Updated: Higher Ed Reporter Responds to Free Press Layoff | Off Message

Updated: Higher Ed Reporter Responds to Free Press Layoff


Tim Johnson covered a protest against sexual assault held at the University of Vermont in Thursday's Free Press. - SCREENSHOT OF BURLINGTON FREE PRESS
  • Screenshot of Burlington Free Press
  • Tim Johnson covered a protest against sexual assault held at the University of Vermont in Thursday's Free Press.
An earlier version of this story was originally published October 30, at 11:57 p.m.

After 16 years at the Burlington Free Press, reporter Tim Johnson was summoned to the paper’s vacant publisher’s office Thursday morning by executive editor Mike Townsend.

“He said, ‘I’ve got some bad news for you,’” Johnson recalls. “Essentially, he said I was being let go and that Thursday was going to be my last day of work.”

Johnson, 67, has spent most of his life in journalism. He got his start at a paper in Beverly, Mass., and served tours of duty at the Kansas City Star and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Johnson came to the Freeps in 1998, editing the “Towns” section and then features before he was named higher education reporter in 2006.

Despite that experience, Johnson — like most of his colleagues — learned nearly a month ago that he would have to reapply for a new job at the paper. As the Free Press reduced its editorial staff from 28 to 24, reporters and editors would be graded based upon their compliance with and understanding of Picasso — owner Gannett Company, Inc.’s new digital news guidelines.

“Townsend said it was all numerical. I gave them clips, but I don’t know if they even looked at them,” Johnson says. “I asked, ‘Is this happening because of my performance or productivity?’ And he said, ‘No, it’s Picasso.’ So I inferred that my grasp of Picasso was not sufficient for their taste.”

According to a micro-blog created by the Gannett team responsible for Picasso, its guidelines are meant to “bring our journalists closer to our customers, anticipating their needs more scientifically and focusing on relentlessly solving their problems.”

Its four “pillars” include: focusing coverage on “a more tightly defined set of local passions” in which readers are interested; using click-tracking programs such as Omniture and Chartbeat to “serve readers’ needs as efficiently and effectively as possible”; becoming “community connectors” and marketing the product to readers.

“For someone who’s been in the business for a while, this was absolutely different,” Johnson says of the Picasso framework. “When I started, nobody dreamed of these sort of things.” Though the concept of marketing his own work and shaping it around web traffic was “foreign” to the veteran journo, Johnson says, “I felt that as long as I wasn’t compromising my ethics, OK, I’ll do it.”

The Free Press isn’t just shrinking its editorial staff and refocusing on the web. It’s also radically rejiggering its traditional reporting assignments, according to Johnson and several other sources close to the situation.

“There’s not going to be a city hall beat. There’s not going to be a Statehouse beat. There’s not going to be an education beat,” Johnson says.

Rather, according to a document obtained three weeks ago by Seven Days, there will be a three-member “watchdog team,” a four-member “Chittenden team” and a team of “passion topics” specialists who will focus on food, the environment, the creative economy and other Free Press specialties. Those new assignments were doled out Thursday, sources say, though details of the reshuffling remain scarce.

According to Johnson, each of the teams will decide where exactly to focus their coverage.

“Presumably, what’s figured out will have something to do with what gets hits on the site — and that’s something I’m not entirely comfortable with,” he says. “The stories that get lots of hits tend to be sex and crime and sleaze. Analysis, thoughtful stuff once in a while catches on, but overall that’s not what gets a lot of hits.”

Given the importance of higher education to the Free Press’ readership area — Chittenden County plays host to several colleges and universities — Johnson wonders whether it’s wise to do away with his beat.

“I tried to make a point in the interviews: There’s an audience up there. Four thousand people work up at [the University of Vermont],” he says. “If you do a story saying a new provost is coming in, you get a lot of hits.”

While Townsend claimed in a note to readers last month that the Free Press overhaul was designed to foster a deeper connection to readers, national reports have suggested that it’s part of a companywide effort by Gannett to cut costs at its 81 regional dailies.

If that’s the case, could Johnson have been targeted for elimination because, as a veteran reporter, he draws a higher salary than others?

“I have to be kind of careful. I’m a reporter and I’m a skeptical person. Let’s just say I’m skeptical [Picasso metrics are] all there was to it,” he says.

In his job interviews with Free Press associate editor Adam Silverman and two Gannett higher-ups, Johnson recalls, “I said I want to be upfront about my age. I’m 67 years old. I want to keep working. I don’t want to retire. I think I can work another five years, another 10 years, and I think I’m getting better at what I do.”

Instead, Johnson says, Gannett will supplement his unemployment insurance compensation for 16 weeks, providing him a week’s salary for every year he worked at the company.

According to sources, Johnson’s position is the last of four to be eliminated in this round of cutbacks, though it’s possible other reporters, unhappy with their new assignments, will leave voluntarily.

Recent departures include photographer Emily McManamy, who left in July for a job at SunCommon, and Lynn Monty, who was laid off two weeks ago after refusing to interview for a position. Veteran reporter Sam Hemingway announced his retirement on the day Free Press reporters learned they would have to reapply for new jobs.

The paper has lost several other experienced reporters in the last year and a half to retirements, layoffs and other jobs — including Candace Page, John Briggs, Matt Sutkoski and Matt Ryan.

Townsend did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Email paul@sevendaysvt.com or call (802) 598-8946 with more information about the Free Press’ restructuring. We’ll keep your identity confidential.