Night of the Long Knives at the Free Press

Well, I can’t say I’m surprised. In fact, I’ve been expecting it for a couple years, since the Burlington Free Press’ news department made a subtle but obvious shift away from Montpelier and toward Chittenden County. But the timing is a shocker:

Before I go on with the thinky stuff, let’s first acknowledge that two people have lost their jobs. Terri Hallenbeck and Nancy Remsen are middle-aged people in a contracting industry that prizes youth. We don’t yet know whether they left on their own or were pushed out, but either way, I feel for them and wish them well. They provided a lot of valuable coverage, and their years of experience are irreplaceable. Well, everybody but Gannett thinks so.

The fact of their departure does not surprise me, but I thought their bosses would have the decency — or sheer expediency — to wait until after the elections were over. You know, have ’em cover election night, get ’em to write up the post-election stuff, and then toss ’em out on Thursday or Friday.

But no. Time, tide, and nervous corporations wait for no man.

On the other hand, maybe the timing was deliberate; it’ll get buried in the election news, and there’s less chance of other media outlets besieging Michael Townsend asking why he’s jettisoning all his experienced talent. And Townsend cravenly refusing to comment. Even though he expects other media outlets to respond to his reporters’ inquiries.

According to one of the other olds left on an ice floe, Tim Johnson, the Freeploid is moving away from the beat system:

“There’s not going to be a city hall beat. There’s not going to be a Statehouse beat. There’s not going to be an education beat.”

Instead, there will be two “teams,” Chittenden and Watchdog. Presumably they won’t have anyone staffing a Montpelier office; they’ll only cover state government when they (a) have a nice juicy story or (b) when there’s a single high-profile event. No more will Free Press reporters roam the halls, gathering tidbits, building relationships, and most importantly, understanding how the place functions.

And that’s important. The State House is a complicated machine; it takes time and attention to figure out what to follow, who to talk to, and where to go.

But the Freeploid and its corporate parent don’t care about that. They just care about having enough “content” to plausibly fill the paper every day. And their top priority isn’t “the public needs to know,” it’s “the public wants to know.” And since the public doesn’t really care that much for the push-and-pull of inside politics, Statehouse news will take a back seat to stuff like local sports and artisanal foods and a women chaining herself to a tree. Oh, and advertiser-friendly “content.”

Since I started actively blogging about three years ago, I’ve maintained a subscription to the Free Press because it frequently had important stories and fairly dependable coverage of state politics and policy. I’m not canceling yet, but I’ll be watching. And I won’t be surprised if, by the first of the year, the Burlington Free Press will have become irrelevant to what I do.

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