BURLINGTON, VT — As Vermont’s largest daily, the Burlington Free Press, assembles its version of Gannett’s “newsroom of the future,” its top editor vows that it will keep covering state government.
That means the paper will be fighting for news on an increasingly competitive beat—and even going up against its own former staff. The Free Press recently lost two of the state’s most established political reporters to a rival news organization.
After a series of changes in recent years, the paper embarked on a new round in the fall, redefining job responsibilities, shedding a few positions, and requiring staff to reapply for roles as part of a broader shakeup throughout the Gannett chain.
The internal reshuffling became a story of statewide interest on Election Day, when the paper’s two longtime political reporters announced on Facebook that they were leaving the Free Press altogether. One of the reporters, Terri Hallenbeck, confirmed in an interview that she left because she was offered a countywide reporting job, covering local government in towns and cities around Burlington.
Hallenbeck wasn’t out of work for long, though. Within a month, she had accepted a job covering state government and politics for Seven Days, a Burlington-based alt-weekly. Her first byline appeared over the holidays—a scoop about the campaign in the legislature to choose the next governor, after no candidate won a majority in the election.
“I didn’t script it, but it’s all worked out pretty well,” she said of her new job. “We announced our departure on Election Day on Facebook, and the response was tremendous. It felt like the whole state was outraged.”
Hallenbeck’s former colleague in the Free Press statehouse bureau, Nancy Remsen, has also joined Seven Days; she’ll cover healthcare in a part-time role while also working part-time for a local TV station. At least three other Free Press journalists have retired or been laid off amid the paper’s transition.
The departures prompted questions in media circles here about the Free Press’ future coverage plans. In a recent interview, Michael Townsend, the paper’s executive editor, said that while the approach will change, there were “no plans not to cover the statehouse.”
The paper will have a team of three “accountability reporters” who cover state-level government, Townsend said. The beat will be handled “differently from how we have in the past,” he said, as the paper refocuses on providing “unique” coverage. He described the moves more broadly as a business necessity to help deliver what customers want to read.
Because the state legislature is in session only about four months of the year, Townsend said, he did not want to assign a reporting team to statehouse politics year-round. He is waiting for the right time to announce the team of “accountability reporters,” he said.
The changes are part of a shift to a more metrics-aware, audience-targeted approach in Gannett newsrooms. (The mission statement on a company blog reads: “Radically rebuild culture, products and processes to create customer-centric teams that will grow audience and revenue.”) But that won’t necessarily mean shorter stories, Townsend said.
“I know a lot of people talk about it as ‘click bait’ and everything else,” he said. “Longer stories do better online. They’re getting a lot more time spent than you will see in the short story. …We’re looking to probe areas that people really aren’t going to probe into.”
Notably, one of the people expressing concern about “click bait” was Hallenbeck, who wrote in her Facebook post that the paper’s changes were about “pursuing the most popular stories as measured by website clicks”—a category that did not include much of her work as a statehouse and politics reporter.
Now at Seven Days, she’ll stay on the statehouse beat, and her arrival marks an expansion of the alt-weekly’s state politics coverage. A staff writer already at the publication, Paul Heintz, has been named political editor.
“As the media landscape continues to shift, we’re seeing opportunities where we can step up, increase our coverage and continue to provide something different from everyone else,” Paula Routly, the publisher, said in a statement. “Our readers want to know what’s happening in Montpelier.”
State politics is also covered by VTDigger.org, a Montpelier-based non-profit launched in 2010 that operates out of an office just down the street from the statehouse. That site has grown into a respected investigative journalism source and “is filling a niche that a lot of people thought had been lost,” said Traci Griffith, chair of the Media Studies and Digital Arts Department at Saint Michael’s College.
“Non-traditional sources are still growing,” Griffith said. “The Free Press is the one daily, the one major corporate entity, but… there’s still a lot of local news sources.”
If all those various news sources can make their business models work, the statehouse beat may stay competitive for years to come—which would be a good thing for readers.
“The more outlets that cover something, the better,” said Michael Donoghue, executive director of the Vermont Press Association, who is also a longtime reporter for the Free Press. “You get multiple reports on the same topic, and something may strike someone’s fancy that doesn’t strike another reporter’s fancy. The more voices the better.”
Of course, all those different sources and voices need to build audiences of their own. Hallenbeck worked at daily papers for nearly three decades before moving to an alternative publication; she’s hopeful readers will do the same.
“I think readers will have to adapt to, maybe we’ll find it on VTDigger, or maybe we’ll find it on Seven Days,” Hallenbeck said. “Maybe before they thought Seven Days was only for entertainment, and now they can find it there. … At least, I hope readers are realizing that.”
This story has been updated to provide more complete identification for Michael Donoghue.