This Needed to Happen

Landmark moment in Vermont journalism: VTDigger founder Anne Galloway is stepping out of her leadership role and back into reporting. Her new title, editor-at-large, seems to offer her a great deal of freedom to work on big projects. You know, the kind of stuff that goes undone amidst the daily bustle of shoestring journalism.

Something like this needed to happen. It should have happened years ago, but I’m more than a little surprised it happened at all. It takes a rare clarity of vision to realize that the organization you brought into being has outgrown you.

VTDigger would not exist without Galloway’s dogged determination, without her burning the morning-to-midnight oil and probably risking her health, mental and otherwise. As it slowly grew, its internal structure didn’t develop accordingly. That’s because Galloway was still working as if she was head of a tiny, struggling startup. She was chief editor. She was the head of the entire enterprise. She was the public face of VTDigger. And, when she felt the call, she dove back into the foxhole of reporting.

It was too much for any person, and it inhibited Digger’s growth into a sustainable institution with a consistent management structure. Now it seems that that push has finally come to shove, and Galloway had to choose which role/s she wanted to keep and which she was willing to let go of.

Necessary disclosure: I worked for Galloway for a few months in 2020. She fired me under dubious circumstances. But I haven’t changed my view of VTDigger as an organization. I saw it the same way before I signed on, while I worked there, and after my defenestration. Before, during and after, it was an organization in need of transition with a leader who was deeply ambivalent about letting it happen.

In early 2020, VTDigger got a huge (by its standards) grant from the American Journalism Project, a nonprofit whose mission is encouraging new models of journalism as the old ones disintegrate. The Project was investing $900,000 over three years in Digger’s business operations. It was meant to finance the process of tuning Digger from a startup to a financially sustainable and administratively stable enterprise.

The Project’s investment would force organizational change. VTDigger was, in many ways, a primitive operation. Its structure was vaguely defined and subject to disruption at any moment.

Aside from whatever changes the Project was encouraging, there was also the formation of a union representing Digger writers in the spring of 2020. Negotiating a contract was an extremely slow and painful process that took about a year and a half. The agreement, finally reached in December of last year, required Digger to have a formalized internal structure including, for instance, an HR department — something it had never had before.

Now it looks like Galloway is fully invested in a new, stable version of VTDigger. That’s a positive development for all concerned.

It does remain to be seen how her seemingly open-ended brief will interface with the rest of the newsgathering process. The promotion of Jim Welch as interim executive director, and the restructuring of the editorial operation that’s happened over the past several months, are both positives in that regard. Welch has the gravitas needed to keep Galloway in her lane, in case she feels the tug of her customary style of managerial freelancing. The editorial staff is more robust than it used to be. The union is there to protect writers if the need arises.

The American Journalism Project thought VTDigger worthy of a major investment because it saw Digger as a potential model of nonprofit journalism for the rest of the country. Galloway’s move is one big step in turning that potential into reality.

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