You hear complaints about The Denver Post’s reduced coverage of politics, but the newspaper still has more political reporters than any other news outlet in Colorado. And it’s still the state’s leading source of political news.
So, to show what’s happened to political journalism in Colorado recently, I thought I’d compare the number of Post reporters covering elections and the legislature today to the numbers in recent decades.
The most shocking comparison is the Post’s staffing today versus 2010, when Colorado had senatorial and gubernatorial elections, like we do this year. This November, like 2010, Colorado also has state-wide races for state treasurer and secretary of state, plus state legislative elections and one of the most competitive congressional races in the country.
Just four years ago, The Post had double the number political reporters dedicated to elections and the state legislative session (four versus eight). The newspaper had about eleven in 1960s, 1970s, and mid-1980s.
“I would like to have more resources at my disposal when it comes to covering politics in swing state Colorado in an election year while the legislature is in session,” Denver Post Politics Editor Chuck Plunkett told me via email. “Presently I’m asking Kurtis [Lee] and Lynn [Bartels] to do double duty. Lynn’s tracking the governor’s race while Kurtis tracks the Senate race. For the much-anticipated 6th DC contest, Carlos Illescas, recently assigned to focus on Aurora, is following Coffman and Joey Bunch is following Romanoff. Joey also does a mix of other stories. Obviously, on the national races we lean on Allison Sherry to help out from Washington. [Note: Since I corresponded with Plunkett, Sherry has announced her departure.]
“This is our present configuration. As the races heat up, that configuration could change. Change, of course, has never been a stranger to newsrooms. Being adaptable is what we’ve always been about.”
Curtis Hubbard, who was The Post’s Politics editor in 2010, described the political reporting staff he oversaw.
“Best guess is that, at a similar moment in time [in 2010], I had at least 8 reporters available to cover the statehouse and state and federal elections (though that number increased the closer we got to Election Day),” Hubbard emailed.
“During the primary phase, Karen Crummy covered the governor’s race; Michael Booth and Allison Sherry were pulled from other jobs in the newsroom to cover the U.S. Senate race; Michael Riley covered the delegation and congressional races from our D.C. bureau; Lynn Bartels, Tim Hoover and Jessica Fender covered statehouse races, the state treasurer’s race and congressional races; and John Ingold covered the Attorney General’s race, the Secretary of State’s race and general issues pertaining to elections and turnout.
“In my time there, The Post’s leadership team always understood the important role the publication played in informing voters on the issues and never shied away from adding reporters to the politics team as warranted. Additionally, The Post continually sought out ways to help bring understanding of the issues to voters, whether that was through launching online Voter Guides, which proved to be among the most popular online offerings each election season, or on-camera interviews with candidates.
“Despite the ongoing ‘right-sizing’ that has depleted the ranks of reporters and editors at The Post in recent years, the organization continues to dedicate more people to politics than any other news outlet in the state.“
During the 1960s and 1970s, when former Denver Post reporter Fred Brown started covering the Colorado Legislature, the newspaper assigned six reporters to election campaigns, plus five to the legislature, according to Brown. Brown wrote that the numbers were slightly reduced in the mid-1980s, when he returned to the beat.
“The Denver Post used to assign about half a dozen reporters, or more, to election campaigns,” Brown told me via email. “Senatorial and gubernatorial campaigns had a total of four: One for each major party’s candidate. The congressional candidates usually were covered by suburban or regional reporters. Sometimes suburban reporters covered more than one congressional district, but they always covered both major-party candidates. Other state offices, and the legislative races, typically were covered by the chief political writer (me or others who had that role before and after).
“The dwindling staffing of election coverage reflects what happened to legislative coverage. The first dozen or so years I was part of the legislative team, there were five reporters and one photographer regularly assigned to the session. Leonard Larsen, Tom Gavin and Charles Roos joined me (the regular statehouse reporter) and one other general assignment reporter (assigned ad hoc) on the legislative team during the session. Duane Howell’s full-time assignment as a photographer was to cover the legislature when it was in session.”
Although they’re a useful measure and symbol of the decline of Colorado journalism, The Post’s staffing numbers don’t tell the whole story, which is obviously much more complicated.
So-called “computer-assisted reporting” allows reporters to be more efficient in many ways than they used to be.
And the experience and skill of individual reporters can make a huge difference. One good political reporter, whether at The Post or a regional newspaper, radio station, or other competitor (some of which have good political journalists on staff), can do the work of many lesser journalists.
Also, the long competition between the Rocky Mountain News and The Post affected staff levels at the newspapers and the quality of Colorado political journalism until the Rocky closed in 2009. In an email, former Rocky Editor John Temple described, in broad terms, the Rocky’s approach to coverage in the early/mid 2000s:
“Typically, as I recall, we had a reporter for the House and a reporter for the Senate,” Temple wrote. “I also liked to have a free-floating reporter, but I can’t tell you with any confidence that we did that every session. In addition, Peter Blake spent most of his time at the Capitol. We then would send in beat reporters as required. In other words, we wanted the higher ed reporter to cover education issues and take them out of the Capitol and provide perspective, or the environment reporter. As for political races, typically it is difficult to cover them during the session. But what we did was assign reporters to the different races. So each race or group of races would have someone responsible for it. Typically one of our legislative reporters would be responsible for legislative races, as I recall. Burt Hubbard would cover money and help other reporters with that type of data journalism. Every reporter would be responsible for money in his or her race/races.”
Political reporting on local TV is not filling The Post’s gap. As has been the case for decades, we’re lucky if a Denver TV station has one dedicated political reporter, even though, for example, the stations earned a combined total of $67 million in political advertising dollars in 2012. Only Fox 31’s Eli Stokols offers day-to-day political coverage, like a newspaper reporter, but 9News and CBS4 both have political reporters and contribute quality political journalism.
And new technology allows for the contribution of progressive and conservative journalists. (See the Colorado Independent and the Colorado Observer.) Bloggers and trackers and everyday people with cameras are also part of “journalism” in the state.
I’m not saying that The Post’s staffing levels are the definitive measure of political journalism in Colorado, but they’re a serious indicator of the state’s journalistic health. And so it’s hard to be anything but depressed about the current situation.