Fox 31′s Stokols becoming the face of political journalism on local TV news in Denver

When you ask political junkies about Fox 31′s political reporter, Eli Stokols, many bring up Adam Schrager, who left 9News in February for a job in Wisconsin.

“With the departure of Adam Schrager, whom I think was an amazing reporter for television, I would say Stokols could be the heir apparent to Schrager in covering local politics,” Jon Caldara, of the Independence Institute told me.

“It seems he’s filled a void there that Adam left,” Colorado Senate President Brandon Shaffer (D-Longmont) told me. “Very few video journalists are really interested in state politics and what’s going on at the State Capitol, and he’s stepped up and filled that void.”

“I think Eli is filling the void that Adam Schrager left,” Colorado House Majority Leader Amy Stephens (R-Monument) said. “I think it’s a smart move.”

When I started asking people about Stokols last month, I wasn’t fishing for the Schrager comparison; the people I interviewed offered it up on their own.

And it’s true. Stokols is becoming the face of political journalism on local TV news in Denver.

But I think Stokols’ approach to political reporting is distinct from Schrager’s, and I actually had set out to write about the differences between the two journalists.

To me, Stokols is acting more like a newspaper reporter, filing daily stories, about the biggest political developments of the day, even if they’re not so big, while Schrager was on the air with broader pieces, fact checks of political advertisements, and YourShow, the public affairs program he developed and produced. Schrager didn’t cover the day-t0-day grind of political life in Colorado.

Both approaches have merit, and both are way unusual in the mayhem-and-fluff world of local TV news. Denver TV’s investigative reporters, while informing people less about the political issues and candidates, clearly have their value as well, even if their work over-dramatized or even silly at times. They stand out too  in an industry that specializes in bottom feeding.

But what Fox 31 (KDVR, Channel 31) is doing, dedicating a reporter to the political beat and airing stories most nights, is turning heads because, please correct me if I’m wrong, it’s just not done much anywhere by local TV news, much less in Denver, and even Schrager didn’t do it, especially toward the end of his career here.

“You look at the way TV news has evolved, and nobody dedicates a reporter down there [to cover the State Legislature) anymore, except there's Eli," said Marianne Goodland, who covered the Colorado Capitol for 13 years before taking a public relations job earlier this year. "A lot of TV people are there at the opening and end [of the legislative session], and they show up if there’s something hugely controversial. But day to day, that’s not something you see TV people doing. Eli is considered to be one of us, the capitol press corps.”

“He covers it like a newspaper reporter,” says longtime Fox 31 anchor Ron Zappolo. “He files a story every day. You know, he’s after it. He stays after it. He goes in there and he pitches these stories and he pitches them with passion. He convinces the powers that be here that, hey, we should be doing this and here’s why.”

“I think what’s unique is that we do it every day,” says Stokols. “That’s rare. News producers are generally inclined to look at a political story and say, that’s boring, unless it’s a sex scandal or unless there’s something juicy or outrageous about it. It’s taken me a while to get to this point in our newsroom, but thankfully I’ve gotten there because if I were still covering snow storms I probably wouldn’t still be in Denver.”

He adds that he still covers snow storms, just not nearly as often as he used to when he arrived at Fox 31 six years ago from Shreveport Louisiana, where got his first TV news job after graduating from the Columbia Journalism School in 2002.

So it’s not surprising that Stokols doesn’t see other local TV stations as his real competitors.

“I don’t just want to beat the other TV stations,” says Stokols. “Frankly, the other TV stations don’t seem to care about these types of stories. If they did they’d put people on them. But I want to beat Lynn [Bartels of The Denver Post]. I want to beat Tim and Jeremy and those people at The Post. I want us to be the place that people go to first, before they go to the Spot, which may be ambitious.  But if you’re not trying to be number one, what’s the point?”

“I’ve gone from reporting for TV and worrying about getting two minutes of television on the air by 9:00 to essentially being a blogger first, a newspaper writer,” continues Stokols, who wanted to be the next Tom Brokaw after it became clear that being a Major League Pitcher wasn’t in the cards. “You’re at [a political event], and you tweet it immediately. Then you go back and you get it on the web and beat The Denver Post. Then you worry about putting it on the newscast. You’re not that worried about beating your other three TV-station competitors, because they probably weren’t at the event to begin with.”

“I like to write,” continues Stokols, whose work also appears on KWGN, in an arrangement that was hammered this week story by the Colorado Independent. “It’s not hard for me to churn out a couple articles a day. If you want to make yourself and your reporting more far-reaching, you have to be able to write, you have to be able to do social media, you have to be able to tell that story in a newscast. You have to figure out how to do each delivery platform in the best way possible.”

As for the comparisons to Schrager, Stokols says: “Any comparison to Adam is humbling.  When I first got here six years ago, he was doing this and had already built a reputation. He was a model to show me that this could be done in local TV and done really well.”

Fox 31′s political coverage definitely gets the attention of political insiders, even if its impact on Fox 31′s low ratings is unknown. (I’ll address that topic in another blog post.)

You wouldn’t expect partisans or political activists to criticize a reporter like Stokols, but the near unanimous gush you hear from politicos of various stripes shows just how starved they are for TV reporters who regularly cover their events and report intelligently on what they do. There’s a huge pool of gratitude out there, all along the political spectrum, for a TV station that’s committed to covering politics every day.

“I greatly respect the outstanding work Eli Stokols did in the 2008 and 2010 election cycles for Channel 2 and Fox 31,” former GOP Chair Dick Wadhams told me via email. “Eli works very hard to be fair and objective but more importantly he seems to enjoy and understand the give and take of politics and campaigns.  Eli genuinely likes elected officials, candidates and activists and appreciates their roles in the political arena.”

“As the mainstream media pare down their scope, it is heartening to see the commitment both Stokols and Fox 31 have shown to providing their audience with in-depth political reporting,” said Kjersten Forseth, Executive Director of ProgressNow Colorado, which, for disclosure, I’ve advised on communications matters.

“Eli has brought a breath of fresh air to political reporting in Denver, ” said Mike Cerbo, president of the Colorado AFL-CIO, via email.  “He is interested in the issues and engaged in complex debates. His reporting is balanced and equitable. He is one of the few reporters in Denver who is covering politics as it relates to working families.”

Stokols told me he gets grief and epithets from liberals at rallies, who think Fox 31 is part of the national Fox cable network, of “fair and balanced” fame. Fox 31 Denver is an independent station with no connection to the Fox News Channel.

Maybe you’re tired about now, if not earlier, of my going on about Fox 31, when we know a content analysis would likely show the newscast to be, well, lacking big time, journalism-wise. And Denver has other journalists with more proven greatness than Eli Stokols.

Why am I doing this? I spent years documenting the obvious: that local news mostly sucks. Yes there’s good reporters, good intentions, and good stoies, and it could be worse, but still. I wrote about it a lot when I was a media critic at the Rocky.

Now, with journalism in free fall, and television still the most powerful force in politics, here’s a local TV news station that doing something that’s really, really the right thing to do.

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