Vermont journalism legend flips notebook closed for the last time
BURLINGTON >> Many people in the final days of an almost 50-year career might be tempted to kick back, take it easy, spend some time shooting the breeze with colleagues, lazily clean out their desk and maybe take a slightly longer lunch than usual.
Not Mike Donoghue.
Instead of hanging out at the water cooler sharing war stories, or ducking out early to prep for the company party in his honor that night, the veteran Burlington Free Press reporter spent his second-to-last day on the job on a stakeout, waiting for a former teacher of the year who had been placed on administrative leave to show up at a special school board meeting in South Burlington.
"I wanted to push right to the end," he told me at a retirement party last week at the Free Press offices in Burlington. A moment later he got up, his 65-year-old back clearly bothering him, and let loose a classic Donoghue cackle before saying: "Maybe I shouldn't have." (The teacher, Jay Hoffman, did not show, by the way.)
It's hard to believe the reporter who Gov. Peter Shumlin told the crowd was "the biggest pain in my ass" for his plethora of public records requests and who many consider the state's #1 Chronicler of Crime is putting down his pen, turning off the police scanner and leaving behind the newsroom he clomped through day after day, year after year, often on weekends, since he started hunting and pecking out sports stories as a South Burlington high school student 47 years ago. (He was hired full-time in 1971.)
No more late night calls to police chiefs, prosecutors or public officials, his hand sometimes cupped over the phone, the conversation so muffled and mumbled that even fellow reporters sitting a few feet away couldn't understand a word. No more news stories carrying his byline from state and federal court cases exposing the underbelly of Vermont. No more public records requests to catch public officials in a lie or with their hand in the kitty. No more will prosecutors or police take his name in vain for showing up at crime scenes police hoped to investigate without pesky reporters around.
Editors and reporters who worked with Mike Donoghue over the years will tell you he was not the most gifted writer, but when it came to getting information and tips — the currency of his trade — few were as skilled, few his equal. Many of his colleagues and bosses frowned that he was too close with police and prosecutors — he was transferred (some said exiled) to the sports pages for more than a decade before returning to news in his final years — but everyone, including his critics, spoke of him as hard-working, the quintessential cop reporter, a "bulldog" with a Rolodex that boasted the home and cellphone numbers of police chiefs, tipsters and high-ranking government officials, who worked his extensive network of sources tirelessly, building relationships and trust that proved critical to snaring scoops or nailing down a key quote on deadline.
"Mike Donoghue was a dutiful, on the beat, everyday reporter, a great model of what a police reporter should be," said Kevin Ellis, a Free Press scribe who sat next to Donoghue. In another era, Ellis said, Donoghue could have been cast as the perfect Hollywood cop reporter who hung out at the police station and had a flask in his office desk drawer. "He was a faithful recorder of what happened. He was a what guy, not a why guy."
Sam Hemingway, who worked as a reporter and editor for 37 years before retiring from the Free Press last year, said Donoghue had the deepest police sources at the Free Press. Describing Donoghue's interview style, Hemingway said: "He was conversational. When he would talk to somebody, he would do it in a conversational way, nudging, probing. He was not a confrontational style interviewer, but he could get there."
Donoghue said: "If I gave my word, I wouldn't burn somebody. It's all about developing relationships."
Colleagues also spoke of his good cheer, how the big guy with the hound dog look mentored green journalists and students whom he taught at St Michael's College. They also praised his efforts fighting for open records and open meetings and leading the push to have TV and newspaper cameras allowed in Vermont courtrooms. Politicians and law enforcement officials paid him the ultimate compliment — that they often found out about a story when Donoghue called them or if they knew the story, somehow Donoghue already did too and was looking for a comment, not confirmation.
Candy Page, who was a reporter and editor in several stints between 1973 to 2013, said: "It wasn't instantly obvious, but he truly just loved and valued what he did. He was always cheerful, an optimistic presence in the newsroom. Oh, I'm not saying he didn't grouse about things like we all did, but he was just excited about stories. And that enthusiasm and optimism were really important, especially, I suspect it was a great thing for young reporters to see, someone who had been doing it forever and still believed in it and still enjoyed it."
Donoghue definitely had the journalistic bug. His father, John Donoghue, started the Defender, the school newspaper at St. Mike's, and also served as the head of public relations and the sports information director at the Colchester college.
"Every day was fun, every day was different and being on that assembly line, it could be a murder one day, a feature piece the next, a state senator arrested the next day and a public records request that we were fighting for," said Donoghue. "It was something different every day."
Even some of those who say they won't miss Donoghue's probing calls lament the information gap his retirement will bring, the loss for Vermonters.
"We are losing a gem who can get information, I don't know how," said Shumlin. "He keeps his ear to the ground and he's able to get information faster and more accurately and with more zeal than most. All I can say is it's a huge loss to the public."
When Donoghue called last week to find out when the governor had learned about a rape that occurred in the Burlington District Court building, Shumlin gave the crowd a deadpan look and after a long pause, gave an answer other public officials could relate to: "I found out when he called."
At the retirement party, prosecutors and police officers mingled among politicians and Donoghue's co-workers past and present. Many came out of respect and friendship. Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan, for example, said he attended "because Mike asked me to go."
Donovan said Donoghue frequently called to ask: "Whatcha hearing?"
"He definitely cultivated a relationship with me. We would talk on a pretty regular basis even when there wasn't a story," Donovan said. "I developed a friendship with him."
Donovan said he and the police also cursed Donoghue too and frequently took his name in vain when the veteran reporter would show up at a crime scene they hoped the media wouldn't nose around.
Editors and other reporters said Donoghue was at points in his career too tight with the police and prosecutors, especially early on, but that closeness was often an inevitable part of the business. Donoghue often received tips of upcoming drug busts and was among too many journalists, judges and prosecutors taken in by Paul Lawrence, a Burlington police officer who turned out to be planting drugs on suspects.
Ellis, who was a crime reporter in Nashville before joining the Free Press, said: "You can't avoid it. You have to be part of that culture and eventually to get stories, to do your job, you have to be part of that culture and you have to walk that tension every day. Sometimes it compromises you."
Donoghue said "you really try to keep an arm's length and do your best. You also know Vermont is kind of tiny and everybody knows everybody."
Editors said Donoghue clearly got tougher on the police as his career went along, particularly after he returned from the sports desk in 2010. (He was named Vermont Sportswriter of the Year 10 times.) Hemingway said Donoghue did the best work of his career after returning from sports to news. He and Donoghue pointed to the 2012 story he broke about a state police commander, James Deeghan, who ripped off taxpayers with bogus overtime claims, as an example that he had a healthy distance in covering the cops and courts.
Hemingway said the Deeghan scoop was a typical Donoghue find after he requested the salaries of the highest-paid state officials. Donoghue said he didn't make any friends in the law enforcement community, at least initially, when the story came out.
"I think there were an awful lot of people in the state police that didn't like it and thought I had it in for the state police because of the Deeghan story," Donoghue said, "but I think most have come around now to realize I wasn't the villain in that story, but Jim Deeghan, who took $215,000 from taxpayers was in fact the villain, if you will, and we just shined a spotlight on him and the problems within the state police."
Donoghue was proud that story resulted in administrative changes at the state police and a change in law that allows the pension of public officials to be tapped if they rip off the state.
Donoghue may not be ready to totally give it up. In an interview, he said he wanted to take a few months off and perhaps do some freelance reporting down the road. He's slowed a bit from a heart attack in 2008 after his New York Giants won the Super Bowl and another heart attack in 2013. He also has three stents.
"I may still be filing a few public records request here and there, though not as frequently," he said, laughing uproariously when it was suggested he was still hooked on journalism and couldn't give up the adrenaline. He hopes to continue teaching at St. Mike's.
Page said Donoghue was an institution who would be hard to replace.
"Mike is of Vermont. He grew up right here. He knows everyone and that's a loss for the paper. It doesn't mean there's not a lot of talent there, but they'll be hard pressed to find someone with his deep knowledge of Burlington and Chittenden County," said Page.
Early in my career at the Free Press, I needed to contact a police chief at home and asked Mike to help. He pulled the card from his Rolodex and instead of handing it to me, said he would get the chief on the phone and transfer the call. As he explained the other day, his sources would say: 'I'm giving my number to you and only you. And if you give it to anyone else, I'm changing my number.'"
When Donoghue started his career in the 1970s, the names and phone numbers of his sources were stored on a Rolodex. Today, that information is kept in a mobile phone contact list. On Friday, Donoghue had all 1,003 contacts transferred to his new iPhone, a list any Vermont reporter would salivate to secure.
"I thought about putting it on eBay," he joked.
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