Last month, I asked Bill Menezes for his thoughts on the state of journalism in Colorado. (See his response here.) A few questions came up later that I thought were legitimate. So I tossed them to Bill, and he was kind to take time to answer them below, via email.
Bill is a former reporter and editor for local and national news media and former editorial director of Colorado Media Matters. He’s known to be open and willing to answer questions directed to him in the “comments” sections of blogs like this. So if you’ve got a question or criticism, fire away at him below…-or at me.
1. In the first part of your response, you wrote that there was “a lot to be optimistic about” in the Colorado journalism landscape, including the Colorado Springs Gazette getting to the Pulitzer Prize finals. Why didn’t you mention The Denver Post’s actually getting the Pulitzer for photography this year? As you know, the project included great writing as well on an unbelievably important topic.
That’s as may be, and the Post photo staff certainly deserves the honor, but we were talking about news reporting and political news reporting specifically. A Pulitzer for feature photography — the paper’s first prize in a decade — doesn’t address how what arguably is the state’s leading newspaper is dealing with the epic changes sweeping the Colorado news media in areas I believe are the most important to its readers: News, in-depth news reporting and real insight from its huge political/state government reporting team.
The Gazette has suffered wave after wave after wave of withering newsroom cuts over the past decade; for it to compete at a Pulitzer level is a miracle. The Post has had all the advantages — size, demise of its primary competitor, infusion of Rocky newspeople — and still hasn’t mustered a news Pulitzer in a decade. My perspective is that in the current upheaval in Colorado media, optimism gets sparked more by the news talent displayed by the Gazette’s nomination, that’s all.
2. While ignoring the Post’s Pulitzer, you came down hard on The Post’s blog, the Spot, and The Post generally. You wrote that “neither the bloggers nor the newspaper break much significant political or public policy news and rarely engage with the blog’s audience. Instead we get Lynn Bartels …blogging’ about Dick Wadhams’ wedding, thus giving the Post the distinction of having no full-time science writer but three full-time gossip columnists.” I like harsh criticism, but it’s not fair to offer only one example of a single fluff story, which you’d expect to be in the mix, without acknowledging that around the time of the post on Wadhams’ wedding, the Spot also had blog posts about lots of substantive issues, like immigration, Ryan Frazier, Jane Norton, uncovered Ritter bill signings, developments in minor political races, and more. It seems to me like the Spot is trying feed political insiders relevant and factual information, without losing credibility by posting gossip and/or regurgitated information that you find on most blogs. The downside of this approach is that the blog is less free-wheeling. So, can you be more specific about why you think the Spot is under-achieving?
After our initial exchanges on this, I had a very lengthy, very nice e-mail exchange with Chuck Plunkett, who essentially asked the same question. My perspective — in a nutshell, rather than getting into all of the details Chuck and I discussed — was that given the resource of about a dozen journalists focused on politics, state government and public policy, the Spot’s content appears to lean very heavily on day-to-day news nuggets and trivia, rather than really leveraging that brainpower to provide readers with meaningful information and insight they’re not going to get from other blogs. (Not from other newspapers, but from other blogs. We’re talking about The Spot, remember?) That’s a news feed, not a blog. What The Spot does run is a lot of stuff (including the examples you cited above) that charitably can be characterized as news release fodder, from campaigns, from polling organizations, from the governor’s office, etc. Do you really need a “blog” to report a prepared statement from Jane Norton or Ryan Frazier? It’s a news brief, putting it on something you call a blog doesn’t change that. Also, based on my anecdotal stopwatch it took quite some time after McInnis tweeted that he was staying in the race for the Post to have something of its own online, either on its blog or elsewhere. Mind-boggling, in several respects.
Is that really the best use of a news blog? My argument to Chuck was that it is not. However, he provided some very clear insights into the decision-making governing Spot content and why it functions more as a news feed than a real blog (that’s another criticism — virtually no real interaction between Spot “bloggers” and the audience with which it allegedly is having a “conversation,” which is what a real blog does) and we tend to agree on more than we disagree regarding the blog and its potential. Chuck sees the same opportunity that I’ve pointed out, but he’s the one who must live in the real world as far as executing it, with all the headwinds that might entail… Remember, my criticism is not that The Spot never would amount to anything, just that it had not lived up to what I considered its short-term potential so far. Chuck clearly agrees they’ve got a way to go, although understandably he mounts a spirited and very reasonable defense of what the site is right now.
3. You wrote that The Post has no science writer. But it has a health reporter and, I think, an environmental writer. Do you really think a newspaper like The Post should have a science writer these days, especially if it has a health reporter?
Ah…yeah, I do. Ask a climate scientist or a wildlife biologist if a health writer can cover his or her field the way a science writer might. The two beats are pretty different unless you’re talking about areas related to health science. Meanwhile, the Post operates without a science writer (which both major Denver daily newspapers used to have) in a state with one of the world’s foremost climate SCIENCE organizations in Boulder, as well as a huge amount of alternative fuels SCIENCE research taking place in Boulder and Fort Collins, and the state of Colorado itself engaging in wildlife biology SCIENCE as it tracks the impact of climate change…you get the idea.
4. Your statement that The Post “doesn’t break much significant political or public policy news” is way broad. Do you really think this is true?
Well, last week’s reporting notwithstanding…I actually do. If anything the McInnis stuff seemed to me to highlight how few and far between such reporting triumphs appear in the Post. They broke the story that McInnis had a paid fellowship with the Hasans but YOU and others took the ball and ran with it until they finally caught up with the plagiarism hit, weeks later. Odd no one else thought of that angle, and it’s still unclear whether the Post had the idea or if someone told them to look into it (you’ve probably seen such speculation in some of the blogs that the Hasans themselves could have blown the whistle). When’s the last time the Post came up with such an impactful political or public policy news story? The Schaffer-Marianas stuff two YEARS ago?
Further, the Post’s political and public affairs reporting still is bogged down on the same, tired “he said, she said” mode that produces a preponderance of lies and rebuttals. For example, nowhere in the entire Post report on the legislative debate over repealing the sales tax exemption on candy and soda …• as I recall …• was there ANY empirical analysis or evidence about the likely impact of such a move on the businesses that were lobbying against it. What we instead got was he said (Engstrom’s going to have to cut jobs if this passes) she said (cuts are necessary to help balance the budget) BS. The freaking tax increase amounted to three cents on a $1 candy bar or soda! How hard would it have been to track down research showing the impact on sales in other states/municipalities where a similar sales tax rise occurred? Never saw it in the Post. Oh, and given the amount of ink it gave to the tax exemption repeal debate, has the Post followed up with the opposing businesses to get hard evidence of whether what they warned about has come to pass?
I firmly believe most of the people who cover this beat for the Post are completely capable of such reporting. But something is missing and as a result Post readers are getting a daily politics/public policy report with less depth and bravado than the newspaper provides on the Broncos and the Rockies.