The primary that just concluded was remarkable for several reasons. We had an influx of new voters, while suffering from a dearth of solid data. With even more people in need of good information, the race played out in quasi-silence, as significant differences between candidates went almost unremarked, important coverage appeared late, and much of it was placed in disparate locations. If you were not paying close attention to several websites at once, you probably missed the entire show.
As I scoured for election coverage, I deeply appreciated the hard work of the reporters who were trying to cover the race. Yet they were battling vicious economic forces that put the journalists and the voters they were hoping to serve into a terrible predicament. Most of the vectors by which we once learned who to cast a vote for were so disrupted that the defining characteristic of this election was the scarcity of data.
To remember just how different things used to be, recall when John Hickenlooper first ran for office. He was a likeable guy who sold beer, but the notion of serving as mayor seemed improbable. It was inconceivable he might ever run the state. Five weeks before the 2003 mayoral election, he was tied for fifth place in a crowded field of candidates. Then the Rocky Mountain News published a ringing endorsement: “John Hickenlooper is the only serious candidate for Denver mayor who has actually done what all the other candidates say they want to do as a top priority: create an impressive number of private sector jobs,” began that editorial. Two weeks later, The Denver Post followed suit.
Thanks to those endorsements, as well as some memorable ads, John Hickenlooper surged and won handily. The newspaper endorsements were key, in terms of establishing credibility. Ads conveyed his quirky personality, but only after securing unequivocal support from both of the city’s major papers was his substance established. He was running as a centrist and without the support of a major political party, and having the two papers back him was the key to attracting popular support.
Since then, thousands of newspaper subscriptions have lapsed and ad dollars have moved elsewhere. Major press outlets that once made big investments in political coverage no longer do so. The Rocky has vanished and the Post employs a fraction of its former staff. Once several dozen reporters would have covered the primary, but instead one or two individuals struggled to do the work of many. Fewer substantive stories were published and down-ticket races got zero attention. No major press outlet generated any independent polling data. Journalists covering the race depended on well-endowed candidates for data about how those same candidates were performing.
Once this community invested significant dollars in understanding our elections. Before those editorials that launched John Hickenlooper’s career, dozens of reporters had produced extensive dossiers on every candidate, so that entire careers were described in full detail. And there was extensive polling data that mapped the entire contest. That same investment in the production of data did not happen in this cycle. Major outlets failed to produce in-depth work and few Front Range newspapers ran endorsements.
A couple of intrepid media outfits stepped up, and we should celebrate their work. The Colorado Independent published superb columns and analysis of campaign contributions, while Colorado Public Radio aired lengthy interviews with the eight gubernatorial candidates. The Post chimed in with a few solid stories, and Westword and the Denverite published strong voter’s guides. Chalkbeat produced the best coverage of the education fracas. Channels 9 and 12 hosted key debates that let voters hear the candidates joust, and many Denver TV stations vigorously fact-checked the ads that aired.
But all of this amounted to a small portion of the coverage that voters would once have been provided. And almost all the reporting was focused on the race for governor, leaving other contests uncovered. To find more sustained coverage on down-ballot races, one had to turn to Colorado Politics, another site that did strong work, though much of it was behind a paywall. These shifts in the coverage of elections forced readers to do much more work if they wanted to stay informed — voters who wanted more than what they could see in a TV ad had to actively search for credible news across an under-funded and vastly more fragmented media environment. And because free press was limited, candidates benefited more heavily than usual from party affiliation or personal fortune. We had great candidates whose credentials were never adequately explained, and others whose reputations were savaged by negative ads without a clear rebuttal in the public sphere. As a follower of political journalism, I saw a serious impoverishment of our ability to have a civil debate and lamented the diminution of real coverage.
No matter how we vote, I hope we can all agree that we don’t want this election to become the norm. We need a press that can publish in-depth stories, conduct independent polling, and deliver clear recommendations. This state is rich in capable journalists, but we need publishers to build stronger business models. And we cannot rely on journalists to write and to distribute themselves. This leaves them scrambling to learn business skills and unable to devote their full energy to their strongest skill set: reporting. It is time to figure out what to do about our fading newspapers, and how to fund in a real fashion the replacement organizations emerging like The Colorado Independent and the soon-to-launch Colorado Sun. And to keep funding the critical work being done by public radio and public television. So, huge thanks to all who covered this race — but next time, let’s make sure you’ve got the support you deserve.
Helen Thorpe is an award-winning journalist and author who lives in Denver, Colorado. She has written three books, and her magazine work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Texas Monthly, and 5280. She was formerly married to John Hickenlooper and has written about electoral politics as well as public policy. She won the Colorado Book Award for her first book, “Just Like Us”, and her third book, “The Newcomers”.
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