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After Nearly Half A Century, Reporter Mike Donoghue Is Set To Retire

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Burlington Free Press
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A veteran reporter who's covered just about every story big and small in the state of Vermont is retiring at the end of the month. Mike Donoghue began reporting for the Burlington Free Press in 1968. 

He has been responsible for major scoops and investigations into stories longtime Vermonters can still talk about based largely on his reporting.

Donoghue, 65, says he took a “lucrative offer” for early retirement from the newspaper’s owner the Gannett Company.

Donoghue remains optimistic about the future of media: “I've seen more changes probably in the last 15 to 20 years than I've seen— not that I was here for them all — but the last 200 years. You know, when you have the Internet, when you have Twitter, Facebook, and you’re posting videos on the Free Press website before you’re printing in the paper …  I think it's an exciting time to get into the media,” says Donoghue.

Donoghue began writing for the paper while still a high school student. He says the sports editor at the Free Press gave him a chance in 1968; the editor asked him to a cover a game over the weekend, and Donoghue must have passed that test — because his career took off from there.

A lustrous investigative career  

In 2013 Donoghue won the Sevellon Brown AP New England Journalist of the Year award for his investigation into a Vermont State Police sergeant who was later convicted of faking hundreds of hours on time cards and writing about 1,000 bogus traffic tickets.

That investigation started out as a story about who were the highest paid people in state government, says Donoghue.

Former Vermont State Police Sgt. Jim Deeghan turned out to be number six on the payroll, says Donoghue, and it “looked like he was trying to increase his salary so that his pension would get fat.”

Donoghue says there was some resistance, especially within the Vermont State Police that first week, but then the troopers fully understood that the story was true. After Donoghue's story, Deeghan then became the first full-time officer to be decertified in Vermont. As part of a plea deal, Deeghan spent two years in prison and was required to perform 500 hours of community service. 

Verify everything

Donoghue also broke a story about Paul Lawrence, a decorated police officer who was planting drugs and other evidence on suspects, and who had been lauded for a series of drug busts.

“That story a taught me that not necessarily everybody tells you the truth, and that you have to spot check,” says Donoghue.

He cited the old saying in journalism: “When your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

Stories that change legislation

Following his curiosity again, Donoghue started digging into DWIs in Vermont.

“We did an investigation, and got all the records, found everybody who had six or more DWIs,” says Donoghue. “But one gentleman had 16 drunken driving convictions. And our story showed at the time that no matter how many times you get stopped in Vermont, the worst thing that could happen to you is one year in jail.”

Now Vermont classifies a third DUI offense as a felony and, if convicted, drivers can serve up to five years in prison.  

Donoghue also says he’s “proud to have been one of the moving forces behind getting cameras put into Vermont courts.”

Donoghue serves on the New England First Amendment Coalition, a group dedicated to defending, promoting and expanding public access to government.

Going forward, Donoghue says he thinks body cameras on police officers will continue to be an important issue, including “how to ensure that those videos are going to be in the public eye.” 

He mentioned a recent case in New Hampshire of an officer shooting a man who had a knife. The video was released up to the point of when the gun shot was fired, says Donoghue.

“What I find interesting is not so much what led up to the actual shot; I want to know what happened after the shot,” says Donoghue. “I mean, did they render him first aid? Or did they let him be on the side of the road? And did they call an ambulance right away? I want to hear the audio, the video and ... what was the police action? I think the public wants to know that, too.”

What’s next?

Donoghue has taught journalism classes at Saint Michael's College, and he is considering starting a sports journalism class there.

He’s also intrigued by the idea of writing a book. But for now, he says he and his wife will start by working out in the gym.

Donoghue says he’ll miss the camaraderie of the newsroom, and he has great respect for the future of multimedia journalism at the Burlington Free Press and beyond.

“Hopefully there’s one or two more bylines in me before I leave,” says Donoghue.

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