Paul Heintz’ move from Seven Days to VTDigger was somewhere north of surprising and a little south of shocking. Heintz had been at 7D for quite a while. He was one of 13 staffers granted a 1% ownership share last January, presumably a reward for loyalty and an incentive to stay put. And although he’d stepped down from an editorial position last year, he retained a measure of influence beyond his station.
Now, he’s definitely getting a promotion. At Digger, Heintz will be managing editor overseeing a staff of roughly 20. (As 7D’s political editor, he supervised only three.) Nonetheless, it’s a move from an organization he knows backwards and forwards to an unfamiliar place that’s going through a difficult transition.
I can’t speak to his motivation. I worked for the guy for two years and we never really got along, so I don’t know him very well. But here’s what it means from my perspective, which is informed by experience working in both shops. And biased by that experience as well. Take it all with a grain of salt.
Moving from reporter to editor is a customary career path in journalism. Most people get out of the trenches sooner or later, and either move to management or out of the profession. (Montpelier is up to its neck in former journalists turned communications staff, a much more lucrative profession.) He may have hit a glass ceiling at 7D, having once been an editor and then returned to the rank and file.
But he’s stepping into an uncomfortable situation. Digger founder and chief bottle-washer Anne Galloway is a frequent meddler, diving into any story or situation whenever she sees fit. This was appropriate when Digger was a tough little startup with a handful of staff but not now, when it’s a large and established organization that requires a leader focused entirely on the big picture.
Heintz’ predecessor, Colin Meyn, was the buffer between the top and the trenches. It was a real challenge, and he handled it well. He was viewed with affection and respect by the reporting staff. But I have to think it took a toll on him. It’s never a good sign when someone quits a steady job during a pandemic without a pre-arranged professional landing spot.
Heintz is a great journalist who never tires of the chase. I’d say he’s the best frontline reporter in the state. But his first stint as editor was kinda rocky. He was an extremely demanding boss. You can say that’s appropriate in a hard-charging news operation, but there are limits and he didn’t seem to know where they were. Seven Days’ political team experienced a lot of turnover during his two-plus years as its chief. Multiple people left the paper without immediate prospects, meaning they preferred the insecure unknown to continuing at Seven Days. Again, not a good sign.
His new job will require well-developed diplomatic skills to deal with the stuff that sent Meyn packing. This situation is probably worse now than it was when I was fired by Digger last May, because contract talks with the reporters’ union have been difficult. Digger voluntarily recognized the union last spring but has consistently played hardball in contract talks, refusing to budge on any issue of consequence. It’s almost certain that this situation has put further strain on management/workforce relations. Heintz will now occupy the uNo Man’s Land in between.
He’s also bringing an editorial approach into a very different news operation. Internet notwithstanding, Seven Days is still at heart a weekly newspaper. The editorial process for each print story was lengthy and painstaking, involving multiple edits often taking two full days or more.
If Seven Days is an artisanal operation, Digger is a bulk producer. Filling the daily news hole is the only thing. Stories have to be reported and filed quickly, often in the same day. That doesn’t leave time for deep reporting or painstaking editing. The process is often, by necessity, quick and dirty.
Heintz is not going to be able to impose Seven Days‘ standards at Digger. If he tries, he’ll burn out his reporters in a hurry. That’s saying something, because Digger already has a reputation for chewing up reporters and spitting them out.
Which is a damn shame. Digger ought to be a great place to learn the trade AND master it, not make you wish you’d never gone to J-school. It also ought to be a destination for experienced writers. But it’s not, because management is arbitrary and dictatorial. Reporters do not feel respected or valued, so there’s a lot of turnover.
Unless he’s learned some real lessons from his first go-round as a manager, Heintz isn’t the person to turn this situation around. He’s more likely to exacerbate it.
I hope he proves me wrong. And I hope he finds satisfaction in the new gig. The grass isn’t always greener; it just looks that way.
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