Dave Gram, a fixture in Vermont journalism, has retired, stepping down as columnist for the Burlington-based weekly Seven Days.
Gram, who has reported in Vermont since 1985, wrote in a farewell column Wednesday that his health had taken a turn for the worse.
“My heart was in it. My mind was still in it, but my body was saying ‘no mas,’” Gram, 65, said in an interview.
He will be replaced by another veteran Vermont reporter: Mark Johnson, a longtime WDEV radio host. Both previously worked at VTDigger — Johnson as a senior editor and Gram as a reporter and copy editor.
Johnson will “deliver insight and context and smarts to the big issues,” Seven Days News Editor Matthew Roy said in an interview.
“I think Mark is someone who is able to use his decades of experience observing Vermont politics and culture to make keen observations to help us understand the news of the day and the predicaments and challenges Vermonters face and state officials face,” Roy said.
Johnson becomes the seventh scribe to take up the mantle writing the state’s only regular political column, which was inaugurated in 1995 by the storied Peter Freyne. (VTDigger Managing Editor Paul Heintz held the post from 2012 to 2016.) The weekly paper paused the column in 2019 after the departure of John Walters. It was revived in January with Gram’s hiring.
“People liked Dave, and they were happy Fair Game was back,” Roy said.
Gram, who worked as a reporter for the Associated Press for 31 years, started the job in January. His health began to decline this spring, he said. He wrote in Wednesday’s column about the reemergence of a “chronic, though likely nonlethal” and painful issue. Friends and family gradually convinced him to step down, he said.
“People used to retire when they turned 65,” he said. “It wasn’t my plan, really.” But as his health deteriorated, “it just got harder and harder to complete a sentence.”
Johnson presented a ready solution to fill the gap. He agreed to the gig last week and plans to file his first column in early June, Roy said.
Johnson, who started in Vermont news in 1982 as a reporter at the Springfield Eagle Times, hosted the Mark Johnson Show on WKDR and WDEV for 25 years. He then worked for VTDigger from 2015 to 2020.
The column will provide Johnson a platform to write unreported stories and “explore some issues other media perhaps aren’t covering,” he said. “All I can hope is that with my years of experience, I can bring something interesting and relevant to the table.”
The roster of Seven Days’ columnists, however, has drawn criticism for its homogeneity: All seven have been white men.
In January, a group of more than 50 political, nonprofit and business leaders sent an open letter to Vermont media outlets calling on them to address gender bias in their political coverage. The state’s political press corps includes no women.
“Vermont’s full-time political reporters and columnists are almost all male and all white,” signatories wrote in the letter. “A broader range of lived experiences in the press corps can influence how the news is reported: who is interviewed, what questions are asked, and what perspective is missing.”
The letter specifically cited concerns with VTDigger’s past coverage.
Roy said Seven Days is “interested in getting a diverse set of voices,” noting the paper recently expanded the roles of two female reporters, Anne Wallace Allen and Alison Novak, from part-time to full-time status.
“Overall, we’re moving in the right direction,” Roy said. “Diversity is a challenge we continue to face and hopefully make strides.”
Natalie Silver, who co-authored the letter about gender equity in the media, said Johnson’s hiring felt like an opportunity had been missed.
She called him a “reputable and committed” journalist. But when the press corps isn’t diverse, she said, “we have to ask some questions about what kind of conversations we're elevating.”
Diversity in the press corps can’t be seen as merely a “check-the-box” exercise, said Dennise Casey, a public affairs consultant who signed the letter. And while news organizations should strive for increased equity, Johnson will have a chance to embrace that vision and to “really seek out a diversity of sources and opinions and scoops and perspectives,” she said. “That’s an opportunity in all of our work.”
Johnson said he would do just that. “I recognize I’m a white male, and I’m just going to do the best that I can,” he said.
Disclosure: Katie Jickling worked as a reporter at Seven Days from 2016 to 2018.
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