How Paula Routly ’82 and her band of journalists have flourished in a field where so many others have floundered.
There’s a saying in the literary world: If you want your book to get a bad notice, have a friend review it. Under the guise of bending over backward to be fair, some spite and envy will leak in.
So I am here to say about my old friend Paula Routly ’82, the publisher, cofounder, and coeditor of the Burlington-based weekly newspaper Seven Days, the most vibrant and envied publication in New England journalism: She drives like a little old lady. She cannot keep a secret. She dislikes children, even those that belong to her friends. (When my two kids were very young, they placed a fake pint of spilled ice cream on her white futon sofa. To remark that she was not amused would be an understatement.) She has lost all but her most devoted friends—of which there are still many, I should add—because she is obsessed with her work and will cancel long-made social plans at the last instant to improve the first paragraph of a not-earthshattering news story that arrived a bit late. A former ballet dancer, she is a control freak with steely resolve. She can pinch a penny until it yodels.
About this mild roasting, what can I say? I’ve known Routly for years. We’re competitive. But I’m happy to have a chance to speak about her. She’s one of the least boring people I know, one who has no tolerance for small talk, and one who—now we’re truly entering the land of full disclosure—was the best “man,” 22 years ago, at my wedding. Routly’s story is a good one. In fact, it’s among the best and most optimistic stories that beleaguered American journalism currently has to tell.
It’s a story about how Routly and her friend Pamela Polston, who was once the lead singer in a well-regarded Burlington punk band called the Decentz, borrowed $68,000 in 1995 to start a scrappy little arts weekly. (Yes, Pamela is an old friend of mine, too.) These two had no business experience, and their timing could not have been worse: The Internet was about to start doing to print publications what strip-mining does to the tops of mountains. They were warned by the owners of a well-funded but hapless rival weekly (more about them later, but imagine them twisting the ends of their mustaches), “We are going to bury you.” This became a David versus Goliath story in Vermont media circles, and David buried Goliath. Over two decades Seven Days has morphed into a $5.7 million multimedia company. At a time when most of America’s alternative weekly newspapers are dead (the Boston Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Guardian) or a pale shadow of their former selves (the Village Voice, the Chicago Reader), Seven Days is fat as a tick with advertising, and fatter with news its readers actually use.
Seven Days is a free newspaper. Most weeks it is a ripe-to-bursting 112 pages or more, a number unheard of for most weeklies even during the holiday shopping season. Each issue is filled with news about everything from, say, the afterlife of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign and the plight of Syrian refugees in Rutland to rowdy new Burlington bands and the city’s even rowdier food scene. Seven Days takes an almost Talmudic interest in Vermont microbreweries, and copies of its annual sex and pot surveys—these are gritty, kinky, strange, and hilarious—are snapped up as soon as they hit the streets. Each week more than a dozen drivers deliver the paper to some 1,100 locations all over the state and across the lake in New York, two hours in each direction. The paper has grown from a handful of employees to more than 65. More than a few Middlebury graduates have cycled through Seven Days. Some are happily still there. These include Don Eggert ’98, the weekly’s creative director and associate publisher, who has worked there for 18 years. Nothing really seems to happen in Vermont unless Seven Days has covered it.
The journalism world is paying attention. In 2013 the industry magazine Editor & Publisher named Seven Days one of its “10 Newspapers That Do It Right.” It was the only weekly to make the list. The same year, writing for the Atlantic, James Fallows studied the paper’s attainments in a piece titled “Strange Tales from the North Country: A Profitable (Print) Newspaper.” Fallows and others are curious about many aspects of Seven Days’ success. How did it fight off the powerful Internet businesses (Yelp, Monster, Craigslist, Match.com, CareerBuilder, Cars.com, LivingSocial, Groupon) that have drained the plasma from most print publications? How did it steal so much authority from the Burlington Free Press, the city’s once-powerful daily, hiring away some of its best news reporters? How did it become so multitentacled and multiplatform?
To understand the reach of Seven Days, you have to look beyond its print product. It runs annual tech expos that are attended by thousands of people. It hosts singles events, restaurant weeks, and beloved first-time homebuyer tutorials. It publishes student, dining, and tourist guides. (The last, because of Vermont’s close relationship with Canada, is printed in French and English.) It operates a publication for kids and one about home design. It has two mobile apps, one that lets you read the entire paper on your phone, the other a business directory. It made a video game! It is so avid about keeping its many pages of employment advertising that every time a new ad comes in, the paper tweets it.
“Paula is one of the most forward-thinking publishers in America,” Mark Zusman tells me. He’s the editor and publisher of Willamette Week, a media company based in Portland, Oregon, and the former president of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia. He fondly recalls the time, a few years ago, when he and a few other weekly newspaper publishers were visiting Vermont. Routly had them to her house for a cocktail party, and Bernie Sanders, to their happy astonishment, dropped by for a meet-and-greet. “He sort of grumbled and grunted,” Zusman says, “and told us all what a bad job we were doing. Then he left.”
Zusman adds: “Paula’s newspaper is serious and speaks truth to power. She also knows her market, is frugal, and is interested in building community. In our industry, when we learn that she’s trying something, we pay attention. We’d be fools not to.”
“Do you remember your first semester at Middlebury?” Routly asks me. It’s a warm afternoon in late June and we’re sitting in Adirondack chairs in the backyard of her house in Burlington’s Old North End. The house’s exterior is modest, but in the rear it has a wraparound IMAX view of Lake Champlain. She bought it in 2009, in a rare splurge on something other than her newspaper. Routly is wiry—she’s a relentless swimmer and a StairMaster obsessive—with hazel eyes and dark brown hair that she piles into a wave above her forehead. In a sitcom, she’d be played by “Seinfeld”-era Julia Louis-Dreyfus. We’re talking about how Middlebury shocked the hell out of both of us when we arrived there, her in 1978 and me in 1984. We are bonding over social class. Neither of us was prepared for preppies and, in fact, barely knew then what a prep school was. How do all these people know each other already? Why do they have names like “Winky”?
“I remember thinking, How are they so relaxed and confident?” she tells me. “And they could be so nice. They’d take you home at Thanksgiving. You’d get off the highway and then drive for a long time until you’d start to think to yourself, Wait, we’re still driving. Then gates would open. It was like Downton Abbey.” She obsessed over status in part because, at Middlebury, she had so little money. Her parents gave her a strict allowance of $40 a month, not always enough to buy Tampax, much less burgers and beers downtown at the Alibi. She hated to so often be, to use her term, a mooch.
They say the best way for parents to teach children about money is not to have any. Routly’s parents were not poor, but they were meticulous and they were scrimpers. Her father, Paul Routly, was an astrophysicist with a PhD from Princeton. (He liked to tell the story of how he once almost ran over a distracted Albert Einstein.) Routly and her older sister, Pam, grew up largely in Princeton, where their father was the executive director of the American Astronomical Society. Later they moved to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where he worked at the U.S. Naval Observatory. She remembers him as a frustrated and remote man (“he probably shouldn’t have had children”) who worked with enough geniuses to know he wasn’t one. His work ethic appealed to her, however. He cowrote a book called Galactic Astronomy, writing at night after coming home from work. “That image of him working over the dining room table late at night, being driven to do something beyond what he had to do, made an impression on me,” she says. He’d order a pizza at 1 a.m. and Routly would come down from bed and help him eat it.
During high school, Routly fell deeply into the ballet world, so much so that she barely got to know her classmates and did not go on dates. This was Soviet-style ballet, heavy on theory and so immersive that she left school every day at noon to attend practice. This felt like her new family, and she had talent. She was accepted to the New York City feeder school for the Joffrey Ballet but gradually realized she didn’t have what it took to go further. In distress she fled to a summer camp she knew about in the Adirondacks. There she gained 30 pounds, made a lot of friends, got her first period, became a camp counselor, and learned how to hug. “This was big,” she says. “We didn’t hug in my family.”
At Middlebury she graduated with a joint major that her father liked to jokingly refer to as “14th-century Italian cinema.” In reality, it was in Russian and Italian. She didn’t write any journalism at Middlebury, but she did take semesters off to do exotic things like walk the Pacific Crest Trail and bicycle in New Zealand. (She earned money for her adventures by waitressing at Mister Up’s.) Often there was a boy involved in these trips. She met her first husband, Theo Miller ’81, at the Italian table in the Château. They married in Vermont in 1983—at Cate Farm in Plainfeld, an organic operation run by Middlebury graduates—after he’d worked in the Peace Corps in Benin, West Africa. (When Paula visited him there, she got hepatitis. He left the corps early to escort her home.) Neither was ready for a commitment; the marriage lasted nine months.
Single and back in Vermont, Routly got a job at Burlington’s Flynn Theater, the city’s defining performing arts space, doing public relations and marketing. She felt like she was back in a world she loved and understood. She also began writing freelance dance reviews for the Vanguard Press, then a thriving alternative weekly in Burlington. She was soon offered a position at the daily Burlington Free Press, a Gannett newspaper, where she founded its standalone weekend arts section.
In 1988 she met the man who would become her second husband. Routly and Roger Clapp, a hunky fellow with an Abe Lincoln-like chinstrap beard, had a whirlwind romance. Early in their relationship, he was offered a job doing resettlement work in Uganda, and she decided to go with him. They impulsively married and jumped on a plane. They were in Uganda for two years. Paula taught English there and did some serious photography, but was eager to come home. The locals called her “Mrs. Roger,” and she felt she’d lost her identity. (The couple divorced in 2000. He wanted children; she did not.)
We are nearing the spot where I make a small but stylish cameo appearance in this story. While Routly was in Africa, the Vanguard Press closed and reopened as a more straitlaced newsweekly called Vermont Times. In 1990, I became its first arts editor. When Paula returned from Uganda, she began to write dance criticism for me. I remember her first piece, a review of Mark Morris’s company at the Flynn, because she called me afterward to complain about the dumb headline (“Happy Feet”) I’d put on it. She was right. Headline writing-wise, that was a low point. We finally met a few weeks later and instantly became friends. I helped her get hired as a staff writer at Vermont Times. When I moved with my fiancée (Cree LeFavour ’88) to New York City in 1993, Routly took my job as arts editor.
Vermont Times was never very successful. In 1994, in an attempt to save it, its publishers decided to turn it into two separate publications, one for arts and one for news. Routly brought in Polston, the former punk rocker and also the former arts editor of the Vanguard Press, and together they started an arts publication called Vox. It was more successful than its sister news spinoff, but not successful enough to save the company.
“We realized about three months in that the whole company was for sale,” Routly says. “The buyer was a publisher of penny savers in the Adirondacks. They had one editor overseeing eight newspapers. We could see the writing on the wall. We knew they would never keep Vox going as it was. They would gut it.”
Routly and Polston tried to purchase their baby outright, but the new owners asked for $100,000 and demanded an onerous noncompete clause. When Routly and Polston walked away from the talks and decided to start their own publication, one of the penny saver’s owners said to Routly, “We don’t know if your parents are paying for this, or if Pamela’s parents are, but we are going to bury you.”
Those words were all the motivation Routly and Polston needed. Three months later, on September 6, 1995, the first issue of Seven Days was on the streets of Burlington.
The bathroom at the Seven Days office is, strange to say, one of my favorite places in all of Vermont. Its walls are pink and covered top to bottom with kitschy religious and other memorabilia that staffers have dragged back from all over the planet. The place is a shrine, a truck stop instead of St. Peter’s, in REM terms. The last time I visited, there was also a roll of toilet paper with Donald Trump’s face on each square, along with sayings like, “We Shall Overcomb.”
The entirety of the sprawling Seven Days office, located not far from Burlington’s waterfront, is just as strange, warm and inviting. To enter it is to enter a combination record store, dorm room, bookshop, coffeehouse, and den. Posters and original art choke the walls. Dogs snooze under people’s desks. The director Cameron Crowe could set a sweet romantic drama here. (Two Seven Days reporters met their spouses through the paper’s personal ads.) There is a lactation lounge for new mothers. A wall along one long hallway, which a typical visitor would never see, is filled entirely with the dozens of awards the paper has won. These range from a prestigious Pushcart Prize, won in 1995 for Tom Paine’s short story “From Basra to Bethlehem,” through the paper’s seven general excellence awards from the Vermont Press Association over the years to Routly and Polston’s induction into the New England Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2015. There are so many of these awards that there is not space for them all. They overspill onto a table in a separate room, where they await TLC.
To walk though this office with Routly is to see her glow. She purposefully didn’t have children—“I could not have done this if I had had kids,” she says—but this is her family. Her employees tend to have similar feelings about her. Samantha Hunt, a University of Vermont graduate, was the paper’s first designer. She’s gone on to become an acclaimed fiction writer. Her first novel, The Seas, won a National Book Award for writers under 35. Hunt told me, “Paula is a thrilling storyteller, a loyal mama bear/cheerleader to many, a great journalist, and a great, great friend. We knew within moments of meeting we’d be lifelong colleagues and friends.”
The Vermont-based cartoonist Alison Bechdel, the author of the graphic memoir Fun Home and the now-defunct comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” which ran in Seven Days, told me: “It’s easy to see the tangible stuff, the way Seven Days is growing and financially successful at a time when newspapers everywhere are struggling. But the way Seven Days has created a Vermont community—that’s harder to see because the paper has become such a backdrop, such an integral part of life here. Paula is like Clark Kent—everyone knows she’s a successful, mild-mannered alternative weekly publisher. But I’m not sure everyone knows that she’s also a superhero.”
So how did Seven Days pull it off? How did it manage to create a thriving weekly newspaper at a time when publications all around it were crumbling? On some meta level, it’s a mystery—an only-in-Vermont anomaly. On another level, it’s no mystery at all. Routly’s frugality has played a big part. The paper has never been in debt, and it paid off its original investors—two were friends from Middlebury, Charlie and Mima Tipper, both ’81—within three years. Routly and Polston also had the good sense to give their publishing company a name (Da Capo Publishing) that was bigger and scarier than they are.
They made other canny moves. Early on, when Seven Days was known primarily as an arts paper, they hired the Falstaffian political columnist Peter Freyne, a barstool sage who was Vermont’s Mike Royko. This gave the political crowd in Montpelier a reason to pick up the paper. (Freyne died in 2009 after a battle with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Polston keeps some of his ashes in a box on the bookshelf behind her desk.) Seven Days has never run editorials. “At first Pamela and I were too busy to research and write them, and then we realized we also disagreed about some things,” Routly says. Even though the paper leans to the left politically and temperamentally, Routly thought, “Why give anyone a reason to write us off because they think we are predictable?”
The smartest thing Seven Days has done is to capitalize on the floundering fortunes of the Burlington Free Press. Seven Days has become a serious general interest news source, moving away from its alternative press roots. The paper has kept its classified ads strong because of its demographics. Businesses in Burlington want to reach Seven Days’ educated and interested readers.
It is attracting some of America’s best young journalists. One recent hire, straight from Columbia Journalism School, is Kymelya Sari. She is from Singapore and is likely Vermont’s first Muslim reporter. Among other things, she helps cover the state’s refugee community. She has written for the paper, among other topics, on what it is like to wear a hijab while reporting.
There have been some potholes in Routly’s path. In 2007, at the start of the recession, Craigslist appeared on the horizon. Here is Routly’s self-effacing description of how she responded: “I got a debilitating case of shingles and I thought it was over.” She was in a lot of pain—“I couldn’t leave the oatmeal bath for three months”—but the paper survived.
One work-related headache these days is her 14-year relationship with Tim Ashe, 39, a rising political star in Vermont. He’s 16 years younger than Routly, and the chair of Vermont’s senate finance committee. When he ran (and lost) for Burlington mayor in 2012, Routly’s news editors sometimes made her step out of meetings when coverage of him was discussed. Each time Ashe’s name appears in Seven Days, it is tagged with a disclaimer that reads, “Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly.” Such are the problems of Vermont’s power couples.
One of the best things about Seven Days has always been its smart but unpretentious tone. When the paper issued its 20th-anniversary issue last year, it published a list called “Twenty Reasons We’re Still Here.” I like it, so I am going to print it here. (Note: “ISpys” are dating ads. Lola, Mistress Maeve, and Athena have been among the paper’s sex columnists. “Daysies” are the paper’s popular readers’ choice awards.)
Twenty Reasons We’re Still Here
Seven Days was “locavore” before there was a precious term for it.
It’s free—you can thank our advertisers for that.
In Vermont, our circulation drivers are more reliable than the Internet.
You can’t wrap presents, make mulch, or start a fire with Facebook.
ISpys. Maybe this week, right?
We actually live here.
You can’t do the Seven Days crossword online.
Unlike other local news outlets, we get to drop the F-bomb.
We really, really try to eliminate typos.
Who else would you nervously ask about your penis size if not for
Lola, Mistress Maeve, and Athena?
It’s nice lookin’. Admit it—you even read the ads.
For Seven Days, serious word play is not an oxymoron.
Vermont is far more sophisticated than our rinky-dink population
Two words: job ads.
The fearless Peter Freyne launched our news section.
You need something to read in the bathroom.
How else would you know what to do this weekend?
We bust our asses—no squat machine required.
It’s not all work: Think Mardi Gras, Art Hop, and Big Lebowski.
YOU. Thanks for picking up the paper, buying ads, sending letters,
pet photos, suggesting stories, voting for the Daysies and giving us so
much to write about over the years.
The next afternoon, we’re again sitting out behind Routly’s house, talking. The view is astonishing, but she can’t totally give in to it. Her mind is where it always is, back in the Seven Days office. Pretty soon she’ll drive back there, like a little old lady, think about canceling some dinner plans, and put out another terrific issue.