Daily Archives: January 6, 2015

Hey, Burlington Free Press: Meet your new boss!

Al Getler

The Burlington Free Press today announced the hiring of this man as its new President and Publisher.

No, this is not a joke. Do Not Adjust Your Set. Al Getler is a former newspaper executive who’s lately been seeking work as a “media consultant” (i.e. unemployed newspaper executive) and as a ventriloquist for hire. He mainly sells himself as talent for corporate events:

In addition to being a performer, Getler has worked for two Fortune 500 companies as an executive and knows what it takes to entertain all types of audiences while meeting the required standards of acceptability.

In other words, toothless comedy for corporate audiences. But hey, maybe he could bring a little fun to the lately-joyless Freeploid newsroom:

Looking for a unique idea for your next show or event? Have Al create a puppet character in the likeness of your CEO, your product, or that special person in your audience.

Oh, I’d pay to have him show up for his first day on the job with a Michael Townsend puppet. Can we make that happen, Al?

Aside from his services as an inoffensive mainstream humor provider, Getler also bills himself as a “marketing, management, and media” consultant, touting his “30 years of experience in the media, as a leader, executive running companies and as a serial entrepreneur.”

Is “serial entrepreneur” how you describe yourself if you’ve run multiple enterprises into the ground?

Somehow the Free Press’ story announcing Getler’s hiring doesn’t mention his current status as a self-employed ventriloquist/consultant. They say, circumspectly, that he “previously was group publisher of the North of Boston Media Group.” In fact, he lost that job almost two years ago.

The NoBMG includes the daily papers in Lawrence, Newburyport, Salem, and Gloucester, Massachusetts, plus some weekly papers and a few ad-friendly glossy magazines. Getler lost his gig in March 2013 when NoB’s out-of-state ownership imposed some big staff cuts.

According to ace Boston media watchdog Dan Kennedy, the Eagle-Tribune had a long and distinguished reputation as an independent weekly. That changed, however, with its corporate acquisition in 2005. Since then, it’s been cut, cut, cut, and cut again.

Getler was hired in 2007, and imposed quite a few of those cuts before feeling the blade himself. In 2008, for instance, he slashed “at least 52 jobs” at NoBMG, which got him this plaudit:

“This was a CYA situation,” one Eagle Tribune employee told The Valley Patriot. “Al Getler is trying to save his own job because his management of this newspaper has cost us millions and the only way he could show the company [in Alabama] that we could be financially viable was to immediately cut jobs to balance the books to meet the company’s financial goals.”

Hmm. Maybe he’ll fit right in at Gannett’s Incredible Shrinking Freeploid. At the very least, he’ll Bring the Funny in ways that Michael Townsend could only do by butchering his Twitter feed.

And there’s a bit of thematic consistency here. The man Getler is actually replacing is Jim Fogler, who left the Freeploid last year to take a job with Party City. Hey, balloons, noisemakers, and puppets! It practically screams “quality journalism,” does it not?


The current bee in Mike Donoghue’s bonnet

There was laughter in the room, I’ve been told, when the Burlington Free Press’ Mike Donoghue asked Gov. Shumlin about the possible removal of Rep. Mary Morrissey from a House committee.

HIs question came near the end of Shumlin’s Monday news conference. The laughter came from several other reporters, who saw Donoghue’s question as basically irrelevant, and just another example of his dogged pursuit of a story he’s decided is important. Sometimes he’s right, sometimes he’s wrong.

In this case, yep, he’s wrong.

Undeterred by the audible scorn of his colleagues, Donoghue wrote an article about Shumlin’s Monday presser — an event that produced actual news — that focused primarily on his prefabricated Morrissey “controversy.” Of all the stuff going on this week at the Statehouse, it’s a sad joke that Donoghue and his paper have devoted so much time to such an insignificant story. And provided so little coverage of anything else.

For those just joining us, Morrissey has been an unproductive policy scold as a member of the House Health Care Committee. Apparently, House Speaker Shap Smith is considering a reassignment. As is his right: the Speaker makes the committee assignments, and reshuffles are commonplace.

But Donoghue has fixed upon Morrissey as a champion of transparency because once, at a committee hearing, she asked a question:

… Morrissey questioned Health Access Commissioner Mark Larson [about security breaches in Vermont Health Connect] and was told, “We have no situation in which someone’s private information has been breached.”

The problem was there had been a serious breach of information. Larson later offered an apology to the Health Care Committee.

Her questioning was standard practice for any committee member. But because of Larson’s misleading answer, Donoghue is now crediting Morrissey for “helping expose a major security breach… in the Vermont Health Connect computer system.” If she played any role beyond asking her question, Donoghue does not so inform us.

He also takes some groundless shots at Morrissey’s critics (including me, I guess):

Morrissey been criticized for not buying into all the health care plans rolled out by Democrats.

Not quite, Mikey. It’s not that she failed to buy into “all the health care plans” from Democrats; I wouldn’t expect any Republican to do so. The truth is that she routinely slammed any Democratic plan. There was no thought, no discernment; just a consistent, unproductive, ideological gainsaying.

Only after Donoghue thoroughly explores the subject that prompted his colleagues’ laughter does he actually report the substance of Shumlin’s news conference: a new survey has found a sharp drop in uninsured Vermonters.

The Vermont Household Health Insurance Survey found that about 19,000 of the 43,000 Vermonters without insurance during the 2012 survey now are covered, Shumlin said.

The state’s uninsured rate dropped from 6.8 percent to 3.7 percent, the second-lowest rate in the country. Only 1 percent of Vermont children under age 18 are not covered, the lowest rate in the country, Shumlin said.

Those are some very encouraging figures about the first year of health care reform. But somehow Donoghue concluded that this development was less newsworthy than the routine reassignment of a legislative backbencher. But he has already elevated her to the lofty position of Public Interest Whistleblower, which she is not. I fully expect more breathless Morrissey coverage when the committee assignments actually come out.

Because boom or bust, Mike Donoghue sticks to his guns.

Suddenly, everybody wants to amend the Constitution

Funny thing has happened in recent days, as we approach the legislature’s vote for governor:  Everyone’s talking about a Constitutional change to make sure this never happens again.

Bill Doyle must be enjoying a quiet “told you so” moment, considering that he first proposed such a change in 1974.

Nineteen seventy-four. Hell, a lot of you whippersnappers weren’t even born yet.

But did anyone listen to The Perpetual Senator? Nope, this is Vermont; we don’t fix things until they convincingly prove they’re broken. As the joke goes,

“How many Vermonters does it take to change a light bulb?”

“Change it? That was my grandfather’s light bulb!”

There are many ideas for a new way of electing a governor when no candidate receives a majority. Doyle would lower the threshold for election from the current 50% plus one to 40%. Some, including Sen. Joe Benning (on VPR yesterday) would prefer a runoff election. Some see an opening for Instant Runoff Voting, to avoid the hassle of a second vote. Some, such as outgoing State Rep. Tom Koch, simply say “We’ve gotta change this” without endorsing a new course.

The common ground, after weeks of uncertainty? We can’t let this happen again, ever.

Even those who’ve supported Scott Milne’s stubborn refusal to concede have concluded that We can’t let this happen again, ever.

Does that seem the least bit contradictory to you? People who are encouraging and enabling Milne’s pursuit of the governorship don’t want anyone else to do what he’s doing. Perhaps they’ve realized the slow corrosive effect of such machinations.

The system, as outdated as it is, was working fine as long as there was a tacit understanding among Vermont politicians: I’ll concede to a plurality winner if you will. Former Gov. Jim Douglas realizes the expediency of this approach, and advised Milne to concede the race after the election results were made official.

But Milne, stomping to the beat of his own drummer as always, forged ahead. Which has forced the state’s political class to confront a flaw in our system, and contemplate changing the Constitution.

Which brings up another contradiction. Milne supporters have carefully parsed every word of the Constitution in search of the hidden wisdom of our predecessors, in much the same way as federal Originalists treat the U.S. Constitution as a sacred text dictated by God himself. But now that they’re facing the consequences of a rickety process created in very different times* — a process that puts us in a class with only Mississippi in how we settle majority-free gubernatorial elections, and that’s a class you never want to be in — they want to tear that bit out of the Constitution and, as Rep. Heidi Scheuermann would say, bring it into the 21st century. I guess that bit wasn’t so sacred after all.

*Tom Koch’s opinion piece, posted on VTDigger, nails the anachronistic character of our current process. “Relic,” he calls it. 

Well, it’s progress, and I’ll take it.

However, I’m doubtful that the legislature will greenlight a Constitutional change. Tempers will cool after Milne has been dispatched back to the business world. There will be squabbles over the best process. There will be many whose knee-jerk reaction to change is “But that was my grandfather’s light bulb!”

And that, combined with the Legislature’s tendency to postpone action whenever possible, will kill any and all amendments.

And we’ll go back to living with a bad process and hoping we never get another Scott Milne again.


Somebody get Heidi Scheuermann to a Toastmasters meeting, STAT

I’ve often mentioned State Rep. Heidi Scheuermann (R-Stowe) as a potential rising star in Vermont politics. She’s got a lot going for her: a high profile among Republican lawmakers, strong connections to the now-ascendant moderate wing of the VTGOP, co-leadership of the putatively bipartisan Vision to Action Vermont (V2AVT), and founding membership in Campaign for Vermont, presumably giving her an in with CFV moneybags Bruce Lisman.

Some folks had demurred from my view that she’s a rising star because of her shortcomings as a public speaker. Well, based on today’s appearance on VPR’s “Vermont Edition,” they’re right. Scheuermann simply isn’t ready for the spotlight.

Scheuermann appeared on VPR with Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning to discuss Republican legislative priorities for the new session. Here’s one of her answers, faithfully transcribed, including all the um’s, repeats, false starts and pauses. The question, just so you know, concerned the possibility of raising taxes to help balance the state budget. Also, just so you know, there was often a discernible quiver in her voice, revealing an unexpected degree of nervousness in a veteran politician.

Well, um, I guess I would say first and foremost, um, for the past, uh, we sort of have a new normal, uh, in the legislature, and that’s unfortunate. And that normal is the budget deficits, extremely, um, large budget deficits. Every year we come in, ah, we have budget deficits. And that tells me, uh, that we, um, are… that the, the Governor and the legislative leadership and those who support these budgets are doing so, um, w-without an eye on the future and exactly how, how we’re going to pay for it.

Um, so when we come in with a budget of fi — with a five, four or five percent increase and, and tax receipts of, or an economy growing at two percent, um, that’s, you know, that’s a real problem and I think we should, we need to, like Joe said, really, uh, really concentrate on, on where we go from here, um, and understand that this can’t be a new normal, and that we have to address it in a comprehensive and fundamental way, and that is bringing the government into the 21st century, in my view. I think we are still stuck in a, um, 19th and 20th century state government, um, and I think we have to move it into the, into the 21st century with, um, with, ah, services being provided more efficiently and effectively, um, with… um… with m-more, um, communication with the outside instead of this internal sort of, of, functioning government that we have, with, with people in the offices, ah, five days a week, um, reading reports. Um, again, they work hard, our state employees work hard, but, ah, but I think we need to move the government into a, into um, into the 21st century.

That said, um, I also think we need to focus first and foremost, um, on our economy and the health of our state’s economy, and we have neglected that for years, and, um, and that’s why we’re in the position we’re in.

Scheuermann has now spoken for almost two minutes. She tries to continue, but host Jane Lindholm interrupts with a redirect. She asks what Scheuermann would suggest in terms of streamlining government or making budget cuts. The answer?

I guess I would say, well, again, um, ah, I wouldn’t propose specific cuts right now until we really get into it. It’s really, it’s very difficult as a legis — as a citizen legislature, um, to get into specific departments and micromanage those departments. I think it needs to come from the administration and the leadership of the administration to set a, uh, to set an agenda for how exactly we’re going to do this, and streamline, and um have more effective and efficient services. I would say for example, again, when you’re talking about economic, the uh economy, and really trying to grow our economy, um, so that it is long-term sort of um… uh… laser-like focus on the economy, I think for example the Agency of Commerce, um, people should be in their offices once a week, [chuckle] one day a week. And they should be out in the fields four days a week and really just talking to people, seeing what businesses need, seeing what our, uh, small employers need, um, and what their challenges are, what their opportunities are, and where we as a state might be able to help.

So that is just one example. Again, I’ll go back to the economy. When you have, we have personal income tax — the reason we’re in these… in the situation we’re in is our personal income tax receipts are down. Um, and that, and that’s due to payroll and, and, and that our economy is stagnant. And, um, so we really need to focus on growing our economy. I hope that that will be, uh, the number one priority for our legislature.

Holy Mother of God. That’s almost Milnesque in its cringeworthy awkwardness. Although admittedly it’s not nearly down to Milne level in terms of positional confusion. It also took three and a half minutes of radio time, including Lindholm’s interjection.

For now, I’ll pass by the policy howlers (Empty out the Agency of Commerce four days a week? Not a single idea for budget cuts, after eight years in the legislature? Content-free references to the 21st century? A transparently token sop to state workers?) and keep my laser-like focus on her delivery. Heidi Scheuermann is an unpolished and unappealing speaker who can’t fight her way out of a sentence.

If she wants to stay where she is now — representing a safe Republican district and being one of the more prominent voices in the legislative minority — she can keep on doing what she’s doing.

But if she wants to be taken seriously for a leadership position or as a candidate for statewide office, then she needs to clean up her rhetorical game big-time.

For an example of how to do it right, just listen to her fellow guest, Joe Benning. He was comfortable and articulate, he got to the point, he kept things simple, and was very quotable.

One protip for Scheuermann: Don’t be so afraid of dead air. Don’t fill up every available space with “ums” and repeated phrases. Let it breathe. It takes some time and practice, but it’s a worthwhile investment. I’ve never been to Toastmasters, but I hear it’s a great place to hone your public-speaking skills in a friendly environment.

Postscript. One unrelated piece of advice. In the process of writing this post I Googled “Heidi Scheuermann” and this is a screenshot of the second match:

Scheuermann Google

Yeah, I don’t think that’s her real nickname.

Intrigued, I clicked on the link to her campaign website, and saw several porny inserts in green type scattered around her “About” page. If you roll your cursor over the site, the porny inserts all disappear. If you exit the site and then go back in, the green inserts reappear. They remain on the page as long as you keep your cursor outside the frame.

This doesn’t look like an ideological attack, because the inserts are so random. But the good Representative may want to check on her website’s security.