Category Archives: Seven Days

R.I.P. “Fair Game,” 1995-2019

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.

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Plagiarism is the least significant problem with ACCD report

Ouch, this is embarrassing:

In a report submitted last week to the Vermont legislature, the state Agency of Commerce and Community Development appears to have plagiarized three news stories and used photographs without permission.

Since we’re discussing plagiarism here, let me first disclose that the previous paragraph was written by Seven Days’ Paul Heintz.

The ACCD report was a review of the remote worker grant program — known in the vernacular as the $10,000 giveaway. It offers up to $10,000 to people who relocate to Vermont and work remotely for out-of-state employers. The plagiarized material profiled three recipients waxing poetic about their new lives in Vermont. Large swaths of text were lifted from reporting by Seven Days, CNBC and CNN. It also used photos taken by ace freelance photographer Jeb Wallace-Brodeur without attribution or payment. Which is how a freelancer makes a living, don’t ya know. (Note: ACCD has updated the online version of the report, giving proper credit to the media outlets.)

This is a bad look and an embarrassment for ACCD. And Commissioner Joan Goldstein did herself no favor by labeling the plagiarism as an unintentional “oversight.” (I mean, c’mon, whoever put together the report had to know where the material came from. Someone clearly, knowingly, took an ethical shortcut.)

But in the focus on plagiarism we shouldn’t overlook the meat of the report, which does little to demonstrate the value of the program. Instead, it highlights the program’s inherent flaws.

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Daily Newspapers Need to Die

R.I.P. Sports Illustrated, one of this lifelong reader/sports fan’s favorite media properties. I say “media property” rather than “magazine” because it long ago became a trading chip in the progressive monetization of everything. Yesterday, its new owners basically stripped SI down to the studs, and will soon begin tearing out the fixtures and wiring to sell for scrap. As the great Ray Ratto, himself a past victim of media downsizing, put it:

Sports Illustrated being turned into a title with nothing to support it has been seen as inevitable since Time, Inc. got out of the business, and this is simply the lousy next step. There will be others, and then it will disappear the way Inside Sports did, and before that Sport Magazine, and before that the International Herald Tribune. There will always be soulless brutes who buy, gut and sell things, and die as they lived, without value or memories. May their demises be slow, painful and filled with screams only they can hear.

What will be left behind, the “soulless brutes” hope, is a “brand” that can be squeezed for every last drop of profit before finally being shuttered for good. The media entity’s staff, traditionally a home for the best sports writers in America, will be filled out by contract workers. And we all know how well the “gig economy” treats writers and journalists.

Which brings me to the dying business of daily newspapers. Us olds, who still value curated journalism that tries to reflect the life of its community and provide a window on the world, stubbornly maintain our subscriptions to formerly worthy entities like the Burlington Free Press and Barre Montpelier Times Argus out of the forlorn hope that, thanks to our fingers in the dike, we can help our dailies maintain a shred of their former relevance.

Well, sorry, but that ship has sailed. Daily newspapers are never going to be anything more than a gaunt outline of their former selves. They are never going to fulfill their traditional role in civic discourse. They need to die so that something new might grow.

This would be a bad thing for all the hard-working, talented people who spend their days performing CPR on their own employers. I do not wish unemployment on the Emilie Stiglianis, April McCullums, Steve Pappases and David Delcores of the world. But their fates are not in my hands. Their paychecks arrive at the sufferance of far-away corporate owners who don’t have the slightest interest in the well-being of their minions, let alone the Constitutional duty of journalism. They see media properties as things to strip-mine with no concern for tomorrow.

And they are occupying valuable space in our media landscape for no purpose other than short-term profit.

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Free advice for the last people on Earth who would take it

So, over at journalismjobs.com there’s an intriguing listing from my former employer:

Award-winning, locally owned Seven Days newspaper is on the hunt for a political columnist or a news reporter to join our state government team.

That’s either/or. They’re going to hire one or the other. Which means they haven’t made up their minds whether they’re keeping “Fair Game.” It’ll depend, one must assume, on the inclination of the best applicants.

Before I begin the uninformed speculation and free advice, let me make one thing clear. I have no inside information. At this point, I have less insight into the inner workings of Seven Days than I do for True North Reports, the ha-ha “news” site bankrolled by reclusive moneybags Lenore Broughton.

When I got the ziggy, I didn’t know whether they intended to keep the column going or kill it. In recent years, Seven Days has sought to distance itself from its hippie-dippie alt roots. Maybe the Peter Freyne Memorial Chair no longer fit in with the highfalutin aspirations of Vermont’s largest organ.

On the other hand, it’s tough to imagine a Seven Days without “Fair Game.” Back in the bad old days, Peter Freyne was their only news guy, to use the term very loosely. The column has been a staple of the paper since practically day one.

Also, at this point it occupies a singular place in Vermont’s news ecosystem. There are no other political columnists, besides the part-time ruminations of VTDigger’s Jon Margolis. “Fair Game” remains incredibly popular — a must-read for anyone in Vermont politics or news media. That’s a lot of legacy and pageviews to surrender. Also, Vermont politics needs a good shitkicker. It’s far too comfortable a space right now.

But if they’re going to keep “Fair Game,” they need to make some decisions about what exactly it is and what their expectations are. Otherwise it’s not fair to the new hire. It sure wasn’t fair to me.

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Who gets to tell the Statehouse story?

This is a follow-up to my recent post about the gender imbalance in Vermont’s political press corps. We’re almost entirely men. And that does have an effect on what stories are told and not told.

Next question: Does it also have an effect on who gets to tell the stories? That is, who gets quoted in articles about Vermont politics and policy? Do we quote men more often than women? Unlike many corridors of power elsewhere, women are well represented in the highest ranks of Vermont government. Three of the four top legislative leaders are women; the four chairs of the powerful money committees are women, as are several other chairs; and the Scott administration is perhaps the most gender-balanced in Vermont history.

There’s one way to check on this, and it involves a ton of scutwork. I went through every frickin’ article written by 11 reporters who regularly cover the Statehouse in one full month, counting up the quotes. I chose May of this year because it included the legislature’s home stretch, a period when interest peaked and coverage was frequent. The 11 reporters included ten men and VTDigger’s education reporter Lola Duffort. She spent a lot of time in the Statehouse in May, and it seemed useful to include a woman even if she’s not technically a Statehouse reporter.

This turned out to be a tougher exercise than I thought. Counting up the quotes is simple enough, but people are often mentioned without being directly quoted. I decided on a standard that involved some subjective judgment: Does the person have agency in the story? Do they play an active role, or are they brought up in passing?

There’s a gray area here, and if anyone tried to reproduce my research they’d get slightly different numbers. But I’m confident that the overall trends would remain.

That’s one caveat. Another is the potential effect of small sample size. Some writers produced more material than others. A month is about the minimum time you’d need to produce representative numbers. If anyone wants to do a full session or a year, have at it.

The month of May was an outlier in some respects. A lot of coverage concerned the House/Senate dispute over issues like minimum wage, paid family leave, cannabis and guns. Stories tended to focus on the two leaders, Speaker Mitzi Johnson and President Pro Tem Tim Ashe. Both were usually quoted, which may have led to better gender balance overall.

Also, Gov. Phil Scott was largely a passive presence in May. He simply waited for the legislature to act — and if they didn’t, he got to stay on the sidelines. Many stories mentioned Scott but gave him no agency. Often, his views were cited by way of spokesperson Rebecca Kelley, which is a score in the female column each time.

Finally, just for the record, no one from the TQIA sections of the LGBTQIA community was quoted. I didn’t keep track of people of color, but as far as I can recall only two were quoted: Rep. Nader Hashim and Sen. Randy Brock.

Enough preliminaries. Let’s do the numbers.

I’ll start with myself, in my former role as political columnist for Seven Days. I wrote five columns in May. I cited 13 male government officials (elected or administrative) and 10 female. In the “other” category of advocates, lobbyists, non-government, I quoted six men and seven women. My overall total: 19 men, 17 women.

My colleague Kevin McCallum was the King of Quotes, citing far more people than any other reporter. (Which is a positive indicator of his work ethic and diligence.) He wrote 17 stories which quoted 44 male officials and 33 female, plus 12 male “others’ and 14 female. Total: 56 men, 47 women.

The third member of the Seven Days Statehouse crew was the now-departed Taylor Dobbs. Officials: 30 men, 21 women. Others: Four men, one woman. Total: 34 men, 22 women.

Gettin’ a little sketchy there.

I surveyed Paul Heintz’ work as well. He was the political editor in May, but he did write eight stores. Small sample size warning applies. Officials: 12 men, five women. Others: 14 men, nine women. Total: 26 men, 14 women. A couple of factors skewed his total: Some of his stories were about Vermont’s all-male congressional delegation, and he wrote a sizable story about an EB-5 court proceeding in which all the principals were men. I think we’d need a larger sample to truly determine whether or not he’s really an oinker.

That’s it for the Seven Days political team. On to VTDigger. And the moment you’ve been waiting for…

Political columnist Jon Margolis wrote eight pieces in May. He didn’t quote very many people, so again, small sample size, but he skewed heavily toward men. He quoted 16 men and seven women, plus five anonymous people — one of whom was identified as male. Margolis already ranked high on the Oinker Suspect List because of his comment about Mitzi Johnson supporting paid family leave because it’s a women’s issue and she’s “entirely female,” plus his anonymous quote about how “Tim [Ashe] has an Emerge problem,” referencing Emerge Vermont, the organization that trains women Democrats to run for office. The implication being, Ashe has to deal with uppity Emerge alums like Sens. Ruth Hardy and Becca Balint. Poor guy.

Margolis’ numbers are too small to be probative, but they confirm the impression that he’s maybe a bit of a pig. I’ll also mention that his first column in June was about the replacement of Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, in which he both-sidesed the mass murder of native people.

Columbus did not introduce slavery to this hemisphere, where the natives had been enslaving one another, making war on one another, torturing one another, and sometimes eating one another for centuries.

True enough. There were wars and conquests and atrocities among the natives, just as there were back in Europe. But the indigenous people never committed actual, how shall I put it, genocide. They never conquered an entire continent by killing or displacing its resident population. That’s a massive difference in scale. And if Margolis had spoken with members of the Abenaki community for his column, he might have acquired a bit more nuance in his views.

But I digress.

As for Digger’s Statehouse reporters, things get a little complicated because there were a lot of co-authored stories. Those pieces had to be considered separately.

Xander Landen wrote 19 stories. Officials: 29 male, 21 female. Others: Six male, four female. Total: 35 male, 25 female. Hmm.

Colin Meyn wrote nine pieces. Officials: 22 men, 11 women. Others: Three men, six women. Total: 25 men, 17 women. Also hmm.

Kit Norton was sole author of only four stories. He co-wrote several, and was also responsible for a chatty daily Statehouse digest distributed by email. I only reviewed his posted articles. Officials: Six men, seven women. Others: Three men, two women. Total: Nine each.

Some combination of Landen, Meyn, Norton and Anne Galloway co-wrote nine stories. Officials: 21 men, 17 women. Others: No men, three women. Total: 21 men, 20 women.

Lola Duffort wrote 16 stories in May. Officials: 11 men, 14 women. Others: 18 men, 12 women. Total: 29 men, 26 women.

I also took a look at Vermont Public Radio’s two Statehouse regulars, Bob Kinzel and Peter Hirschfeld. Their stores are written for radio, but the transcripts are posted on VPR’s website. Kinzel wrote three stories in May (he spent a lot of time hosting “Vermont Edition”). He quoted nine men and two women. Small sample size, but ouch.

Hirschfeld produced 11 pieces in May. He quoted 22 men and 19 women.

That’s about it. Seven Days, VTDigger and VPR are the only outlets that produce significant quantities of in-depth state government reporting. The three major TV stations, to their credit, cover the Statehouse much more frequently than stations in other states. But their reports are usually quick hits lacking the depth or breadth of Vermont’s three top news organizations. (The Burlington Free Press no longer covers the Statehouse on anything like a regular basis.)

Conclusions? Some of the numbers indicate a potential problem with gender balance in some reporters’ work, but none of the results are strong enough to constitute definitive proof. Except maybe SOOOEEE PIG PIG PIG Margolis, who is, at least for now, Vermont’s only regular political columnist. Kinda sad, that.

But I will say that some reporters would be advised to check themselves. Maybe do a deeper dive on their own work, see how they did over a period of several months. If there’s a consistent male/female imbalance of 60/40 or greater, they probably have some implicit bias issues.

Also, the relative gender balance in Duffort’s reporting is one more data point for the importance of increased gender balance in the Statehouse press corps.

 

The Boys’ Club of Vermont Political Media

In what turned out to be my final column for Seven Days, I wrote about the lack of ethnic and racial diversity in Vermont media organizations. Seven Days and Vermont Public Radio have no people of color in their newsrooms; VTDigger has one; the Burlington Free Press has two.

I had originally intended to cover gender equity as well, but available space would not allow. I would have followed up in a future column if I still had a job, but you know. So I’ll use my available platform instead.

Vermont media score better on gender equity, including in management and ownership, than on race or ethnicity. But there’s one glaring exception to that relatively rosy picture: The people who cover Vermont politics and policy are almost exclusively men.

During the 2019 legislative session, the Statehouse press corps included three men from Seven Days, two men from VPR, male reporters for the state’s three leading TV stations* and a male-leaning group from Digger. Its three Statehouse generalists were men (Colin Meyn, Xander Landen and Kit Norton), as was political columnist Jon Margolis. Digger policy specialists Lola Duffort and Elizabeth Gribkoff were often present, but not usually at gubernatorial pressers. McCullum was under the dome only occasionally, as other duties at the Free Press took precedence.

*Me, Taylor Dobbs, Kevin McCallum, Peter Hirschfeld, Bob Kinzel, Neal Goswami, Stewart Ledbetter and Spencer Conlin.

That’s a lotta sausage.

Feminist champion Gov. Phil Scott pointed out this fact at one of his weekly press conferences earlier this year. The subject was boosting STEM (Science, technology, engineering, math*) education in Vermont public schools. One reporter asked if the new initiative included any effort to address the broad and persistent gender gap in those fields. Scott looked around the assembled reporters, who included a bunch of men plus McCullum, and commented, “Well, there are a lot of fields that could use more gender equity.”

His observation was echoed by House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington). “When I think about the press conferences I attended, the majority of the time all the reporters were male,” she said. “It’s important that the press corps looks like the people they’re writing about. There can be implicit bias.”

There is evidence of such bias. Krowinski cites the 2020 budget, which included a one-time $6 million boost in chid care subsidies. It was an important step on a key priority — but it got almost no coverage in the press.  Except for an article written by, well whad’ya know, Lola Duffort.

Advocates say the new money for subsidies will make a real difference on the ground. The state’s current caseload for subsidies is about 8,000 kids a month, and 2,700 of them should see their benefit increase, according to an analysis by Let’s Grow Kids.

Nothing to sneeze at. Or ignore, just because mens’ minds are less occupied with child care.

In the category of Digger Giveth and Digger Taketh Away, Krowinski cites an infamous Margolis essay about paid family leave and the minimum wage. Margolis wrote that paid leave “particularly benefits women,” which is horseshit unless you believe that family responsibilities are naturally the province of women. He then went on to assert that Johnson’s support for paid leave over minimum wage was because “she is entirely female.”

Yeah, those darn women, always thinking with their uteruses.

When I asked VPR news director Sarah Ashworth what we’re missing in our coverage because of the lack of women, she replied: “We know that we don’t know which stories we’re not seeing or hearing. It’s a blindspot. You don’t know what it would look like with a more diverse press corps.”

Within the political press corps is the tiny contingent of columnists, which basically consists of Margolis’ part-time gig plus whoever fills my seat at Seven Days. And that position, just like our Congressional delegation, has never been filled by a woman.

“There is not a lack of women who could fill those roles,” said Krowinski. “Do they not apply? Have they not been invited in?”

Good question. My take: It’s not a conscious effort to make political coverage a Man’s World. But even if an employer creates an open, fair process, it’s often not enough. Women face barriers that men do not in all the stages before they get to the door of a prospective employer. That requires conscious action to encourage women applicants and hire them whenever possible.

And lest you scoff at the idea of implicit bias, let’s take a brief visit to the world of symphony orchestras. The Guardian:

As late as 1970, the top five orchestras in the U.S. had fewer than 5% women. It wasn’t until 1980 that any of these top orchestras had 10% female musicians. But by 1997 they were up to 25% and today some of them are well into the 30s.

What changed? One very simple thing. In the late 70s, those orchestras began holding blind auditions for musicians. Those with hiring authority couldn’t see the gender or race of any applicant. And suddenly, a lot more women were getting hired. Just like that.

Funny thing about Vermont’s gender imbalance is, if you go back a few years the equity picture was a lot better.

“We’ve lost Candace Page, Nancy Remsen, Terri Hallenbeck, Alicia Freese [all from Seven Days], Elizabeth Hewitt, Erin Mansfield [Digger] and now Jess Aloe [Free Press], just in the last couple of years,” Ledbetter said.  “Most have been replaced by men.”

This is a problem for Ledbetter as host of Vermont Public Television’s “Vermont This Week.” He usually ends up with male-heavy panels because of the male-heavy pool he draws from. “It’s not intentional,” he said. “I’d love to have [the panels] be perfectly balanced. It’s up to the people who hire in our news organizations.”

Yes, it is. Our own recent past is proof that women can write about politics, and write damn well. The hiring decisions for this relatively small pool of jobs is spread over several separate entities, which makes it difficult to single out any one as a special offender. But we do need more women covering state policy and politics. Starting with my replacement as “Fair Game” columnist. The boys have had that perch to themselves for far too long.

*”Math” was originally, and wrongly, written as “medicine.”

Career’s End

So yeah, I lost my job.

What follows is my perspective on the events of recent days — well, the past two and a half years, really. Call it Blogger’s Privilege — the freedom to tell a story on my own terms.

I was hired as Seven Days’ political columnist at the end of 2016. I think they were looking for a combination of my journalistic background with the humor, snark and edge of this here blog.

In practice, this was an extremely delicate balancing act. Perhaps impossible. And the time constraints were punishing. I did some of the reporting and all of the writing each Monday, often staying up well past midnight. I’d do some final polishing Tuesday morning and turn it in at 10:00 a.m. And then the editing process, which is fraught at best, would carry on through most of Tuesday.

That’s a hell of a workload under highly stressful conditions. I had trouble achieving the paper’s exacting standards for accuracy. I also had trouble distilling all the information and producing a strong point of view on deadline.

Whine, whine, whine.

I always knew I wouldn’t last forever, or anything like it. I often thought seriously about resigning. But the end, when it came, was swift and unexpected. What turned out to be my final column went to the printer Tuesday evening August 6. By the time the paper hit the streets, I’d been given the choice of quitting or being fired. Immediately. By the time my exit interview concluded, my Seven Days email account had already been canceled. (Apologies to those who’d contacted me and never got a reply.)

They had their reasons. I have a hard time believing my trespasses were severe enough to warrant immediate expulsion. But hey, it’s their beeswax.

(I will point out that, in recent years, Seven Days‘ news staff has seen a remarkable amount of turnover. Reporters are expected to produce top quality in large quantity, and to work on print stories while also cranking out content for the website. It’s a grind. Editors don’t think it’s a problem, but the sheer numbers suggest otherwise.)

It was nice to get a paycheck. Otherwise, the primary sentiment is relief. I’ll be happier writing this blog.

I was the fifth occupant of what I liked to call the Peter Freyne Chair of Instigative Journalism. But the column, and the paper around it, changed dramatically over time. He had free rein to do stuff that would get a writer shitcanned today. You can trace the changes in Seven Days through the succession of columnists.

Shay Totten was the closest thing to another Freyne, but with better journalism. His successor, Andy Bromage, was a newsman first and foremost. Paul Heintz had a background in flackery and a sharp tongue, but his column was grounded in solid journalism.

And then there was me. I think they hoped I would combine the best of the two — the attitude of a Freyne with the journalism of a Bromage. As I noted above, that proved to be an impossible high-wire act.

I have no idea if “Fair Game” has a future. If so, I think the Powers That Be need to decide what its purpose is. Is it informed analysis and commentary, or is it journalism? The failure of the Walters Experiment suggests they can’t have both.

(I did offer one parting suggestion. If they hire a new columnist, I urged them to hire a woman. The Freyne Chair has been the exclusive province of men, and that ought to change.)

They say if you work long enough in the world of media, sooner or later you’ll lose a job with breathtaking suddenness. Ownership, management, format and mission are subject to change at any moment. Ultimately, talent is a fungible commodity. Nobody is irreplaceable, including Yours Truly.

Back to mom’s basement.