I’ve been a harsh critic of the Burlington Free Press because (1) it occupies such a prominent space in our media market, (2) its performance is spotty at best, and (3) it thinks so highly of itself.
But I read something yesterday that has me feeling nothing but sympathy for the denizens of the Freeploid’s famously picturesque seventh-floor offices. It was a story in Nashville Scene, which appears to be that city’s version of Seven Days. The subject: trouble at the city’s daily newspaper.
Remember the Nashville Tennesseean? It’s one of the Freeploid’s fellows in the Gannett chain, and it was one of the first to adopt Gannett’s “Newsroom of the Future” initiative, complete with smaller news staffs, little to no copy editing, staffers forced to reapply for redefined jobs, and clickbait-oriented journalism.
Well, the initial returns are in, and it’s bad. Really bad. The implementation of the NOTF included a few staff departures; but since then, there’s been a mass exodus of talent that’s left the newsroom so understaffed that Gannett has had to fly in temp help from its other papers.
First went Brian Haas, the cops and courts reporter, who bolted for a spokesman job with the fire department. Then came the shocker: Michael Cass, the longtime Metro reporter, exited for Mayor Karl Dean’s office, even though Dean has only a year left in his administration.
And then there was Metro editor Steve Stroud:
After arriving from San Antonio three years ago, he developed a reputation as a good editor who wrote sharp analysis pieces on politics and state government on occasion. One by one, though, he watched almost his entire team of reporters walk out. A group that had spent the past year winning multiple awards for the company was virtually gone: investigative reporter Walter Roche left in July and political reporter Chas Sisk in August, followed by Haas and Cass.
Now, after passing him over for any of the new leadership positions in the newsroom, management offered Stroud a new role — tourism reporter.
There’s your Newsroom of the Future: a talented, experienced editor busted down to “tourism reporter.” Unsurprisingly, Stroud declined the honor.
Stroud’s bureau was left with a single reporter. That’s when Gannett bussed in some temps — who are being asked to instantly cover a major city they’ve never lived in, with the bureau’s institutional memory almost entirely gone. That’s quality journalism. Not.
But wait, there’s more:
Last week came news that Peter Cooper, the paper’s star music columnist and go-to writer for chronicling country music legends, was leaving too.
In Nashville, as you can imagine, the post of “music columnist” is kind of important. There were other departures as well.
… The firing/rehiring process that got the paper into this situation has created deep distrust of current management. One staffer referred to the entire process as “Kabuki theater.”
“If they were going to go with ‘more’ reporters, why did so many get eliminated in the restructuring?” the staffer said. “It was clear there were favorites and directives. The process was just a fancy way to let go of people.”
The Tennesseean, whose first edition under the NOTF featured a front-page article on price cuts the city’s biggest supermarket chain — a major newspaper advertiser, natch — must now be a mere shadow of its already pathetic self.
Imagine what Seven Days would be like if Paul Heintz, Mark Davis, Kevin Kelley, Alice Levitt, Dan Bolles, and Margot Harrison all left at the same time. Well, we may not have to imagine, because I suspect the Burlington Free Press will be similarly depopulated by Christmastime.
And the NOTF’s journalistic mandate?
“At the daily news meeting, [chief editor Stefanie Murray] begins by asking, ‘What are people talking about today?’ ” one former staffer told the Scene this summer. “Time was editors would be asking, ‘What do we have that people WILL be talking about tomorrow?’ “
Coincidentally (or not), today’s Freeploid contains a clickbait-friendly article about a former Barre high schooler (now a college senior in North Carolina) who just did a Playboy photo shoot. Quick, call the Pulitzer committee!