Metrics tell us a version of the story of our year at The Colorado Independent. They tell us what three stories had the most views: Alex’s Burness’s piece on the Denver City Council’s unexpected pulling of the plug on halfway houses run by private prison companies, Mike Littwin’s beautiful remembrance of his wife, Susie, who died in June, and an explainer on the effort to recall Gov. Jared Polis.
The metrics tell us which stories captured readers the longest. They include a streak of stories by Indy Editor Susan Greene, including her profile of Denver mayoral candidate Jamie Giellis and her behind-the-scenes piece on the University of Colorado Board of Regents’ selection of Mark Kennedy as president. Topping the list, though, was Susan’s collaboration with Rio Blanco Herald Times Editor Niki Turner investigating a police shooting of a mentally ill man in rural Rangely.
We are proud of all this work and grateful for readers’ response to it, but we all know the numbers can never tell the whole story. They cannot convey the moments in our reporting that stayed with us long after the story posted. Those moments matter because, whether we realize it or not during our interviews, they give our stories the kind of emotional heft that reminds us we are never just writing about numbers — or for them, for that matter. We are people writing about people for other people. Such a simple statement. Such a hard thing to consistently practice.
So this year our 2019 retrospective is a short list of stories that stayed with us and why. These are the backstories, the times when the veneer of being a “reporter” or a “columnist” gave way to the reality of being a human writing about other humans.
Maybe in no piece was that more clear and necessary than in Littwin’s column about Susie’s death. Mike doesn’t do personal in print. It’s not his way. He writes about politics, and what’s happening in his life stays under lock and key. Except this time. Because this time it couldn’t.
Mike: It took me six months before I could write about Susie — about us. And though it was grief and depression that kept me from writing about Susie, it was my inability to write about Susie that deepened both and made the horrible somehow even worse.
I was stuck. I had fallen into the kind of writer’s block I had never experienced in 50 years of writing. And so I wrote about Donald Trump and other tragedies instead. I still turned out columns every week, but not the one I needed to write to keep me going.
We had done several memorials for Susie and, at each one, I had told the stories of our life together, the funny stories I had been telling for all that life. But talking, for me anyway, was so much easier than writing. And then, on Thanksgiving weekend, something happened. I finally understood what was blocking me. It was anger. I was angry, so angry, about Alzheimer’s, that cruel and family-crushing disease, angry that the national crisis of Alzheimer’s was basically being ignored, angry for all that had been robbed from Susie, angry to learn a lesson I thought I already knew — that we don’t get to write our own endings.
Every time I began to write, the anger would dominate the page. But I finally figured out that was my problem, not Susie’s, who was so rarely angry, who always looked for the good in people, in life. The story, I finally realized, would be about our remarkable love story, not the disease. The disease was not our life.
And when I understood that, I wrote 3,500 words in just three hours. The words literally poured out of me. It was the kind of writing you see in movies, inspiration suddenly lighting the room, that never happens in real life. And yet it did.
And here’s the best part — the reader response. It was overwhelming. It was moving, astonishingly moving. The column, I’m told, was the most-read piece I’d written in my six years at The Indy. The responses were so heartfelt and many, often from people I didn’t know, so personal. I learned long ago that the connection a writer makes with the reader is a great gift, but this gift was not for me. It was for Susie, which is what made it so special. I go back and read the responses — hundreds and hundreds of them — every few days. The grief doesn’t go away, but I do see hope. And for that, I can only say thanks.
GEO-run Aurora ICE Detention Center is isolating immigrants – some mentally ill – in prolonged solitary confinement
Susan: We reporters ask a lot of our sources with our endless whos, whats, whys, wheres, whens and hows. But sometimes, it’s a lot to ask that they show up for an interview at all.
This was the case last summer while I was investigating ICE’s practice of holding immigrants in solitary confinement in its GEO Group-run detention center in Aurora, sometimes for months at a time.
I had arranged meetings with about two dozen former detainees in lawyers’ offices, coffee shops, parks, relatives’ homes, and even the parking lot of the Western Stock Show complex. Several got cold feet. One man from Guatemala sent his niece to meet me at a bakery to say he had his first grandchild on the way and too much to lose by talking.
They all had much to lose, fearing ICE agents might retaliate against them for speaking critically of the agency. They also, in agreeing to dredge up the experience of being isolated 23 hours a day in cells half the size of a standard parking spot, risked reliving it, reopening wounds that caused them to flee their home countries in the first place, revealing mental health conditions that landed them in GEO’s “hole,” and losing whatever emotional grounding they’ve been able to build here in the U.S.
I was struck by how apologetic they were about cancelling interviews.
I was struck, too, by how many showed up to bear witness, to recount stories they hoped, despite the risks, would some day prevent future detainees from having to endure the same trauma.
And I was moved to tears by the Salvadoran Elvis impersonator with a pompadour and manic depression, and by his determination to speak out and say, “I would die. I’d die if they sent me back in there.”
John: In July, I went on a tour of two prisons east of Pueblo. The first was Centennial South Correctional Facility, a never-used prison built for solitary confinement in 2010 and now being “softened” so that it can be put into use. The second was the Fremont Correctional Facility, which was part of the tour to help make the state Department of Corrections’ argument that a new, retrofitted prison is better than an old, decaying one. Fremont is what you expect to see if what you expect to see is based on old prison movies. Sterile. Tiered rows of cells. Bunk beds.
As we walked along the main floor, an inmate on the upper level who wanted to see what was going on held a compact-sized mirror up to the metal bars of his cell and angled it so he could get a look at us. The mirror gave him a wider perspective.
As we kept walking, another inmate gripped the bars of his cell and pressed his face against them, trying to see us.
These two moments belong in my memory only. They came and went too quickly for me to photograph. But I could not shake them from my mind. I wondered what the prisoners thought of me strolling through the prison with Dean Williams, the head of the Department of Corrections, talking about policies conceptual to me, but very real for them. What would they ask Williams if they had the chance? What would they want me to ask for them?
Even months after the story ran, I feel as if I failed to capture something essential about incarceration, something that 99 percent of our readers will never witness for themselves. I should have mentioned in our story the man holding the mirror. I don’t know his name or why he is in prison. I didn’t speak with him and only barely saw his face. But I keep thinking about him and the lengths he went to catch a glimpse beyond the narrow world around him.
Tina: There are moments in almost every interview with someone who is not media savvy and who is, in one way or another, vulnerable, when I have to stop and say, listen, people are going to read this. People who know you. People who don’t know you. People who might use your words against you. You sure you want to say all this for publication?
It’s the moment when empathy trounces the instinct to just take it all down and write it all up because this is good stuff, the heart of the interview and it’s not my job to get maternalistic with sources.
It is the constant surprise of this work, how many people still want to talk, cannot stop talking once they’re asked to tell their stories. Maybe because no one ever asked or no one ever listened. In any case, as I told newsletter subscribers recently, little is as humbling as the realization that people are willing to hand you their hearts in the hope you will find a way to allow others to feel it beating.
And so here I am in the kitchen of a woman I met the night before. And she is eating a pancake and stopping to boil milk for my instant coffee, and when she pours it from pan to cup, steam wafts and veils the view of mountains outside her kitchen window. She tells me she loves that view and then sits and talks for the next two hours, never finishing her pancake.
She tells me of how she left Mexico without telling her father, who, when she finally called, said she was dead to him (until he, too, crossed the border). And she tells me of her husband’s demand that she forget the life she left behind because that life is over. And she tells me of the sacrifices she made for the husband she loves and for the children she loves, and that those sacrifices have nothing to do with being an immigrant and everything to do with being a woman.
Nearly 20 years in Colorado and she still would not call it home, though this is where her children were born and raised. She tells me that instead she focuses on the life in front of her, refusing to be held hostage by either her past or her future. She will take her kids to the pool where no Latinos go, she will volunteer for civic organizations, she will not live in constant fear that one day ICE will come and get her. She navigates a balancing act of committing to a place without becoming too attached to it. And she wonders if doing so makes her hard-hearted or smart.
In her circumstance, this act of laying claim to a life lived in the open could be called courage. It could be called grit. Such labels are tempting when writing about people whose stories are different than our own.
But she, a walker of tightropes, would tell you something else: That life is not without risk and that accepting risk requires faith and that faith is not for the faint of heart.