Free advice for the last people on Earth who would take it

So, over at journalismjobs.com there’s an intriguing listing from my former employer:

Award-winning, locally owned Seven Days newspaper is on the hunt for a political columnist or a news reporter to join our state government team.

That’s either/or. They’re going to hire one or the other. Which means they haven’t made up their minds whether they’re keeping “Fair Game.” It’ll depend, one must assume, on the inclination of the best applicants.

Before I begin the uninformed speculation and free advice, let me make one thing clear. I have no inside information. At this point, I have less insight into the inner workings of Seven Days than I do for True North Reports, the ha-ha “news” site bankrolled by reclusive moneybags Lenore Broughton.

When I got the ziggy, I didn’t know whether they intended to keep the column going or kill it. In recent years, Seven Days has sought to distance itself from its hippie-dippie alt roots. Maybe the Peter Freyne Memorial Chair no longer fit in with the highfalutin aspirations of Vermont’s largest organ.

On the other hand, it’s tough to imagine a Seven Days without “Fair Game.” Back in the bad old days, Peter Freyne was their only news guy, to use the term very loosely. The column has been a staple of the paper since practically day one.

Also, at this point it occupies a singular place in Vermont’s news ecosystem. There are no other political columnists, besides the part-time ruminations of VTDigger’s Jon Margolis. “Fair Game” remains incredibly popular — a must-read for anyone in Vermont politics or news media. That’s a lot of legacy and pageviews to surrender. Also, Vermont politics needs a good shitkicker. It’s far too comfortable a space right now.

But if they’re going to keep “Fair Game,” they need to make some decisions about what exactly it is and what their expectations are. Otherwise it’s not fair to the new hire. It sure wasn’t fair to me.

There are three basic decisions to be made. Is the emphasis on journalism or analysis? Is the column a place for breaking news or deeply considered commentary? And who should they hire?

First question: Analysis. Otherwise, the column loses its value. You’ve gotta inject a little more Freyne and Shay Totten into the mix. And that means relaxing the journalistic standards, especially on anonymous sources. Except on extremely rare occasions, Seven Days does not allow anonymous material — even when you have multiple sources.  That’s a tougher standard than the New York Times or the Washington Post or any other reasonably reputable newspaper. And it’s especially tough on the columnist. There were numerous stories I never even tried to pursue because I knew I couldn’t get anyone to go on the record.

Let the columnist be an agitator, even a purveyor of gossip and rumor. Turn ’em loose. “Fair Game” is labeled a column and its author a columnist, for Pete’s sake. Take advantage of the designation.

The second question gets to the part of the job that almost literally drove me crazy. And I do mean that in the clinical sense. The column was due every Tuesday morning at 10:00 — several hours earlier than the deadline for my predecessors. But I was expected to keep the column open for late-breaking news. The result: I did a lot of information-gathering on Monday and wrote the column Monday night into Tuesday morning. I’d catch a few hours of sleep, wake up, give it one more polish, and submit it.

I was writing at top speed and after business hours. I didn’t have enough time for thorough fact-checking. As a result I made mistakes, some of which got into print. 

If you remove the obligation to cover late-breaking news, the columnist can do what a columnist should do. Observe, collect, ruminate, develop ideas and themes, and then write. 

Honestly, it’s kind of ridiculous that the editors expect breaking news in “Fair Game.” The website is the place for breaking news. And there’s space in each print edition for publishing important web content. 

I’m not saying that the columnist should be exempt from covering anything late-breaking. If Bernie Sanders suspended his presidential campaign or Phil Scott announced he wasn’t running for re-election, obviously that’s got to be the topic. But the standard ought to be “The column will look stupid without this story” rather than “Hey, can you shoehorn this in?” 

Finally, who should they hire? If they’re taking my advice on questions one and two, they need to find someone capable of looking beyond the headlines and dispensing with conventional wisdom. Our political ecosystem is lousy with conventional wisdom. 

I’d say they should look specifically for a columnist, and make the search as broad as possible. There are tons of established columnists and would-be columnists out there. A lot of those jobs have disappeared in recent years. The talent exists. 

There’s an idea that the columnist has to be someone deeply rooted in Vermont politics. That would be a positive, but it’s not a necessity. In fact, it’s a drawback in many ways; an established face is likely to have absorbed the folkways and common assumptions that plague our politics.

 I’d rather have someone with the drive, the nose and the independent outlook. Such a person can learn Vermont politics. Especially if they’re hired within the next couple of months. I’d hire someone before November 1 and give them at least a month — preferably two — with no writing assignments. Let the person circulate, get to know the players and the background. Read some books, explore newspaper archives. By New Year’s Day, they’ll be ready to go. 

One more thing. The next “Fair Game” columnist should be a woman or a person of color, or both. The five previous writers have all been white males. A different perspective is desperately needed. 

There’s my free advice. I hope it was entertaining, because I doubt I have any influence over the decision-makers. 

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