Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Death Of A Vermont Newspaper

The other day, I wrote about how Gannett, the media giant with newspapers all over the nation, was really screwing with its employees and the reading public.

They're making veteran reporters reapply for their jobs, and using a metric that appears to determine that if reporters' material is good "click bait," then they're good. If the reporter writes great, groundbreaking stories, but people don't immediately click their "Likes" on Facebook or whatever in response,  then it's worthless.

My previous piece noted that the Burlington (Vt) Free Press is one of these Gannett papers, and they jettisoned me more than a year ago. (Which turned out to be a big favor to me, which is another story.)

However, I have to write again, because the news out of Vermont's Burlington Free Press has somehow managed to get worse. Much worse.

I'm learning today that two more veteran reporters, Terri Hallenbeck and Nancy Remsen, are sadly fleeing the paper.

As I noted, under a metric Gannett is using, successful reporters, in Gannett corporate's mind, have a lot of Web hits with their stories.

Writers whose stories don't get a lot of Web hits are suspect, at least in the crude eyes of Gannett.

Both Hallenbeck and Remsen are, or at least were, the Statehouse reporters for the Free Press. Generally, politics is followed with a lot of interest, but it's not usually the kind of thing that sends people to their 'Like" buttons on Facebook or inspires them to spout off on Twitter.  Unless a politician does something particularly abrupt and shocking.

Likewise, Tim Johnson, a veteran Free Press reporter, was not rehired when he reapplied for his job. 

Johnson covered higher education for the Free Press.  Higher education is important, especially around Burlington, where the University of Vermont, Champlain College and St. Michael's College have huge influence on just about everything.

But again, higher education isn't like cute cat videos. People don't really light up the Internet over higher education reporting unless there's something shocking. But people do follow it, because it's so important.  However, readers just generally digest Johnson's reporting, understand it, and act accordingly without screaming about it on Twitter.

But I guess to Gannett, "reader engagement" is more important than delivering the news. Engagement is important.  However, by "reader engagement," I suspect they want instant, blind responses, not thoughtful consideration of the news.

Hallenbeck eloquently talks about this on her Facebook page:

"Some of you may have heard that the Free Press and all Gannett newspapers rewrote all the newsroom job descriptions and required employees to apply for new jobs, which focus on pursuing the most popular stories as measured by website clicks. That no longer seems to include many of the stories I've had the pleasure of covering the last 10 years as a Statehouse/political reporter at the Free Press.

It breaks my journalistic heart, but I can no longer pretend it's not happening."

Hallenbeck goes on:

"The Internet has not only turned news stories into click bait, it has led people to believe they can obtain the news free of charge. If we believe that, we will get the world we are asking for - one that is less well-informed, less open to hearing new ideas from new angles."

Amen, sister!

It does cost money to really, truly find and report the news professionally and accurately. Who wants to work for free? You gotta pay somebody. And we, as news consumers, get what we pay for. Want "content" free of charge? Well Gannett's got it for you. (Although even they have pay walls, however ineffective they are. )

Getting back to click bait, is that really the best way to gauge the importance of any particular news story?

People, including me, react immediately on social media to the odd, the funny and the bizarre more often and easily than they do the news. But that doesn't mean people like me don't read and follow the news and think it's important. And I often base my decisions upon what I read from serious news sources.

Look, any publication, including the Burlington Free Press, can't be boring. There's room for light fluff amid the serious journalism. We can't eat just broccoli. It's nice to have a piece of candy thrown in every now and then.

But newspapers still ought to be home to serious, informative news. Um, that's why they're called newspapers, right?

Journalism must have writers that engage you, draw you into their articles, write well, and provide their own quirky, professional, funny and intelligent perspectives on the news.

Hallenbeck, Remsen and Johnson all did those things supremely well.  Maybe the problem with this trio of journalists is they are super smart, super experienced reporters with a lot of institutional knowledge who can go in depth and really make us understand what's going on.

We can't have that, can we? God forbid any of us read anything other than superficial, superfluous fluff news.

Gannett seems to be all about immediate gratification. I alluded to that in the original essay from the other day, when I accused them of thinking just financial quarter to financial quarter, and not long term.

So cat videos and listicles it is, then.

Luckily, Vermont has other sources that are at least partly filling the void left by boneheaded corporate newspaper management.

So, on to Seven Days, VT Digger, Vermont Public Radio and other good sources of news if I want to see what's really going on in Vermont.

1 comment:

  1. Right on, Matt. Things are much worse at the Freep than I thought. hose boneheads at Gannett don't understand that while ads pay the bills, experienced reporters, those with "institutional memory," (know their community and their beats) are really what sell papers. I am afraid the end of the Freep is not far off. How sad.