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.
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."
Still, Webb believes the greatest attribute provided by the company's collective journalism expertise is the ability to anticipate how a story will be covered. He illustrates this skill by dropping an anecdote about one of his more famous customers, the Lodge & Spa at Cordil- lera, the Eagle County resort where basketballer Kobe Bryant allegedly committed sexual assault last year.
"We got a call about the time the story was beginning to break -- not from the hotel, but from their law firm," Webb recalls. "Within three or four hours, we talked to over sixty journalists, and one of the most common requests was access to the hotel. For a very good reason, the hotel didn't want to expose its guests to a continuing barrage of satellite trucks and reporters. So one of our crew went to the Associated Press and Channel 9, which is a CNN affiliate. Acting as a pool, they shot video and stills of Cordillera, and we put them on CNN's satellite for anybody to use, which defused the pressure of the requests to see the hotel." Webb feels this approach assisted the media, which had a legitimate interest in getting images from the scene, even as it prevented the Cordillera from being engulfed by chaos. The subsequent publicity for the lodge didn't hurt, either. "The law of unintended consequences certainly applies," Webb says.
Such media savvy comes in handy when things go badly. Last year, Peter Webb Public Relations was retained by the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau after Tony Kovaleski, a reporter with Webb's old station, Channel 7, asked the organization to open its books in the wake of revelations about spending improprieties at bureaus in Cleveland and Dallas. After Denver bureau representatives refused to share statistics with Kovaleski, Webb advised them to release an audit conducted by the group to media outlets. "Our original strategy was to take the story away from Channel 7," he explains. "We had the audit, so we suggested that we put out a news release saying that we were making it available because we were mindful of what was going on in Cleveland and Dallas. That way, it would have been a one-day story, and Kovaleski would have had no place to go with it."
Instead, Webb continues, "the board didn't follow through. They thought it was too aggressive and decided to try and hold Channel 7 at bay. They succeeded in doing that for a number of months." Eventually, though, Kovaleski used hidden-camera footage from a bureau event at the Diamond Cabaret, a high-rent strip club, to imply that the organization was hiding dirty laundry, not to mention some naughty bits ("Vision Quest," November 13, 2003). Bureau president Eugene Dilbeck, who wasn't anywhere near the Cabaret on the day in question, paid for this poisonous publicity with his head, but Webb came out just fine. In an interview with the Post published November 6, the day after he resigned as the bureau's voice, Webb said the board had rejected counsel that would have made the entire problem go away. By doing so, he turned a presumptive embarrassment into both an advertisement for future business and a warning to clients that ignoring the company's advice was a risky proposition: If Webb can control damage to himself this well, imagine what he can do for you.
While Webb hits to all fields, PR-wise, many media vets wind up specializing in the subjects they once covered as journalists. Tustin Amole spent a sizable chunk of the '90s reporting about the Cherry Creek School District for the Rocky before becoming the spokeswoman for...the Cherry Creek School District. "I'm a really big supporter of public education," Amole says, "so it was a good fit." Likewise, Mark Stevens reported about Denver Public Schools for the Post from 1990 to 1995, when he was named DPS public-information officer. In the years since, there have been four DPS superintendents, but Stevens has been a constant. His role as the district's face should be enhanced by his hosting duties for DPS Today, a monthly talk show that debuts January 15 on Channel 8, Denver's government-access channel; it's slated to air Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8 a.m., and Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 p.m.
Stevens wasn't enlisted by DPS because he gave it the sweetheart treatment. "Nine or ten months before I got the job here, I wrote a page-one Sunday story about how the district was trying to demonstrate to the community that there were job cuts going on downtown, and I looked at it job by job to show that the cuts weren't there," he says. "And I did stories about nepotism, stories about different financial problems they were having." Even so, he doubts that district honchos reached out because hiring him would end his troublesome muckraking. Instead, he thinks his reputation for being tough but fair and his good relationship with then-superintendent Irv Moskowitz were the key determinants. Still, he felt that assumptions to the contrary were initially made by peers new and old, causing some uncomfortable moments in the time immediately following his switch.
At DPS, Stevens says, "there were a lot of curious glances in the elevator and in meetings, which was the natural reaction to my having been around as a reporter for five years. I think people's natural instinct was 'We can't talk, because Stevens is here. I know he's working for us, but do we trust him?' And there were moments with former co-workers and others on different papers or TV where they'd look at you kind of funny. I wondered if they were seeing me as a sellout, somebody who didn't stick to the true path. But there was support as well," and with the passage of years, the various parties accepted him in his new situation.
There was less awkwardness for Mike Fierberg, a spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration, the government entity created after 9/11 to keep airports and other transportation hubs safe. After getting his TV start in 1976, Fierberg took a job with Channel 9 in 1983, moving five years later to Channel 4, where he was a business reporter who placed a big emphasis on aviation. "I think I can claim the dubious distinction of doing more live shots from DIA and Stapleton than any other reporter in Colorado," he boasts. So when the TSA needed someone to communicate with the press in a six-state region that encompasses Colorado, Fierberg was a natural -- and he was available, because Channel 4 didn't renew his contract last year. Steve Lusk, who, like Fierberg, was a Channel 4 reporter in his fifties, received the same treatment. When asked if he felt age was a factor in his release, Fierberg declined to comment.
Dave Minshall was more verbal when, in 1996, Channel 7 cut him loose. He sued the station for age discrimination, and after a seven-year battle, he was awarded over a half-million dollars. To keep himself solvent in the meantime, Minshall founded Minshall Media Strategies. Under this umbrella, Minshall does public relations and conducts seminars intended to help the uninitiated deal with the press. "The first thing I tell people is to always be honest, to think about what you're going to say before you say it, and to keep it short," he says. "Most people want to sit down and talk to a reporter for an hour about whatever it is they're supposed to talk about, but the most you're going to get is one sound bite on television or two quotes in a newspaper. So you've got to take control of the interview. The reporter wants to talk about what's important to him; you need to talk about what's important to you."
Nonetheless, Minshall and his fellows claim to eschew spin, with Webb going as far as to say, "I regard spin to be an obscenity." Their logic is simple. As journalists, they knew when someone was trying to spit-shine a turd, and they didn't like it; hence they are convinced that such manipulations are counterproductive. As CRL Associates' London puts it, "My goal is to give reporters as much information as I can about our client's position and what's going on in the world. I'm a great backgrounder, which is why you never see my name in print or see my face on TV."
That wasn't always the case. For CNN, London covered major events such as the Bill Clinton impeachment trial, the 2000 election fiasco in Florida, and 9/11, but in the end, she was worn down by pace and politics. "It's really grueling to be on general-assignment breaking news," she says, "and in TV, it's so incredibly competitive. If the guys like you one day, they may not like you the next -- and that's especially true for women." She's far happier at CRL Associates, which affords her the opportunity to look at the inner workings of business and government in ways that weren't open to her as a reporter: "I've learned more about how a city works in the two years I've been with CRL than in the twelve years I was in the news business -- because now I'm sitting at the tables where some of this amazing news is made."
On the other hand, London doesn't believe that working at CRL is all that much easier than what she did for CNN, and DPS's Stevens says, "I work much harder here" than he ever did at the Post. But UCD's Ames is already reaping the benefits of trading in her press card for a spokesperson's nameplate.
"I had Thanksgiving off, I had Christmas Day off, and I didn't have to work on New Year's Day," she says. "This is proving to be a lot more reasonable way to live."
Get the Weekly Newsletter