By Sarah Olsen, VTDigger.org
An essay contest launches Saturday with a prompt that asks why the writer would like to own and operate a paid weekly newspaper.
The prize? Ownership rights to that newspaper: the Hardwick Gazette.
Operating since 1889 in the Caledonia County town, the Hardwick Gazette has a circulation of 2,200, according to the contest rules. The current owner, Ross Connelly, has been trying to sell the newspaper for two years without success.
Connelly, who is in the New England Newspaper and Press Association Hall of Fame, bought the Hardwick Gazette with his wife, Susan Jarzyna, in July of 1986, according to the Gazette’s website. Jarzyna died of cancer in 2011 and Connelly has been the editor and publisher by himself ever since.
Connelly said he believes he and Jarzyna were the eighth owners of the Gazette during its 127 years of operation.
Connelly, who will turn 71 on Saturday, said it’s time to move on.
“People, I guess, when they get into their 70s, decide they want to do something different than what they’ve been doing their whole careers,” he said.
The position of editor and publisher of the Gazette requires “a lot of time, a lot of hours and a lot of energy,” Connelly said.
“I was 40 when we bought the paper and had a lot of energy and passion,” he said. “I still have the passion, but not the energy.”
Some weeks, Connelly may end up working 60 or more hours, but the time doesn’t necessarily matter to him, he said.
If there is a fire in the Hardwick area, then it would take a lot of extra time that week for Connelly and his correspondents and reporters to cover the story right, but that’s how it has to be done, he said.
“I don’t really worry about the hours because there’s work that has to be done,” Connelly said.
Connelly said that this week, on top of the typical lengthy to-do list, he has spent a lot of time taking calls from people curious about the contest.
The Gazette has won awards from the Vermont Press Association, the New England Press Association, the National Newspaper Association and the International Society of Newspaper Editors.
The subscription rate for the newspaper for those that live in state is $35 every year, and $38 for those that live out-of-state. The Gazette grossed about $240,000 in 2015, according to the website.
The Gazette’s website lists a modest staff: Connelly, one full-time reporter, several news and sports correspondents, a part-time ad sales person, one full-time production person, two part-time production people, a contract photographer and a contract courier. All of these employees, as well as current owners, ex-owners, agents, and immediate family members of the Gazette are not allowed to participate in the contest, according to the rules.
Connelly said that this rule was put in so that the contest would “remain at arm’s-length” and not seem like an inside deal.
“It would be a conflict of interest,” he said.
Connelly said he wants no more than 1,889 entries, but there must be a minimum of 700. Essays will be accepted starting Saturday, June 11 and be open until August 11, or until the maximum number of entries is reached. However, if he doesn’t get enough submissions by the deadline, he will extend the contest for two more months, he said.
The contest consists of $175 entry fee and an essay 400 words or less about the entrant’s skills and vision for owning a paid weekly newspaper in the new millennium.
“We want to hear from people who can hold up a mirror in which local citizens can see themselves and gain insights into the lives within their communities,” Connelly explained in the contest rules. “We want to hear from people with a passion for local stories that are important, even in the absence of scandal and sensationalism. We want to hear from people who recognize social media is not the same as a local newspaper. The winner of this contest will demonstrate this is a business that employs local people, that keeps the money we earn in the communities we cover, that is here week after week because the people who live here are important.”
The idea for the contest came from a friend, Connelly said, who showed him a news article about a woman who had done something similar with her bed-and-breakfast in Maine. Though several businesses have sought new ownership through an essay contest, as far as Connelly knows, this is the first time it has been done with a newspaper.
After speaking with an attorney and the attorney general, Connelly found that the contest was completely legal so long as it is a contest of skill and not a contest of chance, he said.
A panel of judges will read and evaluate the essays blind, so they will not know whose they are reading, Connelly said. Though the judges won’t know the identity of the new owner until the winning essay has been selected, Connelly has an idea of the type of person he would like to be the ninth owner of the Hardwick Gazette.
“We’re looking for someone who has journalism skills, business skills … and all the skills that any reporter has to exhibit when applying for a job,” he said.
If all goes as planned, the winner will be announced in November, along with the second and third place winners.
According to the contest rules, the prize property does not include any printing support, because the Gazette prints off-site through a third party, or any guarantees.
“This is the news business and it changes everyday,” the rules state.
If the winner declines the ownership of the newspaper, it will then go to the person who won second place and so on, according to the rules.
“In shouldering [this] responsibility, you have the privilege to carry on a 127-year tradition,” Connelly said.