Boy oh boy, us bloggers and Tweeters must have really gotten under Michael Townsend’s skin. Because normally, he and the other denizens of the Burlington Free Press like to pretend that no other news outlets actually exist. Except when another outlet screws up.
I can explain everything.
But today, the Freeploid’s Executive Editor and Chief Gannett Cheerleader sent out a burst of self-pitying defensiveness under the title “Editor explains changes at FreePressMedia.”
Which is a first in itself: Townsend feeling the need to explain things. Collars a bit tight? Knickers in a twist? Not enough oxygen in the Freeploid’s seventh-floor digs?
The first thing I need to do is correct misinformation swirling around on social media as we go through a significant staff reorganization.
Oh, those nasty evil denizens of Social Media!
Hey wait, isn’t the Freeploid — er, sorry, FreePressMedia — in the midst of a headlong dive into social media-driven journalismism? I guess “social media” is a good thing except when it rises up to bite you in the ass.
He then denies “rumors and speculation that we are abandoning coverage in Montpelier.”
I don’t think anybody said you were, Mike. We just pointed out that you were shuttering your Statehouse bureau and lost your two Statehouse reporters when you told them they wouldn’t be covering the Statehouse anymore. See the difference?
I’m sure you will continue to cover the Statehouse. You’ll send a crew down from Burlington whenever you think there’s a sufficiently clickbaity story. But I’m equally sure you won’t have anyone there on a daily basis, and that will affect the quantity and quality of your coverage.
And this is an undeniable fact: the Burlington Free Press has de-emphasized Statehouse news over the past couple of years at least, concentrating more of its resources on its home base of Chittenden County. I’ve been expecting the departure of Terri Hallenbeck and/or Nancy Remsen for quite a while, because it’s obvious that the Free Press is publishing a lot less Statehouse news than it used to.
The Burlington Free Press used to be the number-one source for state political and policy news. It isn’t anymore, and it’s about to get significantly worse.
As Townsend says himself in his little counterattack, Statehouse coverage will come from an “accountability/watchdog” team whose responsiblities will be at “the regional and state levels.” They’ll have a lot of ground to cover, and only part of their effort will go to state-level news.
Indeed, considering the Freeploid’s stated focus on arts, culture and food, and its lack of dedicated Statehouse/political reporters, you could say that its new nickname ought to be “Seven Days Lite.” After all, Seven Days still has a full-time reporter on state politics and policy.
For those keeping score, that’s Plucky Weekly 1, Established Daily 0.
And meanwhile, the Freeploid’s Chief Content Whore — er, I mean, “business reporter” — Dan D’Ambrosio is spending his day reporting on the grand opening of the LL Bean store in Burlington. Five days after my Sunday Freeploid came wrapped in a plastic advertisement for the grand opening of the LL Bean store in Burlington.
Plastic: an ironic medium for a retailer with a green, outdoorsy image.
(Come to think of it, the plastic Bean Bag was an unsightly, almost illegible washed-out gray-and-white. Bean really got its money’s worth there.)
I guess I’m supposed to think the wall-to-wall coverage of a major advertiser is a coincidence. And continue to think so when I get my morning paper tomorrow and find a big fat article on the grand opening of the LL Bean Store in Burlington on the front page.
Much of Townsend’s column is devoted to explaining the changing media environment and the need of newspapers — sorry, media companies — to evolve. I sympathize. I get it. I don’t expect the status quo.
What irks me, though, and makes me critical of the Free Press in a way that I’m not of, say, the equally diminished Times Argus, is the following:
— A big part of the Free Press’ financial trouble arises from the fact that its profits are siphoned off to satiate Gannett investors.
— As I’ve said before, “With great power comes great responsibility.” The Free Press continues to occupy a dominant position in Vermont’s media landscape. As long as it does, there’s a lot less space for other sources to emerge and grow.
— The inhumane process that Free Press workers had to go through. Re-interviewing for their own jobs. Jobs “offered purely based on numerical ratings,” as Townsend himself put it.
In the words of Number Six, “I am not a number — I am a free man!”
— And, worst of all, the clickbait-driven approach to journalism, which extends so far as to require staff to rewrite stories after they’re published to goose the pageviews.
I can tell how much the criticism has gotten to Townsend, because he actually went so far as to name the reporters who’ve departed the Free Press. This is never, ever done in the media: you don’t want to give your audience any reason to miss the people who have gone.
But there, in print, are shout-outs to Sam Hemingway, Terri Hallenbeck and Nancy Remsen.
(He didn’t mention Lynn Monty, who refused to go through the “demeaning and degrading” process of re-interviewing, or Tim Johnson, who simply failed to post a high enough number.)
I can’t really blame Michael Townsend. Part of his job is to take Gannett’s chicken shit and convince us it’s chicken salad. But he is fair game for criticism, and his response fundamentally mischaracterizes the criticism.