Tag Archives: Mike Donoghue

Who needs institutional memory?

Well, as was foreshadowed in this space, two mainstays at the Burlington Free Press are accepting Gannett’s early-retirement offer. As of October 31, Mikes Townsend and Donoghue will no longer grace the masthead or the pages of Vermont’s Shrinkingest Newspaper.

On their own, these departures won’t spell doom for the Freeploid. But look at what’s happened over the last couple of years: the paper has dumped almost all of its experienced news staff, leaving us to the tender mercies of twenty- and thirty-somethings who are (1) short on experience, and (2) in many cases, still finding their way around Vermont.

Count ‘em up: Terri Hallenbeck, Nancy Remsen, Sam Hemingway, Tim Johnson, Matt Sutkoski, Candace Page, Lynn Monty, now Townsend and Donoghue. (Apologies if I missed anyone, which I probably did.) That’s a lot of institutional memory, especially on the hard-news side of things. The remaining olds, to use the term very loosely, are mostly doing features: Brent Hallenbeck, Joel Banner Baird, Sally Pollak. Dan D’Ambrosio is kind of a hybrid: he does some good work, but he also does some client-servicing in the business pages.

(Here’s an interesting note: if there’s a staff listing on the Free Press’ website, I sure as hell can’t find it. Used to be very accessible. Now, if it exists, it’s well-hidden. Too embarrassing?)

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Soylent Green is old journalists

Uh-oh. The soft, rustling footfalls of Death can once again be heard in the open-plan offices of Gannett newspapers, including the Burlington Free Press. Gannett CEO Bob Dickey issued this memo earlier today:

I wanted to let you know that today we are offering eligible, long-term Gannett employees within certain business segments and departments of our company the opportunity to take advantage of an early retirement program.

The employees who are receiving the offer all satisfy the criteria of being 55 years of age or older with at least 15 years of service as of October 12, 2015.

That’s right, boys and girls: it may be less than one year since Gannett launched the (Mostly Empty) Newsroom Of The Future, but it’s already time for another round of cost-cutting!

Er, pardon me: “providing the company flexibility to reinvest” and “better align our structure to become a next generation media company.”

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Fighting with both hands tied behind their backs

My pageview stats for the past several days tell a stark tale: I should stop writing about mental health, and go back to renewable energy*. So naturally, here I go with another piece about mental health. Ever the contrarian.

*Of course, if I really wanted to make clickbait, I’d probably write about nothing but Bernie Sanders.

The mental health care system has often come under attack in Vermont for mistreatment or overtreatment of patients, for alleged forced hospitalization, restraint, or medication. Indeed, the practice of psychiatry in general has few friends in the state. There’s a simple reason for this, and it has nothing to do with the quality of care.

It has everything to do with privacy.

Medical practitioners are legally bound to guard patient confidentiality. This is a very good thing, and I would not seek to change it. However, one of the unintended effects is that when a doctor or nurse or hospital is accused of harming a patient, only one side of the story is heard: the patient’s. If providers tell their story, they are breaking federal law and the ethical standards of their profession.

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If it didn’t happen in the Free Press, it didn’t happen

The Burlington Free Press takes tremendous pride in its scoops. Front-page placement, social media bragging. It’ll also follow up endlessly, whether fresh developments warrant it or not. And sometimes the “scoops” aren’t worth the paper they’re (at least for now) printed on.

Its pride in the Liquor Control Commission overtime affair is justified. Mike Donoghue discovered an abuse of the system and aired it out. One result: the amazingly well-timed retirement of Commissioner Michael Hogan.

Great. Good work. But I find it awfully curious that while the Free Press has devoted lots and lots of space to the LCC, it has published exactly one story — count it, one — about Attorney General Bill Sorrell’s refusal to investigate himself for possible campaign finance violations.

And that one story was an Associated Press production. No staff time whatsoever, as far as I can tell.

The only explanation I can think of: the story originated in Seven Days. The Free Press can’t claim credit; it’d just be playing catch-up.

If that’s not enough to get your Spidey Sense tingling, how about the fact that the Free Press has published not a word about State Police Corporal Jon Graham’s Facebook posts? The story first broke Friday night on WCAX, and has been widely re-reported elsewhere. But not in the Free Press (or on FreePressMedia).

Stories like these are usually catnip for the Free Press: allegations of official misconduct, of a kind that’s sure to generate pageviews and controversy.

Sorrell is supposedly testifying before a Senate committee this afternoon. I expect the Free Press will be there, and will report on the story — because now, it’ll have a fresh hook to hang the story on, and won’t have to credit Paul Heintz for the scoop.

Maybe I’m being too harsh. But the Free Press’ track record informs my cynicism. And for the life of me, I can think of no other explanation for Our Former Newspaper Of Record almost completely ignoring two significant stories in state government.

The old boys’ network at Liquor Control

The Burlington Free Press’ Mike Donoghue has been doing what he always does — carpet-bombing government agencies with public records requests* — and his mighty labors have once again brought forth a mouse. Relative to other public-sector featherbedding scandals.

*I wonder how much he’s cost the taxpayers of Vermont with all his requests. Gee, somebody ought to file a public records request for that.

But it is an interesting mouse, I’ll give him that.

The story concerns an off-the-books arrangement between Liquor Control Commissioner Michael Hogan and LCC staffer WIlliam Goggins, whereby Goggins was promised at least ten hours per week of paid overtime “without having to provide any documentation.”

This arrangement went on for 14 1/2 years, and enriched Goggins to the tune of $162,857. That’s about 12K per year; not that many dollars, really.

But while the money isn’t huge, the process stinks to high heaven. It’s a fine example of the Old Boys’ Network, where unwritten deals between longtime colleagues can fly under the radar for years without any questions being raised. It’s not the Shumlin administration at fault; it’s the Vermont Way. This arrangement began when Howard Dean was governor, continued throughout the Douglas years, and came to an end by Jeb Spaulding’s order this January. And only then because the budget was so tight, the administration was looking everywhere for ways to save.

As Donoghue reports, the Hogan/Goggins deal was unusual for state employees of equivalent rank and responsibility: top administrators don’t usually qualify for overtime. They’re stuck with their salaries. (In Goggins’ case, $75K per year.)

Hogan and Goggins insist there was nothing untoward about their arrangement. I’ll acknowledge that Goggins may well have earned his pay, although since he didn’t have to keep records we’ll never know; but the nature of their deal raises a giant red flag. And yes, I’ve got some questions:

— How many other sub rosa deals are there in the back offices of state government?

— How many such deals might exist in bodies like the LCC, which is directly overseen by the Liquor Control Board, not the central administration?

— Are there any other irregular arrangements in the LCC specifically? Mr. Hogan’s occupied that chair for a long time, and he seems to enjoy a liberal interpretation of his administrative discretion.

— And finally, should we perhaps take a second look at Auditor Doug Hoffer’s examination of the LCC, which got nary a glance the first time around? If the Hogan/Goggins agreement is any indication, the commission might need a good air-clearing. Now would seem to be the time to ask more questions, instead of blithely accepting Hogan’s response to the Hoffer audit:

“There are some things in the report that we could do, and are doing,” Hogan said. “But time has proven [this system] works. I don’t think it’s a broken system.”

Perhaps Michael Hogan isn’t the best judge of whether Michael Hogan’s own administration is “a broken system.” Reminds me of Bill Sorrell blandly assuring us all that Bill Sorrell has done nothing wrong.

Well, at least the Free Press dumped its political reporters BEFORE the list came out

A big oopsie from the Montana province of the great Gannett Empire.

On Jan. 28, the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza released a (deeply flawed and incomplete) list of the “best political reporters” in each of the 50 states. One of the four Big Sky nominees was John Adams of Gannett’s Great Falls Tribune.

Unfortunately for the Trib, only two days after the list came out, Adams declined to go through the mandatory re-interviewing process for all Gannett journalists. He balked because his position — capital bureau chief — was being eliminated, and he didn’t want any of the jobs on offer.

After serious thought and consideration I opted not to apply for any of the positions. I have been very happy in my role as the capital bureau chief for the Great Falls Tribune and would have liked to have continued in that role, but I did not feel any of the available openings in the Tribune’s new “newsroom of the future” were a good fit for me.

Bad timing, Tribbies. By contrast, our local Gannett House O’ News ‘N’ Stuff, the Burlington Free Press, had the sense to jettison its two best political reporters (Terri Hallenbeck and Nancy Remsen) a couple months before Cillizza posted his list. The Freeploid still suffered the lesser embarrassment of having Cillizza name Mike Donoghue and April Burbank as two of Vermont’s top four state political reporters, when Donoghue’s beat is only partly political and Burbank had been on the beat for less than two months.

Well, it ought to be an embarrassment, but the Freeploid is actually proud of its reporters’ “achievement.” But then, it long ago established its reputation as Vermont’s Most Shameless Newspaper Media Organization. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if Cillizza’s source wasn’t someone inside the Free Press and/or Gannett; he depended heavily on reader nominations for states he wasn’t familiar with, and he clearly hasn’t a clue about Vermont. It’s hard to imagine an objective reader nominating Burbank (Donoghue maybe, just on seniority) for the honor. Nothing wrong with Burbank, she hasn’t been covering state politics long enough.


A little shameless, and ironic, self-promotion by the Freeploid

Okay, so the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza puts out a list of the best political reporters in each of the 50 states. He describes the list as a combination of reader recommendations and his own knowledge. It’s fair to assume that the farther away he gets from Washington, the more dependent he is on his readers.

Take Vermont, for instance. Cillizza’s list was sadly incomplete and, in two instances, ironically off-target.

He names four reporters. Paul Heintz of Seven Days; no problem there. Kyle Midura of WCAX; he does a fine job by TV standards.

The other two: Mike Donoghue and April Burbank of the Burlington Free Press.


Nothing against either of them; they’re perfectly cromulent reporters. However…

— Neither is primarily a political reporter. Both are on the Freeploid’s vaguely-named Accountability Team. The Free Press draws heavily on the Associated Press for its political coverage.

— It was only a couple months ago that the Free Press jettisoned its political reporters, Terri Hallenbeck and Nancy Remsen. Both would be better choices for Cillizza’s list than Donoghue and Burbank.

The thickly-laden irony isn’t stopping the Free Press from celebrating its dubious honor. Three Freeploid functionaries have Tweeted the big news; here’s one of them.

Nice, Aki. I’m sure your former colleagues are sharing a bitter laugh.

As for Cillizza, he clearly doesn’t know much about Vermont media. He completely ignores VTDigger and VPR, two of the three best outlets for state political news. The Digger diss isn’t surprising, since he named it the Best Political Blog in Vermont two years ago. Small problem there: VTDigger isn’t a blog. It’s a professionally staffed news operation.

Cillizza does acknowledge the possible incompleteness of his list, and he has added people to it since he first posted it. I’ve sent him an email with my suggestions, and perhaps he’ll include them.

My top three noms: Anne Galloway of VTDigger, Peter Hirschfeld of VPR, and Neal Goswami of the Vermont Press Bureau. If I expanded things a bit, I’d include Dave Gram of the AP, Stuart Ledbetter of WPTZ, Bob Kinzel of VPR, and Mark Johnson of WDEV. Mark doesn’t report as such, but his daily radio show is the best single platform for discussion of state politcs and policy.

On the subject of Vermont’s true Best Political Blog, modesty forbids me.

Mikey Pom-Poms is at it again

I can explain everything.

Nobody was Tweeting, officer. We were all in the back seat singing.

Last night saw another outbreak of TwitBoasting from serial offender Michael Townsend, the Burlington Free Press’ Cheerleader-In-Chief.

The first one wasn’t that bad:

Okay, fine, share a little love with one of your hard-working scribes. Nothing wrong there. But then came Step Two in Townsend’s descent.

Mike Donoghue was at the Statehouse yesterday, but I’m told he wasn’t covering Shumlin’s budget address; he was dogging people about this delinquent-taxpayer list. Short version: earlier this week, the state released a list of its top 100 tax scofflaws — 50 business, 50 individual. But just the names; not the amounts owed. Donoghue is seeking the amounts.

That’s the big scoop. On the day of Gov. Shumlin’s budget address, when he’s setting the agenda for this legislative session, the Free Press’ senior reporter is stirring up a tempest in a transparency teapot.

And then came Townsend’s topper:

Oh, Mikey.

Look, it’s perfectly okay to talk up your own reporters. But why do you have to run down everybody else?

As I’ve said before, this is why all the other reporters think Townsend is a jerk and the Free Press is a fount of institutional arrogance.

Also, please lose the fake cowboy stuff. Donoghue and Burbank are good reporters; they’re not The Magnificent Seven.

The current bee in Mike Donoghue’s bonnet

There was laughter in the room, I’ve been told, when the Burlington Free Press’ Mike Donoghue asked Gov. Shumlin about the possible removal of Rep. Mary Morrissey from a House committee.

HIs question came near the end of Shumlin’s Monday news conference. The laughter came from several other reporters, who saw Donoghue’s question as basically irrelevant, and just another example of his dogged pursuit of a story he’s decided is important. Sometimes he’s right, sometimes he’s wrong.

In this case, yep, he’s wrong.

Undeterred by the audible scorn of his colleagues, Donoghue wrote an article about Shumlin’s Monday presser — an event that produced actual news — that focused primarily on his prefabricated Morrissey “controversy.” Of all the stuff going on this week at the Statehouse, it’s a sad joke that Donoghue and his paper have devoted so much time to such an insignificant story. And provided so little coverage of anything else.

For those just joining us, Morrissey has been an unproductive policy scold as a member of the House Health Care Committee. Apparently, House Speaker Shap Smith is considering a reassignment. As is his right: the Speaker makes the committee assignments, and reshuffles are commonplace.

But Donoghue has fixed upon Morrissey as a champion of transparency because once, at a committee hearing, she asked a question:

… Morrissey questioned Health Access Commissioner Mark Larson [about security breaches in Vermont Health Connect] and was told, “We have no situation in which someone’s private information has been breached.”

The problem was there had been a serious breach of information. Larson later offered an apology to the Health Care Committee.

Her questioning was standard practice for any committee member. But because of Larson’s misleading answer, Donoghue is now crediting Morrissey for “helping expose a major security breach… in the Vermont Health Connect computer system.” If she played any role beyond asking her question, Donoghue does not so inform us.

He also takes some groundless shots at Morrissey’s critics (including me, I guess):

Morrissey been criticized for not buying into all the health care plans rolled out by Democrats.

Not quite, Mikey. It’s not that she failed to buy into “all the health care plans” from Democrats; I wouldn’t expect any Republican to do so. The truth is that she routinely slammed any Democratic plan. There was no thought, no discernment; just a consistent, unproductive, ideological gainsaying.

Only after Donoghue thoroughly explores the subject that prompted his colleagues’ laughter does he actually report the substance of Shumlin’s news conference: a new survey has found a sharp drop in uninsured Vermonters.

The Vermont Household Health Insurance Survey found that about 19,000 of the 43,000 Vermonters without insurance during the 2012 survey now are covered, Shumlin said.

The state’s uninsured rate dropped from 6.8 percent to 3.7 percent, the second-lowest rate in the country. Only 1 percent of Vermont children under age 18 are not covered, the lowest rate in the country, Shumlin said.

Those are some very encouraging figures about the first year of health care reform. But somehow Donoghue concluded that this development was less newsworthy than the routine reassignment of a legislative backbencher. But he has already elevated her to the lofty position of Public Interest Whistleblower, which she is not. I fully expect more breathless Morrissey coverage when the committee assignments actually come out.

Because boom or bust, Mike Donoghue sticks to his guns.

Freeploid clickbait FAIL

The Burlington Free Press is allegedly entering the Brave New World of Journalism’s Future: an age with resource-starved newsrooms, reporters scrambling to fill multiple “content streams,” Orwellian job titles like “Content Coach” and “Engagement Editor,” little or no copy editing, and a fixation on “audience analytics,” i.e. clickbait. Stories will be pursued, written, and even rewritten in response to the perceived interests of the audience. And note: we’re not readers anymore. We’re “news consumers” or something.

But if this is indeed the future of the Freeploid, it’s off to a rocky start. Yesterday, we learned the identity of Ebola Guy, the Vermonter who spent most of October in West Africa on a solo mission to fight Ebola.

It’s a big damn sexy story that pushes all the right buttons. It’s got important public policy implications: How did this guy get to Africa and back? How was his return handled by local, state, and federal authorities? What does it say about our Ebola containment efforts?

At the same time, it’s an eyeball grabber. Peter Italia is a full-on nutball who has claimed to use time travel and other “special powers” to cure disease and bring back people from the dead. His Facebook page is chock full of juicy stuff, chronicling his trip to Africa and detailing many of his cherished beliefs.

Also, I’ve heard that there are more dimensions to the story yet to come out — some on the serious policy questions, some in the “WTF” hot zone of audience curiosity.

The Freeploid’s Mike Donoghue managed to get quite a bit of detail yesterday and posted a story online last night.

But did they feature it on the website?

No. The primary slot on the homepage was about a high school soccer game.

Today’s print edition banishes Donoghue’s story to page 3; the front page has a run-of-the-mill piece on Vermont officials preparing to deal with Ebola cases.

And this morning, even after a solid 12 hours of “audience analytics,” the homepage STILL doesn’t feature Italia:

Screen Shot 2014-10-30 at 11.30.31 AM

All I can say is, c’mon, Freeploid. If you’re going to burn your journalistic soul on the altar of “audience analytics,” you could at least do a good job of it.

Postscript. The Freeploid pulls an old favorite trick in Donoghue’s piece: doggedly refusing to give credit to other media outlets. You wouldn’t know it by reading Donoghue, but it was WCAX-TV who first identified Italia and scored a phone interview with him. I’ve said it before, but this is the kind of thing that makes the Free Press disliked by many others in the media world. It’s arrogant, it’s wrong, and in the long run it does nothing to elevate the Freeploid or diminish its rivals.