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Revolving reporters: When reporters go from scribe to spokesperson

revolving door
photo by Amanda B. Cashin

By Shay Totten | Vermont Guardian

Posted September 29, 2006

When Chris Graff was fired from his post as chief of Vermont’s Associated Press bureau earlier this year, many fellow journalists, and the public, wondered where he would land — would it be at another news organization, or would he end up patching together several part-time jobs in the field?

In the end, Graff did what many journalists do once they leave the profession — work in public relations or communications.

The list of journalists in Vermont who are leaving the profession continues to grow, often leading them into jobs that utilize their talents as writers, but not necessarily as inquisitive reporters.

Nationally, eyebrows were raised this summer when the Bush administration hired Fox News personality Tony Snow as the president’s new spokesman.

This revolving door often raises the eyebrows of the public toward an industry with low public approval ratings, mainly on issues of trust. In a 2004 Harris poll, only 39 percent of those polled said they trust journalists, putting them just above members of Congress, who were trusted by only 35 percent of those polled. At the bottom of this poll were actors, with 26 percent. Topping the poll were doctors, with 85 percent.

Graff is certainly not the first to turn to the “dark side,” as some in journalism call moving into public relations. He said he entertained a number of options before settling on a job as head of communications for the National Life Group.

“I am not sure there are any lessons there. I am not even sure how I ended up where I did,” Graff said. “I considered a bunch of options that were all over the map, looked into them all carefully, narrowed them down, and ended up feeling this was the best one for me.”

In making this choice, Graff has joined the ranks of Vermont media alums — a list that includes former top names in the field who are now working at some of the state’s largest companies, many of its politicians, and for top government agencies (see sidebar).

Graff isn’t the only member of the Vermont media to make the switch this year.

Brendan McKenna, a former Rutland Herald reporter who is the spokesman for Republican Martha Rainville’s congressional campaign, was recruited for that job.

“Ever since I got hooked on The West Wing I’d toyed with the idea of working in politics, but it hadn’t ever really gone further than that,” said McKenna.

At the time he was contacted by the Rainville campaign, McKenna said he was looking to move up in the field. A reporter who wrote about the Vermont National Guard as part of his regular beat, he was hoping to get promoted to fill John Zicconi’s position in the Vermont Press Bureau, but was looking to set up other projects, including a trip to Afghanistan to visit Vermont guardsmen, and applying to graduate schools in journalism.

“So in that context, the offer to work as communications director for a congressional campaign — that is receiving lots of national attention — was simply too good an experience to pass up,” said McKenna. “Being on this side of the fence has already given me some very interesting insights that I think would be very useful if and when I decide to return to journalism.”

One journalist who did come full circle is Sue Allen. Formerly a lead reporter at The Associated Press in Montpelier, Allen left her post to become a spokeswoman for then Gov. Howard Dean and later as he ran for president. After Dean’s campaign folded, she returned to Vermont and is now an editorial writer at The Burlington Free Press.

She declined to be interviewed about her experience, saying only that she was “happily back in journalism and prefer not to be a story myself.”

One expert says the general public probably doesn’t play close attention when journalists leave to become PR professionals.

“My sense is that the general public really doesn’t care to any great degree about journalists and PR people moving into the other’s world,” said Bob Steele, the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values at the Poynter Institute.

The only time someone might have a concern, or even be aware, is if they work in politics, the government, or have some other decision-making role in a big company, Steele said. Or, as in the case of Snow or former Clinton advisor George Stephanopolous, the journalist is a well-known figure.
“Journalists or PR professionals moving back and forth? It’s not impossible to do, and one of the keys to making it work is that you are able to recognize competing loyalties and not trade unfairly on previous access or information,” said Steele.

The launching pad

In less than 10 years, the Vermont Press Bureau — the capital news bureau for the Rutland Herald and Barre Montpelier Times Argus — has seen its staffers come and go.

Diane Derby, a long-time reporter for the bureau, put down her notebook in 2000 and went to work for then-Education Commissioner David Wolk. A year later, she became the spokesperson for independent Sen. Jim Jeffords.

In early 2002, Jack Hoffman, then the chief of the Vermont Press Bureau, left to become executive director of the Vermont Broadband Council.

A year later, Tracy Schmaler, another bureau reporter, left to work as a spokesperson for the ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy.

In their place came several other reporters, including David Mace and Zicconi, both of whom now work for Gov. Jim Douglas as spokesmen for the Agency of Commerce and Community Development and the Agency of Transportation respectively. Before going to work for Douglas, Mace was the chief spokesman for the Vermont Electric Power Company (VELCO) during the regulatory hearings surrounding the Northwest Reliability Project.

Mace declined to be interviewed for this story, citing his current position in the Douglas administration.

Derby said her decision to leave daily journalism was bittersweet. “I knew when I closed the door that I would not be able to open that door again,” she said.

“The reason for leaving journalism when I did was I had been in journalism at that point for 20 years and I had been under daily deadlines and spent 10 years at the Statehouse,” said Derby. “I thought I had run my course in Vermont journalism and it was just time to look elsewhere.”

Keeping connections

Darren Allen, no relation to Sue Allen, chief of the Vermont Press Bureau, knows what it’s like to be on the other side of the telephone from a journalist. Before moving to Vermont, he took a buyout from The Baltimore Sun and went to work for a local hospital.

Today, as he scans stories in the Sun, he sees former colleagues popping up as spokespersons for government agencies and local companies.

Allen sees the step from reporter to communications as a natural one, given that both professions work from some of the basic skill sets.

However, he believes that this community of professionals is relatively small, whether it’s in Vermont or Baltimore. And he can’t imagine someone who goes to work for a politician or government administration as a spokesperson coming back into the journalistic fold — at least in the same region.

“I can’t imagine anyone who works directly for an administration anywhere should be allowed to come back and work,” he said.

Steele said a corporate spokesman with access to proprietary information shouldn’t use that information if they are later working for a news organization. Likewise, a journalist should not use news sources to help a company or politician if they leave the profession for a PR post.

Another option, Steele said, is for journalists to recuse themselves from writing about stories where they might have once worked as a PR professional or have a spouse or family member working for the organization they write about.

Working with the reporters who once worked for and with him has its advantages, said Allen.

“We can cut to the chase — there’s no dance,” said Allen. “But we’re both still doing our jobs and that person is no longer a colleague. I have a job to get information that they might not want, or are willing, to get out there.”

During her switch from journalist to communications, Derby said working with former colleagues went smoothly, despite the natural tension that occurs between press and those in charge of getting information out to the public.

“Yet, the beauty of journalism and working in communications is that you get to know a little about a lot of issues, and it’s nice to have that wide breadth of knowledge,” said Derby. “That’s the part I love.”

The pull of a profession

For some, the pull to come back into journalism remains strong, which makes cutting ties difficult.

Graff, who is the host of the news program Vermont This Week on Vermont Public Television, and a regular commentator on Vermont Public Radio’s Vermont Edition, will step down from the TV show once he takes on his new job at National Life in December. Whether he remains on Vermont Public Radio is still up in the air, said John Van Heusen, the channel’s news director.

In an earlier time, Rob Michalak, who may be a recognizable to some public television viewers, was the anchor at WPTZ-TV, the NBC affiliate based in Plattsburgh, NY. Then he became the spokesman for one of the Vermont’s best-known brands— Ben & Jerry’s.

When he left Ben & Jerry’s, Michalak went to work as an independent film producer and also worked at Vermont Public Television.

“In some respects, I had tried to return to my journalistic roots in my work with Vermont Public Television over the years, then independent production, then VPT again, but, in the end, it was the financial need to deliver to my home-based economy — kids, college, retirement, health care, etc. — combined with trying to use my skills in a meaningful way that brought me back to B&J’s, which is still doing some great work,” said Michalak, who is now back at Ben & Jerry’s.

Money, and a break from the long hours of being a journalist, are two reasons cited for leaving the profession for PR or communications jobs. Still, the lure of being a lower-paid scribe remains for some.

Hoffman, who has worked for a nonprofit group dedicated to expanding broadband technology in Vermont, said unlike some of his colleagues who left the profession, he would like to return.

“It’s difficult to see how to get back,” he said. “I’ve thought about it, but I don’t know where the opening would be.”

Hoffman, who worked for the Rutland Herald for about 20 years, said he especially misses writing a column where he felt like he was able to connect with readers on a wide variety of topics.

“There is so much to write about today,” Hoffman said.

Author’s Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I too have left journalism in recent years, only to return upon co-founding the Guardian in 2004. From mid-2000 until mid-2004 I spent half of my time working as a freelance graphics designer, editor, grant writer, and journalist, and the other half as a development director for Vermont Legal Aid as well as an appointee in the state auditor’s office, where I worked on investigative reports and reviews of state programs.

Following is a partial list of reporters who have left journalism and gone to work in the communications field. Not all of them are currently in the last post named. There is an asterisk next to their names.

Sue Allen — Associated Press — Howard Dean (as governor and presidential candidate) — The Burlington Free Press
Debbie Bookchin* — Rutland Herald — Rep. Bernie Sanders’ spokesperson
Steve Costello — Rutland Herald — Central Vermont Public Service
Diane Derby — Vermont Press Bureau — Education Department — Sen. Jim Jeffords’ office
Kevin Ellis — The Burlington Free Press — Kimball, Sherman & Ellis (lobbying firm)
Peter Freyne — Vanguard Press — Gov. Madeleine Kunin — Vermont Times/Seven Days
Glenn Gershaneck* — Rutland Herald/Barre Montpelier Times Argus — Sen. Bob Stafford (and then later for Gov. Richard Snelling and Gov. Howard Dean)
Michael Gilhooly — WCAX-TV — Vermont State Police — U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service
Kevin Goddard — Barre Montpelier Times Argus — Blue Cross/Blue Shield
Chris Graff — AP — National Life
Jack Hoffman — Vermont Press Bureau — Vermont Broadband Council
Sona Iyengar — The Burlington Free Press — Fletcher Allen Health Care
Dave Mace — Vermont Press Bureau — Vermont Agency of Commerce
Nick Marro – Vermont Press Bureau — Vermont Agency of Transportation
Brendan McKenna — Rutland Herald — Martha Rainville’s campaign
Rob Michalak — WPTZ-TV — Ben & Jerry’s — Vermont Public Television — Ben & Jerry’s
Steve Mease — The Burlington Free Press — United Way of Chittenden County — Champlain Valley Exposition
Robin Palmer — Barre Montpelier Times Argus — Gifford Medical Center
Colin Parker — WVNY-TV — Fletcher Allen Health Care
Tracy Schmaler — Vermont Press Bureau — Senate Judiciary Committee
Bob Sherman — The Burlington Free Press — Gov. Madeleine Kunin — Kimball, Sherman & Ellis (lobbying firm)
Steve Terry — Rutland Herald — Green Mountain Power
Brian Vachon — Vermont Life — National Life
John Zicconi — Vermont Press Bureau — Vermont Agency of Transportation