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Essay: Last Word


  • Courtesy of JAMES FROST

In the barely relevant world of newspaper reporters, I win the prize for Most Naïve.

I was stunned, shocked, dumbfounded, blown away (and crushed) when the Burlington Free Press — a Gannett-owned newspaper — laid me off after 25 years at the paper.

In that time, I never read the business pages. I didn't check stock prices or pay attention to media mergers. I laughed when spin-off companies with names like Tegna and Tronc were formed.

I liked talking to people and writing stories. This little duet has infinite variations, and I played them from the football field at Burlington High School to the back roads of the Northeast Kingdom.

I was traveling on one of those roads when an email from the Gannett CEO popped up on my iPhone. I read words like "unified," "honesty" and "transparency" in Bob Dickey's opening lines — then deleted the message. Nothing interesting here, I told the photographer on assignment with me.

It was late October, and we were heading to a rum distillery in a high field outside St. Johnsbury. The route itself leads to a treasure trove of stories — past the homes of artists, farmers, poets and bakers.

We drove through a town whose defunct restaurant, River Run, was known for its catfish and blueberry pancakes. The stories out of River Run were as reliably appetizing as the food.

We glimpsed in the hills the homestead we reported on last year, arriving one day at the break of dawn for a story about a city girl making a "life in the stix."

But today was craft distillery day. At Dunc's Mill, we talked to its founder — an anthropologist who conjured a second career in spirits — and tasted his rum.

On the way back to Burlington, we stopped at a café in Marshfield for a "quick hit."  Our table at Rainbow Sweets held spanakopita and Belgian beer. I put my reporter's notebook on the windowsill, in easy reach to jot down the proprietor's wisecracks. Driving to the Free Press, I thought about my lede.

In the newsroom I learned the full contents of the corporate email, the one I deleted on the road: Layoffs coming in the morning. I had two stories to write; surely no one would bust up that endeavor.

That night, another email arrived. This one instructed me to attend a meeting at 10 the next morning.

Reporters get hunches, and I had a strong one. For the first time in my life, I wrote a news brief about myself. If the ax came down, I'd have a coherent thought stashed away.

"It was a good run: 25 years covering Vermont," I wrote. "Thanks to everyone for talking with me for stories and reading my stuff."

At 10 a.m. on October 25, two days before my 58th birthday, an HR flunky in from out of town told me my position had been eliminated. "What is my position?" I asked her. She checked her paperwork and answered in corporate-speak.

"Oh," I said. "I thought I was a reporter."

When I got home, I called my daughter, a college freshman, to tell her the news. Then I posted my layoff announcement, as written the night before, on Facebook and received an avalanche of responses from readers. Where have all the stories gone?, they wondered.

Ten days after the layoff, I got a text from a friend: "Gannett stock down 30 percent from October 25."

"Glad I could help," I wrote back.