Got an email today from VTDigger founder/chief executive/editor/reporter/Maximum Leader Anne Galloway. It was a request for donations that included the line “Help us…foster the next generation of journalists.”
Yeah, up to a point. Past that point, successive “next generations of journalists” are running for the hills. Latest example: Statehouse reporter Kit Norton has left Digger with no firm plans for what’s next, according to his Twitter feed. About a month ago, Katie Jickling quit, tweeting out plans to leave journalism and pursue a master’s degree.
Update 7/14/21. According to Mark Johnson’s column in this week’s Seven Days, Statehouse reporter Xander Landen has also left Digger. This adds to the numbers I cite below. And losing both Norton and Landen at the same time is a tremendous blow to Digger’s Statehouse and political coverage. They were smart, effective reporters who’d learned the ropes. Now, other reporters will have to start from scratch.
Which made me wonder how many reporters have whizzed through that revolving door since May 2020, when they formed a union and entered into contract talks. Talks which have seen management stonewalling the union.
So I fired up the Internet Archive and found the VTDigger homepage as of May 27, 2020. That’s right around the time that Digger recognized the union in the face of a near-unanimous organizing vote.
The answer is, yep, there’s been a lot of turnover. By my count of the staff listing on the Digger website, the organization had 12 full-time reporters on 5/27/20. Five are no longer there. (Jickling, Norton, Anne Wallace Allen, Elizabeth Gribkoff, Aidan Quigley), That’s a fair bit of turnover. And every one of those departing reporters was a member of the union.
I don’t believe that Digger is deliberately driving people away in order to break the union, but I do believe that weakening the union is a fortunate consequence of its high turnover. Galloway’s fundraising pitch notwithstanding, many writers flee because they find Digger to be a toxic workplace.
Fostering the next generation of journalists, my Aunt Fanny.
I noticed a couple other things in comparing last year’s staff list to today’s.
First, the reporting staff has significantly shrunk. Digger now has 10 full-time reporters, down two from last year. And two of those 10 are short-term positions through Report for America. The shrinkage isn’t too surprising; the pandemic has taken a heavy toll on all media outlets, including nonprofits. I suspect that reader support is still strong, but corporate underwriting may have taken a hit.
Second, while the turnover among reporters is noteworthy, the turnover among editors is downright shocking. It looks like Jim Welch is the only editor who’s survived since May 2020. Well, Mike Dougherty is listed as “digital editor,” but he’s more involved in special projects than shepherding the work of other writers.
Out: Colin Meyn, Mark Johnson, Cate Chant, Elizabeth Hewitt. In: Paul Heintz, Maggie Cassidy, Tom Kearney, Auditi Guha, Natalie Williams.
I can’t say why the edit staff is almost completely new. But it sure doesn’t imply stability. What I can say, without naming names, is that the old editors were either neutral or sympathetic toward the union. Don’t know about the new team.
To a large extent, this amount of turnover is nothing new for Digger. But it ought to be a warning sign. Digger is supposed to be the model for a new kind of community-based, nonprofit journalism. If it’s going to fulfill that promise, it must become a mature, stable organization. Better staff retention would be a strong indication that Digger is on the right path. Ditto a productive approach to contract talks.
As it is, how good a model is Digger for a new kind of anything?
At least they’ve still got Glenn Russell taking pictures. Of course, during the pandemic he’s had very little to do.