Tag Archives: Shay Totten

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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Shumlin amps up the rhetoric

This is the kind of thing that inspires Harlan Sylvester conspiracy theories.

The narrative goes like this: Sometime back in 2009, Peter Shumlin tells “the most powerful man in Vermont politics” (h/t Shay Totten) he’ll keep a lid on taxes if Harlan paves his path to the corner office.

I can tell you lies, you can't get enough.

I can tell you lies, you can’t get enough.

It’s one explanation for the volume and desperation of Shumlin’s anti-tax rhetoric — aimed, need I remind you, at fellow Democrats.

Yesterday, the Governor slammed a House-passed plan to cap itemized deductions. And to put it plainly, he lied about it.

Ell. Eye. Eee. Dee. Lied.

“Removing charitable deductions, the ability of Vermonters to deduct home interest from their mortgages, which promotes home buying, and removing the health care deduction when you’ve had catastrophic health care costs is a big mistake,” Shumlin says.

Now, that’s bullshit. Ain’t nobody “removing” nothing, and the Governor knows it.

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Mikey Pom-Poms does the Big Balls Dance*

*See demo here. 

Mike Townsend, Burlington Free Press Executive Editor and Gannett Cheerleader-in-Chief, is feeling a little braggy today. He’s repeatedly taken to Twitter to praise the work of his own staffers, throw shade on other media.

A bit of overcompensation, perhaps, for all the criticism that’s come his way since the departures of the Freeploid’s two Statehouse reporters plus at least three other reporters in recent weeks.

Are staffers expected to accept fulsome praise in compensation for persistent job insecurity and ever-tougher productivity demands? Maybe so, because Townsend was also quick to lavish Tweetpraise on reporter April Burbank, who pulled the hard duty of Burlington School Board coverage.

Mikey follows that up with another Tweetbumpf, at which point old buddy Shay Totten chimes in.

Screen Shot 2014-11-11 at 8.00.54 PM

And then, a bit later, a bizarre and condescending slap at competitors unnamed:

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I can’t explain that last one. Maybe Townsend had a mild stroke?

In all my years in media, I can’t say I’ve ever seen a case of Bunched Knickers Syndrome as bad as the one that’s circulating around the Free Press newsroom. This outburst of braggadocio is unbecoming the chief of a reputable news operation. Here’s a hint, Mike: let your work speak for itself.

Also, despite this outbreak of Big Balls Dance, the diminution of the Free Press is already obvious. Since Terri Hallenbeck and Nancy Remsen left, the Free Press’ coverage of the ongoing state election mess has largely depended on the Associated Press. Hardly any original coverage at all.

And really, it’s perfectly understandable: your resources are dwindling, so why not deploy them in your core market — Chittenden County? Just don’t expect us to notice that Statehouse coverage has already fallen largely off the map as a day-to-day matter.

Big Balls Tweets may impress the suits at Gannett. It doesn’t impress those of us who see the product every day.

Profiles in Courage, Lieutenant Governor Edition

Fresh in from the Twitterverse:

Hmm.

To make this even worse, the debate is in Barre. Not like he had a long way to go. In the words of fellow Tweeter Shay Totten, “I always thought Phil was a fast driver.”

I guess he can drive slow when given the proper motivation. LIke a capable challenger waiting to engage him on the issues.