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My visit to the Burlington Free-Press

August 12, 2008

I give our local paper, The Burlington Free-Press, a pretty hard time when I talk to my students. It’s nothing personal. My mom tells me I was giving hard-core critiques of my hometown paper in second grade, and today I could tell you a thing or three that The New York Times should work on. I’m a journalist. If journalists aren’t complaining about the state of media today, then we’re not really paying attention. This goes double for journalism professors and media advisers, who teach this stuff and, to be fair, have a lot more time on their hands than the average reporter hustling for a story.

But here’s the surprise for me: the Free-Press’s newsroom impressed me. Really impressed me. I dropped by today to visit The Vermont Cynic‘s first-as-far-as-I-know intern at the Free Press, and I spent most of my visit with Patrick Garrity, the metro editor who has recently taken on the title of “associate editor for local content & public service”: a title that gives you just a hint of the of the massive amount of work this energetic Vermont native grinds through in his 12-hour workdays. Like most newspaper enterprises, the Free-Press, which is owned by my former employer, Gannett, is scaling back parts of its operation: in this case, management. The managing editor position—typically the number two editor in the newsroom—has been vacant since 2006, and it’s likely not coming back. Nor is the one-time assistant managing editor position. This means the workload is falling on the likes of Garrity and his boss, Executive Editor Michael Townsend. These editors and the rest of the talented staff—always overworked, always underpaid, as is the norm in journalism—is doing more with less. (“Doing more with less” has been a trend in print journalism for a bit too long—double-digit workdays are one of the reasons I left the profession—but what’s an industry to do when competing with TV, radio, blogs, Twitter and all that comes it? (For an enlightening and slightly scary look at the potential future of news, check out the blog post, “Is Twitter the newsroom of the future?” posted today by the NextNewsroom project.))

Garrity and his staff are meeting deadlines that previous generations of print journalists would have considered insane. Garrity tells me that, in addition to looking for well-researched projects from his staff, he’s also looking for five-paragraph summaries—as many times a day as possible, please—to post online as the news breaks. If you have photos and video, even better. The night editor leaves at 1 or 2 a.m., preparing posts for the Web site as he checks out, and the online editor comes in at 6 a.m., getting things going afresh. The print newsroom is, perhaps for the first time, a 24/7 operation. This is part of the Gannett strategy to stay relevant, viable. It’s also something, Garrity says, that most of his reporters—especially the old-timers, who remember the excitement of earning a scoop over the competition—then print, now multimedia—freaking LOVE.

My student, Free-Press intern Connor Boals, Fall 2008 managing editor of The Cynic, took part in producing a news package that shows just what today’s journalists are expected to do. Reporting, writing, editing, photography and video are all part of the package. This is what Gannett says is the future of journalism. And I believe in the future.

Is this a lot of work (at little pay)? Yes.

Is it necessary? Of course it is.

In my own journalism school days at the University of Kansas, some 20 years go, we made t-shirts that listed the top 10 reasons for getting a degree in journalism. Reason Number 4: I want to get in on the ground floor of a dying business.

Newspapers are trying, with all their might and more than a bit of confusion, to stay relevant. And they must. Are we ready to trust our news-gathering to bloggers who can’t discern personal bias and opinion from fact? I hope not. Journalists—those who train in objectivity and, I hope, a level of journalistic perfectionism that causes them to scour the copy for the out-of-place comma, the misspelled word and the hard-to-catch statement of libel—must stay vigilant. They must adapt. And they must prevail.

The future of objectivity—the future of fact—is at risk.

I’m praying that the Burlington Free-Press and every paper like it—better, worse or equal—figures out how to move forward. Publisher Brad Robertson seems to know what he’s doing. He has ideas-a-plenty, some of which might work, some of which might fail. But he’s someone who knows that the future of journalism requires changes and adaptation—and he’s doing it. With gusto.

After meeting with Mr. Robertson, I began thinking that University of Vermont journalism internships should not be limited to my print students. TV and radio journalists should get involved as well. Viva la convergence!

We’re moving boldly into the future. As a resident of Burlington, Vt., I’m ecstatic that my hometown paper is leading the charge.

This will not, of course, prevent me from ragging on them when they deserve it.

Please keep posted!

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