Tag Archives: Peter Freyne

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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TJ, We Hardly Knew Ye

Return with me now to the halcyon days of 2012, when Peter Shumlin was still popular and a fresh-faced young prosecutor from up Burlington way took on the seemingly impossible task of challenging Vermont’s Eternal General Bill Sorrell in the Democratic primary. Sorrell had held the office of attorney general since 1997 and had been repeatedly re-elected, as is our general custom with statewide officeholders other than governor. Many believed that by 2012, ol’ Billy was long past his sell-by date. Others thought he wasn’t particularly qualified in the first place, but those people are obvious malcontents. (Like, for instance, the late Peter Freyne.)

Ultimately, thanks to a last-ditch infusion of cash on Sorrell’s behalf from the Democratic Attorneys General Association, TJ Donovan’s bid to unseat the incumbent came up just a little bit short. Sorrell won the primary by a puny 714 votes out of more than 41,000 cast.

But Donovan was widely hailed for his chutzpah and, more to the point, for very nearly pulling it off.

So let me ask you this. Whatever happened to that brave, headstrong young man with a limitless political future?

I mean, there’s A Guy named TJ Donovan around. In fact, he became AG in the 2016 election, after Sorrell retired. He looks a lot like the ambitious young pol of 2012, but as time goes by, he’s acting more and more like his predecessor.

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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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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.

 

 

Change of address

 

 

On a hill under a raven sky
I have no idea exactly what I’ve drawn
Some kind of change, some kind of spinning away
With every single line moving further out in time

— Brian Eno, “Spinning Away”

It’s been a hell of a ride.

I started blogging almost exactly five years ago, out of a kind of professional desperation. There’d been some dead ends, a seeming lack of opportunity in the ever-shrinking media landscape. So, on the invitation of John Odum, I joined the gang at Green Mountain Daily and started blogging about Vermont politics.

And I loved it. I loved using my brain and my experience to reflect on the political scene. I loved playing with language and form. So I just kinda kept on doing it, slowly building a reputation and an audience.

In the summer of 2014 I went solo, launching this blog out of a feeling that I was too dominant a voice at GMD. Too much of me, not enough of the variety of viewpoints that the blog was designed to provide.

And I wanted to captain my own ship.

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Movin’ on up

Got some news — about myself, this time.

In early December, I’ll be joining the staff of Seven Days as political columnist. I’ll be writing Web content for the first month; after the New Year, I’ll take on “Fair Game,” the paper’s weekly political column.

Rest assured, I did not depose Paul Heintz in a palace coup. In fact, they approached me, because Paul wants to be a full-time editor and reporter. (He’ll tell you more himself in this week’s column.) In fact, my hiring is one of several additions to the news staff at Seven Days. They’re building quite an operation, and I’m glad to be part of it. Check out Paul’s column online or in today’s print edition for more.

The bad news: once I join the 7D staff I won’t be writing The Vermont Political Observer anymore. They want my full energy and attention. Plus, it’d be weird to do political commentary in two places at once.

And they want me to do pretty much what I do now. They appreciate my voice and my writing skill.

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Phil Scott finds his beau ideal

Huh boy.

Vermont’s Prince In Waiting, Phil Scott, has revealed his choice for President. And it nicely encapsulates my cynical vision of his prospective governorship. VTDigger’s Mark Johnson:

Scott, who declared he would not vote for Trump, revealed later Thursday he has decided to write in former Republican Gov. Jim Douglas as his presidential choice in the November election.

“He’d make a great president,” Scott said about the four-term governor.

Ah. Jim Douglas. How… predictable.

Men of good will may disagree about the qualities of the former four-term governor. But it takes an awfully limited definition of greatness to see him as potentially a “great president.”

If you disagree, please tell me: Jim Douglas was governor for eight years. What is his legacy? His signature accomplishments? Where did he leave his stamp?

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