Who needs institutional memory?

Well, as was foreshadowed in this space, two mainstays at the Burlington Free Press are accepting Gannett’s early-retirement offer. As of October 31, Mikes Townsend and Donoghue will no longer grace the masthead or the pages of Vermont’s Shrinkingest Newspaper.

On their own, these departures won’t spell doom for the Freeploid. But look at what’s happened over the last couple of years: the paper has dumped almost all of its experienced news staff, leaving us to the tender mercies of twenty- and thirty-somethings who are (1) short on experience, and (2) in many cases, still finding their way around Vermont.

Count ‘em up: Terri Hallenbeck, Nancy Remsen, Sam Hemingway, Tim Johnson, Matt Sutkoski, Candace Page, Lynn Monty, now Townsend and Donoghue. (Apologies if I missed anyone, which I probably did.) That’s a lot of institutional memory, especially on the hard-news side of things. The remaining olds, to use the term very loosely, are mostly doing features: Brent Hallenbeck, Joel Banner Baird, Sally Pollak. Dan D’Ambrosio is kind of a hybrid: he does some good work, but he also does some client-servicing in the business pages.

(Here’s an interesting note: if there’s a staff listing on the Free Press’ website, I sure as hell can’t find it. Used to be very accessible. Now, if it exists, it’s well-hidden. Too embarrassing?)

Not that long ago, the Free Press’ relatively experienced staff set it apart from most of Gannett’s cookie-cutter operations. There was a lot of knowledge, a lot of perspective, a lot of experience. That makes a difference in the quality and depth of news coverage.

It has its downside as well: senior staffers can get stale. There needs to be a balance between old hands and new blood.

At tomorrow’s Free Press, it’s out with the old.

Younger staffers tend to be cheaper, of course. But they are also more malleable. Last October, when all staffers were forced to reapply for their jobs, Townsend talked about “redefining journalism jobs” and “new expectations” and resetting structure and culture.

That’s a lot easier to do with a young staff. But it also means reporting with little to no context or background. It means young reporters can’t turn to a more experienced colleague and ask for some insight.

I haven’t been the biggest fan of Mike Donoghue’s work; sometimes he hits the mark, and sometimes he makes a mountain out of a molehill because it’s an exclusive. Prime example: the Sunday front-page story about a UVM grad student from Jordan who’s been selling used cars on the side and apparently failing to pay taxes. Interesting, but it goes on and on and on, giving every detail of this guy’s life and the criminal investigation, and it left me wondering why. The hammer’s coming down on this guy, but does it have any repercussions beyond his own case? Does it expose a flaw in the system? If so, Donoghue didn’t explain how.

Without any broader implications, it’s a diverting little story of a guy who was either running a tax-avoidance scheme (IRS version) or was ignorant of the intricacies of American law (his version). It’s not worthy of a long investigation by a senior reporter at an understaffed paper, or of front-page placement on the biggest day of the week for newspapers. (The story is buried deep in the Free Press’ website as of Monday morning, which is unusual for a Sunday front-pager. I think that says something about the story’s importance, or lack thereof.)

I’m kinda hoping that Donoghue has one more big scoop to deliver before his exit, because if that story is his last, it’d be like a veteran ballplayer hitting a weak grounder to short in his final at-bat.

Point being, I won’t miss stories like that one, but I will miss Donoghue’s deep knowledge and expertise in discovering information in public records. And his early retirement is just one more nail in the coffin of the Free Press that used to be Vermont’s leading news source.

3 thoughts on “Who needs institutional memory?

  1. kevin ellis

    I have some thoughts about the notion of institutional memory that are not a direct response to John’s Walters’ post but more a reflection on the accepted wisdom that institutional memory is valuable in journalism and should be paid for. I completely agree with John that the Burlington Free Press hollowing out its newsroom for younger, lower paid reporters is a bad trend….BUT… There are countless examples of that kind of memory failing us because it too often becomes reporters getting too comfortable, enjoying insider status. James Reston failed to report on the Bay of Pigs invasion when he knew about it causing he was drinking scotch with JFK, the never ending practice of quoting “senior government officials” when you just know it’s the secretary of state’s PR guy. Or my biggest pet peeve – sports reporters who know everything and NEVER tell us – fried chicken in the Red Sox clubhouse came out only AFTER they lost a playoff series for example. Reporters who cover the Patriots know all sorts of inside stuff about the players, Belichick and the management. But we never find out because those reporters fear losing access to the locker room. I am starting to think we need young and underpaid but hungry and curious reporters doing journalism. (Oh, wait, that’s the way it used to be) Paul Heintz at Seven Days getting in peoples’ faces is no fun for us in the political crowd, but it is necessary. Jasper Craven at VTDigger and his recent coverage of Bernie Sanders at the first Democratic debate is the very first time someone has gone deeper than the usual tripe about Bernie Sanders’ career. http://vtdigger.org/2015/10/14/loathing-las-vegas-sanderss-disdain-for-the-character-of-sin-city/
    It was filled with insight and curiosity. It started to smack of the best reporting going on in politics today – that of Mark Leibovich at the NY Times Magazine. He doesn’t need access to insiders because he is smart and curious, comes with a general disdain for the entire political circus we have created and for the weird people who inhabit that world. Bernie Sanders is catching on because people have figured out the game and they see that Bernie’s refuses to play by the rules as much as possible. Craven got that in his piece. I’m tired of old reporters having institutional memory. Too often that means they are timid captives of the system they are suppose to show us. Give me young and hungry any day. The problem at the Burlington Free Press is they get rid of the knowledgeable reporters in favor of young but not hungry, sadly a trend across the country.

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      You are right that institutional memory is a double-edged sword, and thanks for pointing that out. In this case, for the sake of cost-cutting, the Free Press has gone too far.


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