Digger vs. Its Writers

For a full year, the VTDigger Guild has been trying to negotiate its first contract. And it’s been met with an unyielding brick wall on every front. Now, in a series of tweets, it has taken its case to the public.

The Guild organized in the spring of last year, and I was proud to be part of the effort. I believed the union would be a good thing for all parties. And it still can be, if Digger gets serious about a contract.

Until it does, I’m suspending my monthly donation to Digger. I can’t support an enterprise that treats its workers this way. If you identify as a friend of labor, I suggest you think long and hard about doing the same. And write a letter to Digger via this page on The Action Network.

I hate to do this. Digger is an absolute necessity for coverage of Vermont policy and politics. Founder Anne Galloway deserves all the credit in the world for creating this enterprise.

But it’s time to grow up, and enter into a partnership with its workers. This shit won’t fly any more:

VTDigger is at a critical juncture in its development. It is trying to build a sustainable, professional enterprise capable of thriving in a time of dramatic change for its industry. The American Journalism Project believes that Digger is a model for the future of nonprofit journalism. So much so, that in January 2020 it committed $900,000 over three years as an investment in Digger’s business operations.

With that money comes heightened expectations. The AJP will expect results. That means that Digger must make a complete break with its past as a spunky little startup with a handful of staff. The ad hoc style of “management” that sufficed in those days is no longer good enough.

The enterprise that AJP expects for its money will be capable of paying a decent salary to its reporters. It will have a professional HR process, consistent policies, and a regularized power structure. For that kind of organization, dealing with a union is just part of the job.

If this is the model for journalism’s future. It must be able to provide a decent working environment. It needs to offer good pay, working conditions and advancement opportunities.

And, for the good of its own product, it must be able to keep good reporters around for longer than a year or two. Since its founding, Digger has been unable to retain good people. Every time a reporter leaves, Digger’s coverage suffers as it has to train up a replacement and give them time to learn complicated subject areas like health care, climate change and education.

The Guild wants to be a partner, not an antagonist. It isn’t making outlandish demands. Guild members want Digger to prosper, and to fully become a model for sustainable journalism. The Guild is ready to build a positive relationship. So far, Digger has treated the Guild with barely concealed contempt.

When that changes, I’ll resume my monthly support.


3 thoughts on “Digger vs. Its Writers

  1. H. Jay Eshelman

    Re: Digger vs. Its Writers

    An interesting perspective, John. And I agree with you. Even when you appreciate what an institution ‘intends’ to do, in this case covering “Vermont policy and politics”, there are often principles its participants (management, ‘underwriters’, employees and readers) find irreconcilable.

    Thankfully, we find ourselves in an environment that supports free markets. Employment at will and Freedom of Speech. Not only does Digger have the right to hire people as it sees fit (within the rule of law, of course), people like you have the right to not work there at your discretion. You have the right to withhold financial support and ask others to do the same. You have the right to ignore what Digger publishes, and Digger has the right to ignore what you publish.

    How this all works out between you and Digger remains to be seen. It’s the constant negotiation Ludwig von Mises referred to as follows.

    “When we call a capitalist society a consumers’ democracy, we mean that the power to dispose of the means of production, which belongs to the entrepreneurs and capitalists, can only be acquired by means of the consumers’ ballot, held daily in the market-place.”

    Of course, I make this point to bring your attention to other ‘shit’ that ‘won’t (or shouldn’t) fly’ – our public education system – in which an employee union, successfully making all of the demands on behalf of its members you advocate (and more), achieves its goals within the confines of a monopoly, controlled by an oligarchy elected by a simple tyranny of a majority.

    Imagine, for example, if all writers, such as yourself, were not only required, by contract, to work for a one-and-only government news outlet, but that wages and benefits were set based on their tenure and loyalty to a given curricula. And that its readers (i.e. consumers) were required to consider those tenants 8 hours a day, 170 days a year, or risk being charged with truancy. And that, to top it all off, all of the participants (management, employees, consumers and taxpayers) were required to ‘underwrite’ the endeavor with property tax payments, whether or not they agreed with anything that was going on.

    Again, I agree with your position on this matter, despite the ultimate outcome… as long as I can choose whether or not to read Digger or support it financially.

  2. zim

    VTD has been steadily going downhill. I stopped supporting VTD when they did away with the comments. I never bought Galloways assertions that it was becoming too much of burden as there are enumerable websites and blogs hosting comments without complaint and who I know do not have budget at all. There are a variety of content moderation tools out there to make moderating relatively efficient and painless. When digger first did away with up/down votes I grew a bit suspicious since up/down votes only reveal the reader’s sentiment regarding various commenters views and requires no moderating – obviously digger did not like the nature of their readership’s response which would often run counter to the transparent bias or affirm the deficiencies in the article. Then digger started to limit character count and a further attempt to restrict the ability of readers to counter the bad reporting. Many of the commenters on VTD were very informed and often put the ‘journalist’ whose article they were commenting to shame for the poor quality/lack of depth and overall lack of seriousness. While digger does publish guest commentaries and letters – which often is the only thing worth reading – so do all the other outlines and such things do not carry the same weight.

    On that point, much of Digger’s journalism is self-important pretend journalism that does little more than affirm the status quo and plays it very safe with regards to not offending its core readership – who are very much the problem in this state. Much of its reporting is poorly researched, depending too much on canned corporate povs and official press releases. Very little in the way are serious questions are asked. Its environmental journalism is terrible. Vermont has also one of the most incompetent and lazy state bureaucracies I have ever experienced and yet Digger’s reporting does little more than legitimize and normalize the incompetence, the grifting and the poor quality of service Vermonter’s receive. The relentlessly repressive optimism of the affluent classes is never challenged.

    There is not one article on on Digger that details in any systemic way the underlying causes of many of Vermont’s serious problems: affordability, racism, poverty, inequality, environmental degradation, pensions, housing, urbanization/sprawl, corruption, nepotism. Its spends most of its ink obfuscating and talking around these issues and pretty much committed to polishing the saving lies of the few at the expense of the rest of us.

    Its flagship EB5 coverage treated Stenger with kid gloves, painted the main antagonist in racist terms (non-Anglo foreigner as the evil mastermind) – any Vermonter on the gravy was pretty much held harmless. Its mysterious inability to delve deeper in the government corruption vis a vis investigating influence networks within the structure of power within the state is stark. I find much of its reporting to be suffocatingly parochial. Its also subtly racist and strangely misogynistic and so follows the cultural imperatives of mainstream media.

    Galloway is too smart to not know what she is doing and its not journalism of any meaningful kind. Anyone who would put ‘news in pursuit of truth’ on its masthead was joking from the get go.


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