The Burlington Free Press’ descent into whoredom continues apace. Today’s front page encapsulates every worrying trend in the devolution of a once-adequate newspaper — sorry, “media property.”
The front page, for those not close enough to a library or convenience store to give it an eyeball, features Don Sinex, owner of the Burlington Town Center Mall. Sinex is seeking city approval for a complete makeover of the mall, including two 14-story towers that would be the tallest human-made buildings in the city. Sinex is certainly newsworthy; it’s the layout, and all the surrounding circumstances, that illustrate the shortcomings of the Queen City’s Newsroom Of The Future.
For starters, there’s the fact that the Free Press has been giving this story constant, breathless coverage for quite a while now — interrupted only by its ardent pursuit of Trump-related clickbait. I understand that this is a major story regarding the development of downtown Burlington, and I don’t mind quantity coverage with some balance to it. This, however, is giving over the paper’s most valuable real estate to Sinex.
And if you don’t think this was a pro-Sinex puff piece, just look at the headline:
Last Best Plan for Burlington Mall
If that isn’t an editorial, I don’t know what is. The paper could have said “Developer Touts Last Best Plan” or something like that, but no. This Is “The Last Best Plan.”
By giving Sinex this friendly platform, the Free Press is not only servicing one of Burlington’s most powerful businessmen; it’s also indirectly servicing the mall’s remaining tenants, by reinforcing the mall’s importance to the downtown scene. On almost a daily basis, it reminds readers of the mall’s existence — better than an expensive, concerted ad campaign ever could.
How friendly a platform was it? The interview was conducted, not by an editor or a reporter, but by Publisher Al Getler.
A Publisher, for those who need reminding, is in charge of the entire operation of a newspaper — news, printing, web, circulation, advertising, and in Getler’s case, interfacing with corporate ownership. He is not a journalist; he is an administrator, a manager, a businessman. In an ideal world, he should not be conducting serious interviews with important people.
Well, he could. But they shouldn’t be making news out of his interviews.
Oh, and extra bonus points: Getler earns himself a Hitchcockian cameo on the front page. Nice little ego boost for a guy who sidelines as a ventriloquist/comedian.
Besides all that, there’s one more thing that makes today’s front page the epitome of the ever-downsizing Free Press.
Or, if you prefer, “synergy.”
The Sinex interview was this week’s installment of “The Table,” a series of live webcast interviews with “movers and shakers.” This week’s guest was, yep, Don Sinex.
The interview was the sole source of the front-page story. Hey, two for the price of one!
The Free Press’ biggest challenge, with its shrunken newsroom staff, is providing enough local “content” every day. The results are multifaceted: extremely large photographs, usually taken by reporters and often of mediocre quality; articles that are far longer than they need to be, because there’s all that space to fill; extreme dependence on the AP wire and content from the Gannett Family of Space-Fillers, led by the daily USA TODAY insert.
(Which, BTW, helps USA TODAY sell ads, because the Free Press’ daily circulation is credited to USA TODAY’s total. And when the Free Press started running the insert, it was used as an excuse to raise prices. Corporate sales synergy, boom!)
So here, it gets a shot of promotable web-only original content, plus it gets to fill that gaping front-page hole without any real effort. It’s the perfect exemplar of the Free Press, 2015 style: shamelessly done on the cheap.
Call it Hamburger Helper journalism. There’s a little meat in there somewhere.
The sad thing is, the Free Press actually had an actual story that warranted the front page. It was about Police Chief Brandon del Pozo’s comprehensive plan to combat drug trafficking and substance abuse. That story was relegated to page 2, so they could run “The Last Best Hope” on the front. Which newsroom functionary made that call? Or was front-page placement a condition for landing the interview with Sinex?
Oh, and one more thing. As of February 1, the newsstand price of the Free Press is increasing by 50 percent. Yes, a buck-fifty for, in the words of frequent commenter nanuqFC, “a haphazard collection of same-old, same old, repeats, padded stories, inflated series of stories, breath-taking non-news from Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, and elsewhere under the rubric “Regional News.”
These days, it’s getting hard to even find a newsstand in a convenience store. This unwarranted price increase is just one more self-administered nail in the coffin of the newspaper business.