At the end of December, after 84 years, there will be no more Mitchells at the Rutland Herald.
General Manager Rob Mitchell, who stayed on with the newspapers after his family sold the Rutland Herald and the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus in 2016, announced last week he will depart after Dec. 27 to pursue a graduate degree in data science.
“Times are difficult for local journalism all over the country,” Mitchell, 42, said Tuesday. “I think the Rutland Herald and Times Argus are in good hands. ... I think there’s a wealth of experience. I would probably not be leaving if I didn’t think it was set up to succeed.”
Mitchell’s grandfather, Robert W. Mitchell, bought the Rutland Herald in 1947 after joining the paper as a capitol reporter in 1935, and ran it until his death in 1993. Rob Mitchell’s father, R. John Mitchell, then took over the family business, which included the Times Argus.
Growing up near Montpelier, Rob Mitchell said, the Times Argus was his hometown paper. It published in the afternoon and he would sometimes go in after school to watch the crew start up the presses.
“There are common things any newspaper kid grows up with,” he said. “You’re fascinated with how the paper is put together.”
From time to time, he said, he had to help assemble Sunday editions by hand when a machine broke down.
“We might get a soda for that as payment,” he said.
Though he grew up in the business — or perhaps because of it — Mitchell said he tried to stay away from newspapers as a career until he was in his late 20s.
“I’m not sure, really, why,” he said. “I guess I wanted to be on my own and set my own path.”
Mitchell has pursued running, landing a spot as an Olympic development athlete for Nike.
“It was 2004,” he said. “That Olympic cycle was over and that’s when you make your decision. I was working in a law office and didn’t really like it. I was looking around and opportunity presented itself.”
That opportunity took the form of a journalism course at a community college in California. As his first assignment, Mitchell did a story on accessibility issues on campus.
“From the moment I started interviewing people, I just loved it,” he said. “It changed the course of my professional career and my life, honestly. Up to that point I was going to stay in California.”
But entering the family trade didn’t mean he was coming right home. Mitchell said his father was adamant that he should log a few years of experience someplace where he wasn’t the boss’s son. Mitchell started in reporting internships, then became a sports editor and then editor on a weekly. That, he said, was enough proving himself that he was ready to come home.
“It was a mix of good and bad,” he said of returning to Vermont. “It was a culture shock coming from California. We built a good life here and ended up loving it. It’s exciting no matter where you are, working on a newspaper.”
Mitchell started as the special projects editor for the papers in 2008 and then became the online manager in 2010. He also held the title of state editor before becoming editor-in-chief in 2013.
“I was given a vague title and multiple projects to do so I got to learn all sorts of parts of the business,” he said. “On the flipside, I got back at the beginning of the massive disruption of our business model.”
The internet was cutting into both circulation and advertising. Then the Herald and the Times Argus suffered a severe blow when the newly purchased printing press, in Barre, shared between the two newspapers, was destroyed by floods in spring 2011.
It was a blow, Mitchell said, from which the newspapers never fully recovered.
“It put a lot of plans on hold or delayed them and we never got back to things,” he said. “We were slow to make the needed cuts and to adapt.”
The family business also suffered, he said, because of a family tragedy.
“When my wife and I lost our daughter, it set our family back for a good year, in a lot of ways,” he said. It impacted the family’s relationship with the business. “I don’t think we had the complete picture and it precipitated a crisis we couldn’t recover from. ... When you’re a small independent paper and you’ve used up your reserves, you don’t have anywhere to turn. ... We were behind on payments to vendors. We had lingering debt from the flood.”
Mitchell said they had to decide between cutting staff or publication days and chose in 2016 to reduce the Herald’s publication schedule to four days a week — a process he said they botched. Rather than do it suddenly and all at once, he said, they should have reduced the schedule a day at a time, giving readers about six months of notice before each reduction.
“That, on its own, was a crisis, and it didn’t immediately solve our cash flow,” he said.
Everything came to a head a few weeks later. With paychecks and expense checks bouncing and the staff on the verge of revolt, the Mitchell family sold the newspapers.
“I did move back here with the intention of earning my way into the leadership role of the papers and retiring in the leadership of the paper,” he said. “That was my plan and that was my dad’s plan. ... That year, there was a point where, you know what, that wasn’t going to work out.”
Mitchell said they reached the point where the only way left for them to help the papers was sell them.
“As family owners, we were caretakers,” he said. “We were not here to extract maximum profit out of them. If we couldn’t shepherd them through in a responsible way, it was time for (us) to step aside.”
However, it wasn’t until recently, he said, that Mitchell decided to step away fully.
“I started to realize that I wasn’t growing in this role anymore,” he said. “That means it’s time, in the same sense, to step aside.”
Mitchell said he realized that he wanted to do something more akin to his work when he began in newspapers rather than what he’s doing now. Data science has a variety of applications, including journalism, and Mitchell said he’s not sure whether he will want to use his new degree to support reporting or explore a new field.
“I’m going to see where it takes me,” he said. “But I’m not leaving Rutland.”
The Pennsylvania-based Sample News Group, which now owns the Rutland Herald and Times Argus, is advertising for a publisher for the two papers.