Resilience: Don’t stop the presses!
By Christian Avard
Staff Writer | August 26,2012
Photo by Rick Russell
Phil Camp, owner of the Vermont Standard in Woodstock, poses with copies of the historic edition that came out shortly after Irene struck Vermont.
For 158 years, the Vermont Standard in Woodstock has never missed a week of publication. Tropical Storm Irene almost ended that.
But the weekly newspaper’s publisher and owner — and the paper’s staff — would not let disaster get in their way.
“We met in an empty office the day after the storm. We sat cross-legged on the floor in a circle. There were no furniture, computers or electricity,” said publisher Phil Camp. “We sat around and said, ‘This is the oldest weekly in Vermont.’ After 158 years, on my watch we’re not going to be the first time you couldn’t publish every week.”
Their appreciation of the magnitude of Irene grew slowly before coming to a head on Aug. 28, 2011.
On that Sunday morning, Camp said he knew Irene was a serious storm and would be making its way up the New England coast. He expected heavy winds and rain.
Later that morning, business manager Jean Maynes called and said the storm was moving west, would make landfall in New York, and continue north through Connecticut and Vermont.
Camp responded by purchasing generators in the event they lost electricity. That way, he thought, they wouldn’t miss a beat and could still publish the newspaper that week.
The Vermont Standard office was located on Route 4 west of Woodstock, in the floodplain of the Ottaquechee River.
“I got a call Sunday morning indicating that it was going to be a high-water issue. I called (Woodstock police) dispatch and asked what the prognosis was. They said, ‘Don’t worry about a thing,’” Camp recalled.
The Vermont Standard staff arrived at the office and took precautionary measures should the flooding get worse. They disconnected electricity and moved computer equipment to a safer space. But Phil’s wife, MaryLee, was watching the Ottauquechee rising from the newspaper’s windows and realized flooding was inevitable.
“(MaryLee) was at the back of the building and yelled, ‘My God, Phil. It’s going to come in. We have to get out,” Phil Camp said.
The Camps scrambled to save whatever they could. He retrieved the company van before it was “headed down the river” and drove it to higher ground. He got into his other car, drove back to the Vermont Standard building, and took pictures of the rising river.
The river “came in one door and the other,” Camp said.
“The water came up so high I had to cling to the door of my car to avoid being swept down the river,” Camp said. “The water was up above my knees and I had to retreat. It took me four different routes to get to my home in Barnard because all of the roads were washed out.”
Camp returned to the Vermont Standard office the following day. The building sustained structural damage and was tilting to one side.
It was a total loss.
The floor was covered in mud and silt, broken windows, and other items. The Woodstock Farmers Market, Dead River Co., and White Cottage Ice Cream — all nearby on Route 4 — sustained severe damage as well.
Meanwhile, the Vermont Standard was now against the clock to get its newspaper published.
But there was no electricity, phones, Wi-Fi, or cellphone coverage.
“We needed to reach out to the 10 communities we serve to find out what was going on,” Camp said. “We needed to know what roads were open or closed; were there any deaths; and other negative consequences. We put together a team of 35 freelancers taking photos, compiling information, and little by little, it trickled in.”
While staff writers and freelancers were out in the field, clean-up efforts continued. Despite the mud, silt, and the severe damage left behind, all of the computers were salvaged from the building.
According to General Manager Jon Esty, the Vermont Standard’s unsung hero was Justin McCoart, a data recovery expert.
McCoart had opened a new computer fix-it shop, and the Vermont Standard contacted him with the hope he could save crucial data from the computers. With a little luck, McCoart recovered the most of the editorial and production data from eight out of the 10 computers.
“If we were going to publish that week, we need to have data recovered. (Justin) recovered most of the data within 30 hours. He was amazing,” Esty said.
The Vermont Standard set up a temporary office at the Lincoln Corners Building in Woodstock, not far from their Route 4 location. They purchased six new iMacs and other essential equipment and worked from picnic and card tables donated by community members.
Unsolicited readers brought food and water to the new offices. Others volunteered financially.
“A guy dropped $3,000 after the flood. He said, ‘I’ve never advertised at the Vermont Standard. I think I will now. I figured you could use the money.’ People have been incredible,” Camp said.
With the clock ticking toward Friday’s deadline, some of the weekly’s correspondents were cut off electronically. Obtaining information from Killington was particularly difficult, according to managing editor Gwen Stanley.
Email, phone, and Wi-Fi service was still down, and Route 4 was closed to all traffic. Neighbors and community members chipped in and transported correspondents’ reports and pictures on all-terrain vehicles. They were passed off to individuals on passable roads and were delivered to the office for publication.
Webmaster Kat Fulcher took the Vermont Standard website to another level. Readers and local residents sent messages, photos and information to Fulcher and the website served as a information clearinghouse for the Woodstock area and beyond. While the print edition was being prepared, the Standard’s website went from 14,000 unique visitors per week to nearly 150,000 in a matter of days.
Production and layout was another key component. Prior to Irene, approximately 85 percent of the advertising for the coming week was composed and sent electronically for proofing. But according to Vermont Standard production manager Lisa Wright, putting in the final photos, classifieds, and stories went slowly.
More and more residents were submitting photos of areas that were hard hit by the storm. On top of that, the Vermont Standard was attracting more advertisers who wanted to help out financially.
“There was a lot of piece-mealing at first but as the week went on we were collecting so many photos I remember being up late at night loading photos from friends,” Wright said. “I’m the deadline girl. But that deadline went out the window after Irene. I said, ‘Let’s just get it done when we get it done.’”
The Standard staff rallied to the last minute and sent the paper to press at 4:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 2. They put together 60 pages for publication, the second-largest during Camp’s ownership.
The newspaper was delivered to 60 locations throughout Windsor County, and Esty said the issue was in such demand the entire edition sold out by Saturday afternoon. The main headline on the Sept. 2 edition said, “We Shall Overcome.”
The Vermont Standard continued its Irene coverage in the aftermath of the storm. In November, they moved to their new office on the second floor of the Lincoln Corners Building and had a special ribbon-cutting ceremony with Gov. Peter Shumlin attending.
The old Route 4 building that housed the Vermont Standard for the last 40 years was condemned. Camp sold the property to Patrick Crowl of the Woodstock Farmers Market for a low price and a “lifetime supply of coffee and doughnuts.”
Looking back a year later, Camp said the driving force behind the efforts was the staff that sat with him one year ago in an empty and cold office on Aug. 29. He said they love their work, they are dedicated to their jobs, and they understand each others’ needs, capabilities, strengths and weaknesses. Tropical Storm Irene brought them all closer together, he said.
Since the flood, most weeks have seen increased revenue over the same weeks from the previous year. According to Esty, it was no small accomplishment, given the fact Irene greatly disrupted the fall foliage season with many businesses damaged and closed.
The final element in keeping the paper going, according to Camp, is trust.
“Be willing to have confidence in other people who have ideas and can solve things for you,” he said. “Be willing to be inventive and try things that are risky, new things, and make quick decisions. You can’t sit around for too long. You go with the gut and if you’ve been there a few times, you just have an instinct with something and you go with it.”