So they did it. My former bosses have pulled the plug on Seven Days’ political column, a staple of the weekly since its inception in 1995. I was, apparently, the last occupant of what I liked to call the Peter Freyne Memorial Chair in Instigative Journalism. So maybe I killed it, or I was irreplaceable, your choice.
After my very sudden departure slash defenestration in August, the paper posted a curious job listing. It wanted to hire either a new columnist or a new reporter. At the time, I thought the odds greatly favored “reporter,” which would mean the death of the column. Also at the time, I gave my sure-to-be-ignored-and-you-betcha-it-was advice: Hire a columnist, preferably someone from out of state (for fresh perspective) and preferably a woman, a person of color, or both. Because the Statehouse press corps is almost exclusively white and male, and the few political analysts/commentators we’ve got are all white men.
Also, there are tons of columnists and would-be columnists with lots of experience across the country, because many dailies have been cutting local and syndicated columns. A suitable candidate could learn the Statehouse ropes in time for the new session.
Instead, we get a Vermont reporter: Colin Flanders, most recently of the Milton Independent, Essex Reporter and Colchester Sun — where he worked with editor Courtney Lamdin, who signed on with Seven Days as a Burlington city reporter earlier this year. (The weeklies are owned by a skinflint out-of-stater who maintains a single tiny staff to feed all three papers.)
In a way, I get it. In our ever-diminishing news ecosystem, adding another reporter who can do Seven Days-style in-depth journalism is a solid move. But “Fair Game” occupied a singular niche in political coverage. Not to mention that the paper is giving up a significant asset; “Fair Game” was one of the most-read features in the paper. (Not because of me, but because of the column’s long tradition of insight, fearlessness and sharp writing. I stood on the shoulders of my predecessors.) The end of “Fair Game” is a sad moment in the decline of our media.
My former boss Matthew Roy explained the Flanders hire and the “Fair Game” deep-sixing this way:
“In our world, there’s too much opinion and not enough plain old facts. We’ll be trading more in the latter.”
A couple things. First, the column has never been strictly opinion, even when Freyne was at his most gonzo. He pounded the beat and pumped his sources. He afflicted the comfortable. And I was expected to anchor opinion and analysis on a foundation of solid journalism. I saw myself as an analyst but also a guide to the whys and hows of state policy and politics, helping readers understand what was happening.
Second, it’s absolutely true that “in our world” there’s too much opinion. But I’d argue that the opposite is true in Vermont. I think VTDigger’s Jon Margolis is the last regularly employed political columnist in the state. There are other commentators, essentially a very small pool of The Usual Suspects who get called upon for a sage (or, more often, hopelessly bland) comment to fill out a news story.
Sure, there’s a shortage of hard news in Vermont. But there’s an even direr shortage of perspective and context. “Fair Game” had unique value.
As for the Statehouse sausage party, prominent women in the legislature have told me that the lack of female reporters has affected which stories are covered and how they are reported. If Seven Days leadership believes that diversity is important in newsrooms, the real-world results don’t show it.
Ironically, on the same day as Seven Days made its announcement, VTDigger announced the hiring of not one, not two, not three… but four women reporters. One of them is Katie Jickling, a former colleague at Seven Days. It looks like she and Grace Elletson will be spending a lot of time around the Statehouse, so those gubernatorial press conferences will no longer be quite so male-dominated. No thanks to Seven Days.
Now, I really don’t think that the organization is a hive of well-concealed misogyny. But diversity tends to be an elusive goal unless it’s approached with true intentionality. Otherwise you drift on the most convenient current. And that means hiring more white men. Digger has just shown that a different outcome is possible.