What ought to be the most coveted perch in Vermont journalism is once again vacant. After a mere four months on the job, Mark Johnson has relinquished the Peter Freyne Chair in Instigative Journalism, d/b/a the “Fair Game” column in Seven Days.
One could be forgiven for wondering if this position doesn’t have a curse attached to it. Johnson’s predecessor, Dave Gram, lasted only five months. The guy before him was rather spectacularly fired after 2 1/2 years on the job.
That would be me.
My predecessor Paul Heintz held the job for almost five years. Otherwise, what ought to be the most coveted perch in Vermont journalism has been a revolving door with only one consistent thread: We’ve all been white males.
It’s time for a change, and not just in race and gender expression. Not that anyone at Seven Days is likely to heed my advice, but hey, I’ve had first-hand experience with the ups and downs of the job, and I do have some hard-earned insight.
First of all, I’d definitely keep the column. It’s the heart and soul of the paper, and it occupies a unique and valuable position in the Vermont media landscape.
Otherwise, the Powers That Be need to not only think outside the box; they need to stomp the box flat and toss it in recycling.
First, by all means, the next columnist should be a woman, a person of color, and/or a member of the LGBTQ+ community. Seven Days has forfeited the luxury of “hiring purely on merit” (which is largely a myth anyway) because of its track record.
Besides, it’s not just a matter of atonement. Our political media needs some non-traditional perspective. Just as our politics has improved with more women in office, news coverage is deeper and broader when the talent pool is diverse.
Speaking of “non-traditional,” it’s time to hire someone who’s not a creature of the Vermont bubble. That isn’t likely to happen; news editor Matthew Roy told VTDigger that the column requires “a person who is interested and eager but also that has broad knowledge of Vermont.”
The media world is full of eager, qualified reporters and columnists who are un- or underemployed because of the shrinkage of the news business. If you get someone who’s energetic and insightful, they can learn the ropes fairly quickly. I’ve seen it happen over and over again with new reporters who pick up the Statehouse beat more quickly than you’d think possible. If Seven Days posted the position right away, it could make a hire by early November, bring the person on board, and let them circulate in political circles for several weeks before the new legislative session begins.
Which brings me back to non-traditional perspective. The world of Vermont politics is small, insular, and thinks very highly of itself. My work as blogger and columnist has benefited from the fact that I lived the bulk of my life elsewhere. Helps me cut through the bullshit.
Finally, Seven Days has to think long and hard about what exactly the position entails. The job almost drove me crazy. Literally.
It’s extremely demanding. Each column had to include three or four meaty items, plus I had to file three other stories every week. The column items were expected to be deeply reported and widely sourced.
The position is an uneasy hybrid of opinionator, observer and traditional reporter. Seven Days wanted the fire and brimstone of Freyne, plus a level of journalistic rigor that Freyne never had to live up to.
The column writing and editing process was insane. The whole thing was due Tuesday morning; the rest of the day was taken up by an intensive back-and-forth with the editors. I found that I couldn’t do much of the reporting until Monday because the column was expected to be “fresh” and include late-breaking news. That meant I did almost all the writing Monday evening into Tuesday morning. And that left little to no opportunity for the very intensive fact-checking that was expected of me.
So. If they don’t want the job to be a meatgrinder that burns people out, they’ll have to make some choices. “Fair Game” is the crown jewel of the newspaper; the writer shouldn’t have heavy reporting obligations aside from the column.
They also need to decide whether they want “Fair Game” to be deep and thoughtful, or fresh and responsive to breaking news. I’d opt for the former. Let the columnist develop threads and ideas, thoroughly report them, and write the hell out of them. There are other ways to report late-breaking developments.
So there you go. Get a smart, energetic scribe who’s not an old white man and who knows politics but not necessarily Vermont. Turn them loose, give them space, emphasize quality over quantity, and you’ll have a column with the bite and snap of Peter Freyne plus the greater journalistic rigor of a Shay Totten or a Paul Heintz.
And, most importantly for the stature and success of the paper, you’ll have a column that everybody in Vermont politics will want to read — and will have to read.