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Mr. Connelly, who will turn 71 on Saturday, said he had the passion but lacked the energy to keep up with the 60-hour workweeks demanded by the newspaper, which has a circulation of 2,200. As editor and publisher, he is The Gazette’s jack-of-all-trades: He sells ads, pays the bills, edits and assigns articles, and empties the trash.
He spoke passionately of the role The Gazette serves in delivering news and information to Hardwick, which is about 60 miles east of Burlington, Vt., and nine other towns in northeastern Vermont that are mostly rural and agricultural, with pockets of poverty.
“Just because we’re not in the mainstream and not covering the national stories does not mean what we’re doing is not important,” he said in an interview on Wednesday. “I feel strongly that a newspaper is a critical building block for our democracy.”
The 127-year-old newspaper features the traditional coverage of birth announcements, the police blotter, obituaries, high school sports and community news. But it has also included hard-hitting articles about the embezzlement of public funds and a scandal that led to a seven-year prison sentence for a bank’s chief executive.
If the essay contest is successful, it could become a model that other aging newspaper owners might emulate, Chad Stebbins, executive director of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors, said in an email.
“The back roads of America are full of newspaper publishers well into their late 60s and early 70s,” he said. “Often, they stay on the job with little hope of finding a suitable replacement.”
Andrew Leckey, the president of the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism in Phoenix, said on Wednesday that the essay contest was a unique sales approach, which he described as: “Take my newspaper. Please.”
That The Gazette was for sale and yielded no firm offers is indicative of the financial pressures facing the newspaper industry, which has been plagued by advertising losses and circulation erosion, he said.
Mike Donoghue, the executive director of the Vermont Press Association, said that years ago, when newspapers were more financially flush, “more people would have jumped” at the chance to buy The Gazette.
He said the paper, which is one of four dozen nondaily newspapers in Vermont, was well regarded and had won numerous journalism awards.
The newspaper, which has two full-time employees, including Mr. Connelly, three part-time workers and a corps of correspondents, grossed $240,000 last year. It is free of liens or a mortgage. The contest winner would get the newspaper’s building (a second story that once housed an apartment where Mr. Connelly and his wife lived is now office space), its furniture and fixtures, and all the materials needed to run the business.
Among the things a winner would not get: “Any guarantees (this is the news business and it changes every day),” the contest rules said.
Mr. Connelly said his efforts over two years to sell drew a number of “tire kickers” but no firm offers. He said inspiration for the contest came from the owner of a bed-and-breakfast in Maine, who relied on such an approach in 2015 to unload her business. While such contests have proved a headache for others in the past, Mr. Connelly hoped to avoid such pitfalls.
He had a lawyer vet the contest rules and plans to have a panel of seven or nine people, including journalism professors and members of the community, review the essays.
Mr. Connelly said he was seeking a minimum of 700 submissions. The entry fee is $175, meaning a potential to net $122,500. The contest begins on Saturday and lasts until Aug. 11. Under the rules, he can extend the contest by two months.
Essays can be up to 400 words and must describe “the entrant’s skills and vision for owning a paid weekly newspaper in the new millennium,” according to the contest rules.
The newspaper does hew to some old-fashioned ways of doing things. For instance, The Gazette has no website and contest submissions must be sent by mail. Mr. Connelly said he would provide guidance during the transition to a new owner, but he was not sure if he would remain in Vermont.
“People say, ‘What are you going to do?’” he said. “I can fantasize about what I want to do, but I know what I need to do is focus on getting next week’s paper out.”
Mr. Leckey said the search for a new owner, the effort to keep the newspaper thriving and the promotion of the value it has in the community had all the hallmarks of a Frank Capra movie.
“It’s a fairy tale that, hopefully, may come true,” he said.Continue reading the main story