Who will “be there” when journalists are gone?
* NOTE: this column ran as one of several in a special editorial edition in The Denver Post that earned national media attention for "rebellion" against the Post's corporate owners. Being a part of that effort to defend local journalism will always be a career highlight for me. I continue to believe our editor, Chuck Plunkett, deserved a Pulitzer Prize for that edition.
Before I wrote a single word as columnist for The Denver Post, or the sadly departed Colorado Statesman, I spent the better part of two decades trying to educate, cajole and manipulate reporters as a political operative and attorney. From that perspective, I can unequivocally confirm that the drain on local journalism over the past decade creates a whirlpool effect that threatens to swallow one of our most important democratic institutions.
On the other side of the page, I worked hard to influence what reporters wrote. Sometimes I got a story I wanted. Sometimes I got a story I hated. And sometimes I got turned into a raccoon. In my favorite article ever, the great Lynn Bartels, formerly of the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, took on offhand quote of mine regarding my culinary tastes and turned it into a blog post complete with a raccoon graphic.
All animal references aside, what made Bartels great is exactly what we risk losing altogether when a third of the newsroom staff is cut from the only major daily paper left in Denver. Bartels had her inky thumb on the pulse of politics in Colorado because she was omnipresent at any gathering of two or more elected officials. I once heard an elected official call her a living open records act because she attended so many meetings, hearings, debates and fundraisers. She even made it out to Lakewood when I launched an ill-fated campaign for state Senate.
Ironically, I learned that campaign ended when another local journalist, Megan Verlee of Colorado Public Radio, told me early vote tallies indicated that I lost in a landslide. Verlee trekked out to my election night “party” and saw the results before anyone else. Thankfully, she gave me 30 seconds to compose my thoughts before I had to go on record.
“Being there” is the precise value we lose when we lose local reporters. Talented and dedicated local journalists dig into stories; they research and analyze and set up interviews and consider the different perspectives from which a story could be perceived or told. That all happens before they write, rewrite, revise, and rewrite. Their words aren’t the mindless emotional outburst most prevalent on social media “newsfeeds,” but the product of hard work and perseverance in a true craft. When they do it right — and more often than not they are far closer to right than wrong — local journalists paint the tapestry of the world where we actually live.
National media and independent bloggers simply cannot replace local journalists. I know that for a fact. When I worked as a senior research analyst on the communications team for former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s presidential campaign, we were always ready to handle questions from the national chattering-class media. They were predictable and often superficial. Often we had prepared statements and fact sheets to feed them before they even asked a question. We knew we could drive their story and the only question was whether we could do it better than the other campaigns.
But we feared the local New York City reporters. They knew Giuliani and retained the institutional knowledge of his time at City Hall. And when they didn’t know the story firsthand, they knew who did. Half the time we were playing catch-up to the local reporters. Nothing terrifies a political communications team more than realizing a reporter knows more about your candidate than you do.
As the Rocky Mountain News and Colorado Statesman disappeared and journalists like Bartels, Tim Hoover, Joey Bunch and Joe Vaccarelli — to name but a few I came to know — left The Denver Post without replacements, they left more than empty desks. They left a hole in our ability to understand and reflect on our world as a collective citizenry. That’s a trend we all had better hope reverses course sooner than later.
Mario Nicolais is an attorney and Denver Post columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq