The Message

Catching Flacks

At any given time, untold thousands of folks are trying to get into journalism -- and quite a few are looking for a way out. The turnover rate among members of the media may not be as high as that of, say, fast-food employees (probably because reporters usually don't have to wear paper hats), but there's considerable churn, for reasons that range from low salaries to high stress.

"The best newsrooms are pressure cookers," notes Michelle Ames, a onetime reporter for the Colorado Springs Gazette and, until late last year, the Rocky Mountain News. "Daily, mainstream journalism is difficult and requires long hours. It's a tough business, and for people who decided to leave the profession, I would think that could be part of why they left."

Granted, Ames didn't go far. She's now a spokeswoman for the University of Colorado at Denver, a position that requires her to provide information on a regular basis to print and electronic journalists. Clearly, the folks at UCD like the idea of hiring those who know instinctively how to speak to the press; Ames's predecessor at the university, Ernest Gurule, was an on-air reporter for Channel 2.

Gina London said goodbye to CNN and hello to CRL.
Brett Amole
Gina London said goodbye to CNN and hello to CRL.

Institutions throughout Denver frequently take similar tacks. Not every individual employed in these parts as a public-information officer, public-relations expert or media liaison previously worked as a journalist, but a hefty percentage of prominent yappers did. Consider that Cindy Parmenter reported for the Denver Post before signing on as press secretary for ex-governor Roy Romer and, more recently, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Likewise, Dan Hopkins, press secretary for Colorado's current guv, Bill Owens, was a multi-tasker at KOA in the early '70s, reading and reporting news for the radio station and Channel 4, then its television partner, and even doing the occasional stint as a disc jockey. He also toiled as a traffic reporter for numerous stations before making the logical leap to the Colorado Department of Transportation, where his adroit info-dispensing brought him to Owens's attention.

So prevalent are professional transitions like these that Gina London, who's gone from being a high-profile correspondent for CNN to acting as the communications director for CRL Associates, arguably Denver's most powerful lobbying outfit, has coined a self-deprecatingly humorous phrase for them: "From hacks to flacks."

Brian Weber, the vice president of education/workforce initiatives for the Stapleton Foundation as well as a former writer for the Post, the News and the Gazette, says reporters who see flacking as their only post-journalism alternative are wrong. "It's remarkable to me how journalists tend to undervalue themselves, because there are more options than that. They think they don't have any other skills, but they've got a lot. Analytical skills, the ability to work on deadline, being extroverted, being inquisitive, processing information really quickly. Those aren't common traits, and they transfer beyond public relations."

Maybe so, but Mark Eddy, who went from being a Post reporter to working with unsuccessful Democratic gubernatorial candidate Rollie Heath before launching his own PR agency, Mark Eddy Communications, has learned that many of the abilities he honed as a journalist directly equate to his present vocation. "I'll have clients who say, 'Tell us if there's a story the media will be interested in,' and if there is, you do the research, put sources together, get the information and then pitch it to a reporter. It's not like you're spoon-feeding them, but you're putting them together with the right people so they can write a good story."

A system in which the providers and collectors of data have so much in common brings with it potential minuses as well as pluses. A scribe who was chummy with a spokesperson in a previous life might not push as hard to land scoops under the almost certainly false assumption that his pal would let him know if something huge was brewing. Similarly, a canny press secretary with a history in media could well know how to provide just enough details to satisfy a journalist without divulging more important matters, thereby encouraging the sort of investigative laziness that allows major stories to remain under wraps. As for energetic reporters with documented success at unearthing scandal, government sorts may determine that the best way to deal with them is to put them on the payroll at salaries that are markedly higher than those they earned in journalism. In these scenarios, the likely losers are readers, viewers and listeners.

Predictably, the local journalists-turned-press-conduits contacted by Westword don't think their career shifts have hurt anyone. On the contrary, they believe their reporting credentials create an added benefit for employers, clients, the media and, by association, news consumers. Typical is Pete Webb, who runs Peter Webb Public Relations, a prosperous Denver firm. He worked in television news, as an investigator and more, from the late '60s until the early '80s; his last gig was at Channel 7, where, he says, "I followed a guy named Bill O'Reilly." He views his years on the front lines as a definite advantage, which is why he hired ten staffers who all worked in journalism prior to joining his agency. "We have former producers and former reporters, and we market our newsroom experience," he allows. "We know what resonates in a newsroom, how to pitch a story, how to talk to editors and reporters and not piss them off."

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