After 37 Years Of Reporting In Vermont, Free Press Reporter Sam Hemingway Set To Retire
Readers of the Burlington Free Press will soon be without a byline some of them have been familiar with for 37 years. That’s because veteran Free Press reporter Sam Hemingway announced he’s retiring from the paper.
Sam Hemingway has graciously agreed to join us in our VPR studios to talk about his long reporting career.
In his decades at the paper, much has changed about Vermont. But the biggest change since Hemingway started covering Vermont in the 1970s is the Internet, and he said that’s true for everyone.
“The Internet has changed everything. Communication is faster. In my business, news is 24/7. At the Free Press, for instance, we would hold stories and break them in the morning, and if we had something that was exclusive, we would watch everyone else scramble. Of course, the reverse was sometimes true. Now we’re all on the same wavelength. We’re all trying to tweet and put stuff up on the web. That in terms of the media has changed. And I think it’s affected how politics operate. Peoples' attention spans in terms of issues, it’s changed a lot,” he said.
Another change has been the divide between native Vermonters and “out-of-staters.” Hemingway is one of those “out-of-staters.” He grew up in Connecticut. “I think that’s gone away. You still hear remnants of it. But I think now many Vermonters, so much of Vermont is made up of people who, like me, moved here at some point for whatever good reason and decided to stay.”
Hemingway wanted to be a reporter at an early age. As a child, he started a street newspaper reporting on lost dogs, and people who went on vacation. He sold each copy for 5 cents. In high school, he was editor of the school newspaper and went on become editor of the college paper at Syracuse.
“It was sort of the one thing I knew I could do. And it is the one thing I’ve done in these years since,” he said.
Hemingway has covered many stories over the years, and many of them have been gritty, sometimes difficult to read stories.
"We can all write stories about news conferences and political speeches and even fires and catastrophes because they're right there in front of us. The ones you have to go look for, they take more time." - Sam Hemingway
“I was drawn to investigative reporting. I suppose part of that is growing up in the era of Watergate. When I came to the Burlington Free Press, I pretty quickly jumped into a pretty serious story involving arms smuggling and it sort of suited me,” he explained. “That’s what journalism is supposed to be. You are supposed to push the edges. You are supposed to dig into stuff. We can all write stories about news conferences and political speeches and even fires and catastrophes because they’re right there in front of us. The ones you have to go look for, they take more time. It challenges your mind a lot more and it changes you. My views about a lot of things have been affected by the experience of reporting about them.”
Hemingway began writing about opiate abuse in Vermont long before the story gained attention in the national media following Gov. Peter Shumlin’s state of the state address this year.
“Anybody in law enforcement will tell you it started with pills. It started with OxyContin. A whole generation of people got hooked on those painkillers. And then when those painkillers became hard to find or too expensive to buy people started moving over to heroin because it was a cheaper alternative,” he explained. “I was covering OxyContin as an issue and St. Albans had a big effort to try to confront its problems and I had spent a lot of time in 2009 up there and got involved with some families who were struggling with this.”
Hemingway said that series of stories changed his perspective on the issue. “It wasn’t just the bad kid or the poor kid, or necessarily a kid. It could have been a middle age person. That addiction is potent. You can take one of those pills and it’s going to change your life. You’re going to have an addiction that you can’t easily beat. It’s easier to turn to heroin, and that’s where we are now.”
"To get a real full story, you've got to talk to both sides. You've got to be fair to both sides ... And I'm concerned that the folks who are coming up maybe aren't as tuned into the need for that and the willingness to pay for that."
The struggles of newspapers in the digital age has been well chronicled. The same day Hemingway announced his retirement, the Free Press announced that many newsroom workers would have to re-apply for their jobs in the coming weeks. Paul Heintz, a columnist for Seven Days, asked Hemingway whether his retirement had anything to do that change. Hemingway said no. He’s embraced the digital world as much as any other reporter.
“I can operate in that world. But that’s not why I’m leaving. I decided this long before the Free Press, or Gannett, came up with the process for the Free Press to go through. But I have a deep feeling of concern for the media business in general. As a society, we all need an independent, objective media.” And he said investigative reporting is what is under threat.
“That’s something that real reporters are supposed to do. And you’re not going to find that out, you’re going to find spin artists who will tell you some half of a story. But to get a real full story, you’ve got to talk to both sides. You’ve got to be fair to both sides. That’s what professional journalists do. And I’m concerned that the folks who are coming up maybe aren’t as tuned into the need for that and the willingness to pay for that.”
"I don't want to vanish from the Vermont scene. I want to be involved in some way, but I haven't quite figured out how that will be. We'll see."
Hemingway says reporters cost money, but they do important work.
“I hope someday that pendulum swings back and people understand the value of a Free Press, a Rutland Herald, Times Argus, St. Albans Messenger, all of these dailies, as well as TV, as well as VPR, everybody. We’re all in this. Our business model as a newspaper, it doesn’t come free.”
Hemingway is 66 years old and doesn’t seem like a person who will slow down any time soon. He says he will miss the adrenaline, deadlines, and all of newsroom energy.
“I will certainly miss it. It’s something I’ve done for a long, long time. But I’m looking to step away from it, and maybe figure out a different way in coming at what’s going on. I don’t want to vanish from the Vermont scene,” he said. “I want to be involved in some way, but I haven’t quite figured out how that will be. We’ll see.”