Sevens and Elevens

Pamela Polston and Paula Routly have put in
long hours to overcome tough odds at Seven Days,
Burlington's weekly, alternative newspaper

by Portland Helmich

It doesn't take a business degree to create a growing business. For Pamela Polston and Paula Routly, what it takes is Seven Days -- every week, all year long. Co-publishers and co-editors of Burlington's alternative, weekly newspaper, Polston and Routly have nurtured their brainchild from its momentous birth Sept. 6, 1995, at just 28 pages to its current adult length of 52 to 72 pages. "If we'd had children," says Polston (whose daughter is grown), "or if we'd wanted to have any kind of life, this wouldn't be possible."

For Pamela Polston (left) and Paula Routly, Seven Days is more than the name of their weekly, alternative newspaper; it's a description of their work week. "If we'd wanted to have any kind of life, this wouldn't be possible," says Polston.

Discoveries like this have helped the edgy paper devoted to cultural commentary significantly enlarge the pool of businesses from which it can solicit advertising -- all that sustains the free publication. The weekly's classified section has grown from just a half-page to 14 pages.

Steve Terry agrees that Polston and Routly work non-stop. Terry, senior vice president of Green Mountain Power Corp., is former managing editor of the Rutland Herald and has been involved in Vermont journalism for 35 years. "I don't think they do anything else," he says with awe, "but they're just like any good entrepreneurs. They've found a market and tapped into it." Polston and Routly know their audience well, indeed: They've conducted two reader surveys, most recently in 1999. They've learned -- much to their surprise and advertisers' delight -- that average Seven Days readers are not college students, but prime consumers.

Routly and Polston weren't always so business-savvy. Writers and editors with keen artistic interests, the two never imagined themselves at the helm of an undertaking as demanding as Seven Days. They met in 1986 at the now-defunct Vermont Vanguard, an old-school alternative weekly with left-wing political views. Polston was the arts editor; Routly was a free-lance dance critic. They reversed roles after Vanguard publisher Nat Winthrop disbanded the paper in favor of starting Vermont Times, a community weekly with no political agenda. Then, Routly was the arts editor, and Polston was the free-lancer.

The two say Vermont Times was a flawed concept. "It was supposed to be a community paper for Chittenden County," Polston explains, "but the problem is that Chittenden County isn't a community -- it's a whole bunch of different communities with their own little papers." Routly says the publication's division of news in the front and arts in the back made the paper "schizophrenic," precipitating a genuine split in 1995, when Routly was commissioned with the task of putting together an arts-only weekly called VOX.

Routly took Polston on as her associate editor, and the two had three weeks to invent a brand new publication. "It was instantly more popular than the newspaper," Routly says. Polston acknowledges the new weekly provided her and Routly with excellent experience. "We got our training wheels doing VOX," she admits. The women put out 23 issues between February and July, only to find out the sister papers were for sale.

Attached to "their baby," as Polston describes it, they considered finding a buyer themselves in an effort to have a say in who their new boss might be, but some people they talked to advised against it. "They told us we could start over ourselves and be a lot further along," Routly remembers.

With the idea of starting a paper planted in their minds and increased confidence from having created VOX, the hip editors -- who had never before run any business -- took a risk that some said would surely end in failure. Routly and Polston created a business plan with the help of accountants Colleen Montgomery and Marcia Merrill; Angelo Lynn, publisher of the Addison Independent, acted as an adviser. They obtained almost $70,000 in low-interest, private loans, found cheap office space at Miller's Landmark on Church Street, and paid approximately $1,000 for all their office supplies -- desks to staplers -- to a company going out of business. The paper relocated to South Champlain Street a few years ago.

They hired three salespeople, an art director, a part-time calendar writer, and a circulation manager/ receptionist. The race to get their paper on the stands by September was fueled by the knowledge that fall is the most lucrative season in the newspaper business. "We knew if we didn't get it up and running then, we'd have to wait a year," Routly explains.

At the "eleventh hour," according to Polston, after they had decided on Vermont Voice as the new weekly's name, Ed Coats, Vermont Times and VOX's new general manager, objected to the name on the grounds that "vox" was Latin for "voice."

"The legal argument was that the public would be confused between the two papers," Polston offers, skeptically. Without money or time to fight a possible lawsuit, Polston and Routly changed the name, and Seven Days, which had gestated just six weeks, was born.

The entrepreneurs credit the city of Burlington for some of their victories. "It was big enough to support this venture, but small enough to know who we were," Routly says. Polston cites The Burlington Free Press, where Routly briefly worked as an arts writer, as an example. "We got a lot of moral support from them; they wrote two stories about our breaking off," she notes. Because Polston and Routly already had a reputation, they -- with the help of salesperson Rick Woods -- sold the first three issues of Seven Days before the paper had even debuted. "There's no way we could have done this anywhere else," Routly admits.

Both also realize, as Terry suggested, that they identified their market well. Routly says Seven Days has a broader niche than its predecessors. "The Vanguard -- because it was so political -- turned off a lot of people," she explains, "and Vermont Times was sort of bland -- it had no spark. VOX had a lot of spark, but it didn't have any news, and people who weren't interested in the arts weren't reading it. So we basically put together a newspaper that had the stuff that we were interested in."

From left: Don Eggert, David Booth and Michelle Brown.

The "stuff" Routly is speaking of includes syndicated features appearing in most other alternative weeklies, such as astrology and "News Quirks," which contains surprising news bites from around the world. There are also mainstays like the calendar of events, Polston's weekly music column "Rhythm & News," and Routly's "Back Talk," a biweekly melange of "arts news with an attitude." (Aside from Polston and Routly, all Seven Days writers are free-lance contributors). Other popular columns are "Hackie," Jernigan Pontiac's observations from behind the wheel of his taxicab; and "Inside Track," Peter Freyne's irreverent perspective on local politics and politicians. Polston doesn't underestimate the contribution that Freyne, whose column used to run in the Vanguard and then in Vermont Times, makes to Seven Days. "He brought us a lot of instant readers we wouldn't have had otherwise," she notes.

Terry believes Routly and Polston have wisely created a paper that appeals to more than one segment of the community. "From a marketing perspective," he says, "they're producing a product that's attractive to younger readers because it features movies and culture; and older readers like Freyne and the coverage of Vermont issues." Addison Independent's Lynn thinks it is the way Routly and Polston speak to their readers that draws them in. "They're not hamstrung by family values in the language they're willing to use," he says. "They have a freer, looser attitude about news. I suppose it's less traditional and more fun."

It's surely no surprise that such a "fun" paper attracts young employees. "Some are in their 30s," says Routly, "but most are in their 20s. For a lot of them, it's their first job out of college, and they blossom here. There's a lot of mentoring that goes on."

Lucy Howe, the paper's production manager, knows what Routly means. "We're a close-knit family because we're so concentrated on getting the paper out the door every week," she explains.

Routly, 40, admits she feels parental toward her staff. "It's a substitute for not having children," she says, "watching them grow up and develop self-esteem and assertiveness."

Five years after they first hit the stands, Routly and Polston, 51, have 11 full-time and two part-time employees. They started out with 12,000 papers; 25,000 are now distributed within an hour and a half of Burlington in all directions. Because Routly and Polston audit their circulation, they believe 2.3 readers read every issue, meaning the paper is frequently passed on. "We're pushing 60,000 readers," says Polston proudly.

With revenues growing 20 percent a year, Seven Days has never been in the red. Earlier, to persuade businesses to advertise in their paper, Routly and Polston would design spec ads for people who hadn't asked for them. Routly offers Leather Express as an example. "We thought they were right for our paper, so we designed an ad for them and they bought it."

The gutsy women paid back all their loans two years ago, but putting in 14-hour days seven days a week was the trade-off. "We didn't come up for air the first three years," Polston remembers. Both recognize their feat could be called remarkable. "Most alternative weeklies in markets our size are not successful," Routly offers, adding that page count is one way to determine how well a weekly is doing.

Routly knows money well, for the paper's finances are her domain. The expressive Maryland native says she developed frugality from her father, an astrophysicist whom she describes as "incredibly cheap." As a student at Middlebury College double-majoring in French and Italian in the early 1980s, her allowance was $40 a month. "He would do things like that to make me come up with creative ways to support myself," she recalls. Routly also credits her years of ballet training during adolescence with developing her discipline. Referring to her protracted work hours, she says, "There are definitely times when I feel like a normal person would stop right now."

The mellower of the two, Polston functions as a managing editor would in a larger publication, assigning stories and handling personnel. Reserved and creative, she grew up in Omaha, Neb., where she became a Buddhist at 19. In 1974, she graduated with a degree in psychology from the University of Nebraska and later obtained a master's degree in social psychology at the University of Vermont, leaving just short of a Ph.D. "While I was interested in human behavior, I realized I wasn't cut out to do teaching and research," she says. From 1980 to 1983, Polston made a living as lead singer of The Decentz, a new wave/punk band that performed throughout New England and upstate New York. She remembers the experience positively, but constant travel eventually left her "burned out."

Production manager Lucy Howe says the staff is "a close-knit family because we're so concentrated on getting the paper out the door every week." From left: Hope Corbin, Diane Sullivan, Peter Freyne and Howe.

Now that Routly and Polston have found their true niche, their goals are clear: keep growing employment classifieds, broaden the news section, and hire a staff writer who can do investigative pieces. They aren't in a rush to locate someone, however, because their needs are complex. "We really want somebody to be an assistant editor and help us do what we do, so we can do things like take a vacation," Polston quips.

Routly's intention is to write more since Woods was promoted from sales manager to operations manager. Though their paper hasn't reached a financial ceiling, the two know it will come in time. Polston isn't concerned. "If we reach 80 pages, that's fine with me," she says. "That's a lot of work."

The fact that two women without a stitch of business experience have made such strides befuddles some, especially those of the other gender, says Routly, offering a final anecdote. Seven Days' corporate name is Da Capo Publishing. In musical terms, da capo means to start over from the beginning. "We liked it because it sounded vaguely Mafioso," jokes Routly, who recently had dinner with one of her long-term, "hippest" advertisers. After discussing an idea, he remarked, "So you'll run that by Mr. Dacapo and get back to me." As always, Routly was pleasantly exasperated. "They just don't get it," she laughs. "People are always assuming there's a man backing us. We'd like to get the message out there that we own the paper, and we did it by ourselves!"

That said, maybe Mr. Dacapo can finally take a rest. It's unlikely Polston and Routly will.

Portland Helmich is a free-lance writer and television producer who hosts "Rural Free Delivery" on Vermont Public Television.