Denver's Golden Pundits

Journalists call it the golden rolodex -- the list of numbers to call in case a quote is needed on short notice. Most media types have such digits separated into categories, with a handful of entries in each. Need an academic to weigh in on urban-crime statistics? Dial her. Stuck with a tax story that's all statistics and no humans? Set off his BlackBerry. Trying to describe a zoning issue that's too confusing for the average person to grok? Ask them to break it down for you.

Developing a roster of experts for all occasions is certainly convenient for press people, especially when deadlines are looming. However, when news consumers repeatedly see the same faces on television or the same monikers in print, they may begin to pine for a little variety, just as Rocky Mountain News columnist Jason Salzman did in "Pantheon of Pundits Too Puny," a column published in May 2006. At the time, Salzman complained that far too many political pieces in the Denver dailies relied upon the wisdom of pollster Floyd Ciruli and commentators Katy Atkinson and Eric Sondermann. He then suggested some alternatives, including a quartet of liberals: Denver labor leader Leslie Moody, the Colorado Progressive Coalition's Bill Vandenberg, Welchert & Britz's Steve Welchert, and RBI Strategy & Research's Rick Ridder.

Judging by a series of Nexis searches conducted on May 10, things haven't changed much since then. Moody was referenced twelve times during the previous year in both the Rocky and the Denver Post -- although the vast majority concerned possible union trouble at next year's Democratic National Convention, not general topics. For his part, Vandenberg turned up fourteen times in the Rocky and twelve times in the Post over that span, while Welchert checked in with eight and seven quotations, respectively, and poor Ridder earned just two citations from the Rocky and five from the Post. Contrast that with the scores racked up by the trio of old-timers: 31 in the Rocky and 24 in the Post for Ciruli, 50 in the Rocky and 31 in the Post for Sondermann, and a whopping 75 in the Rocky and 28 in the Post for Atkinson.

Clearly, the threesome is still taking it to the up-and-comers, and one of the main reasons, in Atkinson's view, is also among the simplest. "I normally return phone calls," she says.

And fast. Atkinson, Ciruli and Sondermann all buzzed back within two hours of receiving a voice-mail message from Westword, even though initial calls were made to them shortly after 8 a.m. -- a time when plenty of reporters are still trying to regain consciousness. But promptness is only one factor. Another, according to a laughing Atkinson, "is age, pure and simple," by which she means a lengthy enough background to understand how an event fits into the overall scheme of things. Atkinson certainly brings this attribute to the table: She worked her first congressional campaign in 1978 and established herself as a gun for hire by founding Katy Atkinson & Associates in 1991. Likewise, Sondermann, whose mentor was former Colorado governor Dick Lamm, has been in the thick of local political scraps for ages as head of Sondermann/ E-Squared Partners. And Ciruli, of Ciruli Associates, worked for former Democratic congressman Frank Evans in the mid-'70s and even headed the state's Democratic Party for a time before repositioning himself as a more neutral observer in the '80s.

Such experience is important, Ciruli believes, because only a handful of journos around here have it. "Anymore, if a reporter has been through one mayoral election, he's a veteran," he maintains. "So I often spend a huge amount of time saying things like, 'Here's what happened to Federico [Peña] in '83.' You're constantly putting things in a historical perspective, which they appreciate. Just being old helps."

So does keeping up with current events, which Ciruli and company do as part of their jobs; since they probably already know about any developments, reporters don't need to waste valuable time explaining things to them. They also complement each other in the sense that Ciruli strives to offer unbiased information based on stats and figures, Atkinson provides a mainstream Republican perspective, and Sondermann does the same for Dems, even though he doesn't think of himself as a left-wing player. "That's probably one of the biggest misnomers around town, and it causes the people in my office and a lot of my social friends within the Democratic Party great amusement," Sondermann says. "My philosophical evolution is probably to the right of center, but old perceptions die hard." Indeed, Salzman, in the aforementioned column, identified Sondermann as a Democrat, albeit of the centrist sort.

Finally, they're able to synthesize data into succinct sound bites that get to the crux of things quickly -- a major prerequisite for any commentator, no matter the medium. "It's a knack to be able to give an opinion in a sentence as well as in a paragraph," Sondermann says. When asked for an example of this skill, Ciruli doles out a line he used when ex-governor Lamm sought the presidential nomination of Ross Perot's Reform Party in 1996: "When you get in Ross Perot's limo, it's likely he's going to drive."

Because their handles are seen in so many articles, the three tend to get calls from far-flung reporters whenever a Colorado story goes national. As a result, they've all appeared in major venues. Ciruli's list includes the New York Times, the Washington Post and CNN. On occasion, the demand is so high that Atkinson just says no. "When Scott McInnis announced that he wasn't going to run for Senate, I had five phone calls from out-of-state press, primarily in Washington," she says. "You can spend your entire day doing those kinds of things, as opposed to things you can bill for."

Sondermann makes the same distinction. During one drive with his teenage daughter Katrina, he took several phone calls about a breaking news item, and after he was done, he mentioned that some people call him a media whore. "She said, 'I really don't think you're a media whore,'" he recalls. " 'I think you're a media slut -- because whores usually get paid.'"

Maybe that's why there are so few new recruits in the golden rolodex: The benefits suck.

Re-sources: Even as most media organizations continue to quote old reliables, Colorado Public Radio is experimenting with an initiative that reaches out to more than just the usual suspects. The Public Insight Network asks listeners to sign up as potential sources on the broadcaster's website, Those who do will receive an e-mail about once a month asking them to share their thoughts on select topics. Staffers at KCFR, the service's news-and-information arm, then sift through the responses looking for interesting angles or new stories they can investigate.

Network boss (and former Post national/foreign editor) Dan Meyers points out that Public Insight members don't do the reporting themselves, à la "We're retaining a gatekeeper role as journalists rather than saying, 'Hey, this is a blog. Everyone pitch in,'" he notes. "Let's say you're a reporter at the Post, and you're assigned to talk to people about light rail -- to ask them, 'Do you ride light rail? If so, what have your experiences been?' You might be able to talk to fifteen or twenty people in an hour. But we might get a hundred responses."

Or perhaps even more. Since the Network was launched last month, around 400 people have added their names to the roster, and Meyers says two major stories expected to air in mid-May have already come out of the suggestions. One concerns people's experiences, pro and con, with the T-Rex project; the other concerns health-care issues raised by a couple of respondents.

The approach has worked so well for Minnesota Public Radio, which pioneered it, that New Hampshire Public Radio is also giving it a try -- and Meyers says expectations at CPR have already been exceeded. He's keeping up with the info onslaught thus far, but concedes that "if this thing continues to grow, we're already discussing how to grow with it." In the meantime, he emphasizes to those who haven't already joined the club that "we absolutely will not ever use this list for fundraising. There's an enormous and impenetrable barrier between the Public Insight project and the fundraising side of the station."

If not, the e-mails they get back may be ugly.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts