Exit interview: Claire Martin answers questions about journalism and her 31 years at The Denver Post

After over 31 years at The Denver Post, Claire Martin departed from the newspaper last month, along with 18 other staffers who accepted a buyout offer. Martin was mostly a feature writer at The Post, and her obituaries received national acclaim. Her writing at The Post will be missed.

Last week, Martin kindly accepted my request to answer a few questions about her career and journalism. Here are her answers, provided via email:

Why are you leaving The Post? Would you have stayed on if not for the economic troubles facing the newspaper and the pressure this puts on reporters?

I am not leaving because of the paper’s economic troubles. The Denver Post is actually profitable, as I understand it. It’s just not profitable enough for the hedge fund company that owns The Denver Post.

I started writing for newspapers in the early 1970s, when I was still in high school, and newspapers were doing well enough to pay for high school correspondents. I don’t know what the profit margins were then, but there was never a general consensus that it was the newspaper’s job to be extremely profitable. The watchdog role was more important. This was when the Washington Post was breaking the Watergate scandal, and the New York Times had published the Pentagon papers, and the culture in newsrooms definitely reflected the watchdog sensibility, not expectations of high profits.

Part of the reason I took the buyout was because it was the first time a buyout was offered at a time when the newspaper was profitable. In my 30-plus years at the Denver Post, I have accepted a wage freeze, a pay cut and other measures we were told were necessary to keep the paper going. It’s kind of exasperating that when the newspaper IS making money, the owner wants to make even more.

I have had a great run at the Denver Post. They liked my idea when I suggested in 1985  that we host a cross-state bicycle tour, and Ride the Rockies became a genuine boon to many of the Colorado towns who hosted the tour for a night.

The editors typically have been open to the other ideas I have had, and I deeply appreciated that support.

In terms of feeling pressured to produce, that has not really been a problem for me. I have more ideas for stories than I have time to write, and nearly always I become absorbed in researching and telling those stories.

How does the upheaval in journalism affect feature writing? In a place like Denver, do you think there will be fewer jobs for feature reporters than, say, political reporters?  Or will everyone be writing about sports?

I do not know, but I think that one possibility is that the lines between features, business, news and even sports will become blurred. I would not be surprised if there were different categories, maybe breaking news, in-depth articles, and briefs — and that would cover news, business, features and sports. I think people in general like sports sections to be distinct from the news, even though technically that line is awfully blurry sometimes — Tom Brady and the deflated football for instance.

Diminished resources aside, what are your biggest concerns about how political journalism is practiced in Colorado today? What do you admire most?

The problem is that there are not enough reporters to adequately cover it. I think there should be much closer examinations of the fracking industry, and the relationship between the fracking interests and lobbyists and the legislators who champion them.

I think Lynn Bartels will be sorely missed, in part because her institutional memory is exhaustive.

The most worrying political reporting-related incident I experienced at the paper was when a reporter — no longer at the paper — was on the phone with a source, and I overheard the reporter reassuring the person on the other end of the phone, *Not to worry, we will get that bastard.*

I was appalled. It is NOT a newspaper reporter’s job to get the bastards. It is our job to research a situation that looks problematic, and to report the facts of that case. If anyone is going to get the bastard, it should be through the legal system. I know there are bastards out there, and God knows there are some I’d certainly like to see suffer the consequences of their behavior. But it’s not my job to catch and punish them.

What’s the worst error you made as a Colorado journalist? Can you name a story or two you’re most proud of?

When I was writing obituaries, easily my favorite gig in those three decades, a woman called and asked if I would interview her BEFORE she died. It was a weird situation. I said I’d need to talk to some of her friends as well. Wound up meeting her in a hospice, along with a couple who’d known her a long time. We chatted, and I asked about her life and took notes. She emphasized the last three decades or so of her life, and when I asked about children and family, said she had none. The couple confirmed that, but they acted weird about it. I should have paid attention to that.

Time passes. The woman dies. The obit runs. My phone rings. On the line, a furious daughter who asked whey she was not consulted for the obituary. The woman had not mentioned a family, but it turned out that she’d estranged herself from her children and former husband. While what she told me at the hospice was not untrue, it also was not the full story.

I go over how I could have figured out the deception, but still can’t see where I could have caught it. I ran a criminal check on everyone I wrote about, to avoid an obit about someone who was a thief or worse, and that hospice patient was clean.

My favorite beat was writing obituaries, but it was also fun writing about how to train for Ride the Rockies, and the odd stories I ran into when I edited the short-lived Colorado Sunday section. Maybe my favorite story is one I wrote in 1989 about an avalanche that crashed into a condominium parking lot at Mt. Crested Butte, trapping three children and suffocating one of them.

What would you say to a young person considering a career in Journalism?

I would advise learning programs like Final Cut Express, and thinking about following the example of the Center for Digital Storytelling’s model of 2-4 minute videos that tell a tightly-focused story. I also would suggest doing a lot of reading, and going into different communities to ask what is NOT being covered that ought to be getting attention.

What will you miss most about your job at The Post?

The eccentric, charming people who were my coworkers, getting unlikely PR pitches, that kind of thing. I am working now on projects I describe as helping to make the world a better place for the aging. I am as excited about some of those projects as I was about stories I worked on.

Do you think you’ll be alive to see The Post close, and, if so, will you write an obituary for the newspaper?

I hope very much that the newspaper will not close during my lifetime. I think the city would be poorer without it, although the readers who think The Denver Post is either too conservative or too liberal would disagree.

As for writing its obituary — wow. An honest obit would require a book, and different Denver Post veterans would tell that story different ways. Dick Kreck would tell one story. Mike McPhee would tell a different one. I would tell yet another. It would be like the blind men trying to describe an elephant. Each would be accurate, as far as his hands and senses could go, and each would be inaccurate. It’s a tricky beast.

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