum number of entries are received. Connelly said he hopes to draw enough interest from the public that he and a panel of judges will need to sift through 1,889 essays — a number that reflects the year the newspaper was first published.
Entrants will need to cough up $175 — if 1,889 people step up, Connelly stands to make $330,575 — and craft a 400-word essay detailing how they plan to keep afloat a print publication in the age of the Internet.
The contest winner won’t just inherit the newspaper. They’ll also take over the Main Street building where the weekly has been produced for roughly 100 years. The paper itself is printed off-site, by a regional press not owned by Connelly.
It’s not the first time that businesses have been offered to the public in exchange for an entrance fee and creative prose from a passionate applicant.
In 2015, a couple from the Virgin Islands won the keys to a historic Maine inn, with views of the White Mountains.
The owners of a bakery in Kingston last summer launched a contest to give the business to someone with a dream of making pastries and cakes, but a winner was never chosen due to a lack of interested applicants.
And in Maine this week, a couple put their dream home in West Bath on the market through a similar contest.
Connelly said he was partly inspired by the contest for the Maine inn, though that effort didn’t come without some legal hiccups.
But Connelly said he vetted the process and ran the idea by Vermont state officials and lawyers in the area, and doesn’t foresee any problems with his contest.
“So I said, ‘What the heck, let’s give it a try,’ ” he said. “The alternative would have been to keep trying to sell it. But . . . I came to the realization that if I croak in my chair while sitting in front of a computer, the paper will go with me.”
He said it’s “such an important institution” for the towns it covers, he can’t let that happen.
“I feel a real responsibility to transition it in some way so it can continue,” he said. “Here’s a new way to try to do that — so let’s do it.”
Connelly said he had no concrete plans for when he retires and eventually gives up the life of a publisher. For now, he has other things to worry about.
“People ask me [what’s next] all the time, and I say, ‘I could give you all sorts of pie-in-the-sky answers,’ ” he said. “But right now my energy is going into getting out next week’s paper.”