Exit interview: Joanne Davidson answers questions about journalism and her 29 years at The Denver Post

Last month, Joanne Davidson took a buyout from The Denver Post and left the newspaper after a 29-year run, serving as society editor since 1985. Prior to The Post, she worked for U.S. News and World Report. Davidson’s coverage of social gatherings, fundraisers, and nonprofit events was a benefit to our community, beyond what many people understand. Her work will be missed.

Davidson kindly accepted my request to answer a few questions about journalism and her career at The Post.

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 left The Post, after 29 years and eight months, not because I wanted to but because I was afraid of what might happen if I did not accept the buyout that was made available to 20 employees. When the buyout was announced, it was made clear that even if 20 people were to accept, there was a chance that further belt-tightening would be necessary. Which I interpreted to mean getting laid off without the financial cushion that the buyout provided.

You were known for writing about fundraisers and “society” events. Do you know if The Post will continue covering this beat after your departure—and it seems no other media outlet in town covers this stuff? What’s lost for Denver if your beat is eliminated or scaled way back?

I don’t know what the plans are, although I would be very surprised if the coverage is discontinued. It may continue in a different format, such as pictures only, or it might continue with general assignment reporters or interns taking turns covering the events. I just don’t know.

It would be a huge loss if it was discontinued. Nonprofits count on the exposure to build awareness and attract new supporters. And people new to town can learn about the various worthy causes by reading about the organizations that I covered.

But society coverage is much more than shooting pictures of people all dressed up in their party clothes. (And by the way, I need to emphasize how much I dislike the term “society coverage.” It implies a focus on rich white people when in fact I worked very hard to be as inclusive as possible).

Many years ago I did a story that outlined the “trickle-down theory of society economics.” It pointed out the financial reach a fundraising event has: the graphic artists who design the invitations, printed programs and souvenir journals; the printers who print them; the venues who rent the space for the events; the purveyors who sell the meat, veggies, breads and whatnot to the chefs who prepare the meals; the waiters and bartenders who staff the event; the florists who provide the flowers; the valets who park the cars; the event planners hired to make sure everything runs smoothly; the boutiques, department stores and tuxedo rental shops where those attending the events buy or rent something to wear; the musicians and speakers who are booked to entertain or inform; hair stylists and manicurists who have an uptick in business the day of the benefit …

Diminished resources aside, what are your biggest concerns about how political journalism is practiced in Colorado today?

My biggest concern is that without a newspaper adequately staffed with inquisitive and knowledgeable reporters, too many things that need to be brought to the public’s attention will pass unnoticed. Reporters need to be watchdogs, unafraid to hold any decision-maker’s feet to the fire.

What do you admire most?

How well my colleagues are able to keep on keepin’ on despite the challenges with which they are saddled.

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

The worst error came about a week after I started at The Post.

I was covering a holiday party put on by the president/ceo of The Denver Dry Goods. I had just walked in the door when a guest approached and asked, “Have you met our host yet?” I said that I had not. So the guy says, “Well, his name is Joe Davis. He’s surrounded by people right now, but let me see if I can break him away for a minute so the two of you can chat.” Long story short, I had another event to get to that night, so I could only stay at that party for roughly a half-hour and wound up having to leave without having been introduced to the host. But, in the story I wrote, I described in great detail the party that Denver Dry Goods president Joe Davis had hosted. The ink was barely dry on the paper when a barrage of angry phone calls began. Joe Davis, they pointed out, was president/ceo of the Denver Dry’s arch rival, May D&F! Tom Roach was the boss at The Denver Dry Goods.

Needless to say, both the editor, publisher and vice president of advertising were not pleased. Joe Davis and Tom Roach, were able to laugh it off, thank goodness. But not before I hand-wrote letters of profuse apology that were delivered by courier, along with very expensive bottles of their favorite adult beverage.

As for stories of which I am most proud, I would have to say no one story in particular but the fact that I made it a priority to get to know and write about people from all of Denver’s ethnic and income communities. Years ago I read an obituary for New York Times society columnist Charlotte Curtis that recalled the answer she had given when someone asked what her definition of “society” was. To her, “society” was the entire human race.

That’s how I define it, too.

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

Go for it. It’ll be the best job you will ever have.

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

The people, the long hours, the pressure … swear to God, I loved it all. But the landscape has changed and it’s time to move on.

Anything else you’d like to say?

Stay tuned. You haven’t seen the last of me yet!

[See more in this series of “Exit Interviews” with journalists here.]

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