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New Gazette editor Vince Bzdek's roots run deep in community journalism

April 4, 2016 Updated: May 25, 2016 at 10:16 am
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Community journalism is in Vince Bzdek's blood - and his bloodlines.

Bzdek, a Colorado native, takes over Monday as editor of The Gazette; he succeeds Joanna Bean, who left in January to take a communications and media relations post at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

Bzdek returns to his roots after nearly 18 years as a writer and editor at The Washington Post. Before that, Bzdek - pronounced "Biz-deck" - was an editor for several years at The Denver Post.

His big-city experience belies time spent on the plains of northeast Colorado, where his parents operated a small weekly newspaper and where he gained an appreciation for the role a newspaper can play in its community.

Bzdek, 55, was born in Rangely, in northwest Colorado, and grew up in Denver. In 1976, his family moved to Brush, an agricultural and ranching community a few hours northeast of the Springs. His father bought the Brush News-Tribune from Bzdek's grandparents, who also had owned the paper.

The newspaper was a family affair. Bzdek and his five siblings worked at the paper at some point, "sweeping floors, working the darkroom, doing paste-up, delivering papers - family labor was cheap," he said. "I even ran a small printing press at times, and learned to work an old linotype machine. It kind of gets in your blood."

And many area residents read the paper.

"We felt it was our job to give people in Brush a sense of place," he said. "Many people who moved elsewhere still read the paper to maintain that connection to their hometown. We had 'correspondents' in some small farm towns nearby who basically wrote columns that described who visited whom, so it was all about community."

Bzdek graduated from Brush High School in 1978. He attended Colorado College in the Springs, worked at the school newspaper, and graduated with an English degree in 1982.

Bzdek said he appreciated Colorado College's emphasis on writing, regardless whether the class was English, history or even geology. He also enjoyed the school's focus on teaching students "how to think analytically, rather than what to think," and loved the school's "contrarian spirit."

"Many of the classes emphasized a kind of questioning approach to their subjects, asking you to look at issues and facts from fresh perspectives and many sides," Bzdek said. "Fertile ground for a journalist."

After college, Bzdek spent two years as a reporter at the Colorado Springs Sun, then moved to The Denver Post as assistant news editor after the Sun was purchased and closed by The Gazette. In Denver, he also worked as a news editor. And as deputy managing editor, he ran the Post's Sunday paper and revived Empire, its Sunday magazine.

In 1998, he moved to the Washington Post and worked as a features writer, editor-at-large, news director, digital political editor and front-page editor. While in Washington, he wrote two books - "Woman of the House: The Rise of Nancy Pelosi" and "The Kennedy Legacy: Jack, Bobby and Ted and a Family Dream Fulfilled."

Pelosi, the only woman to have served as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, was a "captivating" subject, he said.

"She did it in the biggest boy's club in politics, the House of Representatives," he said. "I thought that shattering of a ceiling for women was worth memorializing."

His book on the Kennedys explored the famous political family mainly from the perspective of youngest brother Sen. Edward Kennedy. Bzdek said his publisher approached him about the project, saying no good book had been written about Ted Kennedy in more than a decade.

"I felt like I couldn't write about Ted without writing about his brothers, and how his whole life was about fulfilling their unfinished promise," he said.

Bzdek enjoyed the chance "to dive deeply into subjects and families that made history, and write full narratives about their lives." Best of all, he said, his research led to interviews with "history makers" such as Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee, John Kennedy aide Ted Sorensen and Ted Kennedy himself.

He's also written for The Wall Street Journal and Wired magazine, and appeared on MSNBC and C-SPAN. He's lectured on politics and journalism at several colleges and universities.

Bzdek and his wife, Kelsey, have a 15-year-old daughter, Zola, and a 14-year-old son, Xavier.

Q: Why did you take this job? What appealed to you?

A: I have a strong attachment to Colorado and Colorado Springs. My family has been in Colorado for four generations, with deep roots in Colorado journalism, as well. My parents and grandparents both owned papers in Colorado at one time, so I come from a long tradition of community journalism. The Gazette offers a great opportunity to dive back into that tradition, where a newspaper really has an impact on the community it serves. The Gazette is poised, I believe, to become the best newspaper in the state.

Q: You're coming from one of the nation's most prestigious and well-known news organizations to head up a much smaller newspaper in a metro area that's a fraction of the size of Washington, D.C. How big of an adjustment, if any, do you expect?

A: The Post has been great, but it is a big, sometimes impersonal institution. There's nothing like working at a paper where the staff is a tight-knit family all working together to try to be the voice and soul of their community. I've missed that sort of engagement. My hope, really, is to bring some of the standards and innovations I've been part of in Washington and apply them here. I see incredibly important news stories that manifest themselves right here in the Springs, and I'm anxious to have The Gazette cover those thoroughly.

Q: What's your impression today of the city and the Pikes Peak region?

A: I don't think I could be coming back at a better time. The Springs is at a fascinating moment, with the economy reviving and big projects like the Olympic museum on the horizon, a dynamic mayor and a national security presence here that now rivals any place in the country. That means a lot of national issues are being fought out right here in the Springs. So the Springs is much more sophisticated and dynamic than when I lived here, and I think its newspaper should try to match that sophistication and energy.

Q: What do you like about newspapers?

A: It's their sense of mission that keeps me involved. The really great journalists I know all have such a passion for justice and for telling the truth that they can't quite imagine themselves in any other profession. Democracy dies in darkness, and it is newspapers that keep the light on. Without them, I truly believe that our cities, counties and country don't function the way they should. Jefferson said if he had a choice between government and newspapers, he'd choose newspapers. I tend to agree. Newspapers keep governments honest, accountable and efficient. Also, we're at a moment of great transition, and making newspapers work digitally is an important puzzle that is worthy of solving.

Q: What do newspapers do well? What do they do poorly?

A: This is changing so much it's hard for me to say generally, but no other media reports and digs and investigates stories as well as newspapers. I find that TV and many websites are just plain superficial in comparison. On the downside, newspapers haven't been very good at experimenting and evolving, but I see that changing, too.

Q: Critics accuse the news media of biased reporting and other misdeeds. How do you respond, and how do you engender public trust?

A: It is important to make a distinction between media and journalism. Journalism has a long history of credibility, fairness, and accuracy, of providing context, perspective, analysis. These are actually the biggest selling points for journalism right now in a media landscape awash in all levels of professionalism. Media outlets who believe in journalistic standards need to explain themselves to their audience, that there is a wall between opinion journalism and fact-based reporting in their newsrooms as thick as the wall separating church and state. The best news sites probably need to re-educate their audiences about the principles that set them apart. We will definitely be doing that at The Gazette.

Q: What's your vision for the paper?

A: I'm in the "listening tour" phase of my job, trying to get a sense of the newspaper and the city again, the great story lines and who all the players are. So my vision needs to be informed by that before making any definitive statements. I can say that we hope to do more in-depth reporting, try to reflect the dynamism I see in Colorado Springs more, and make more of a pivot to a growing digital audience.

Q: Do you have a particular philosophy that would explain how The Gazette will report and present news with you as editor?

A: I plan to be a very hands-on editor, diving into the line-editing of stories, bouncing ideas off reporters constantly, working closely with photographers, designers, producers and editors on the presentation of stories, pushing The Gazette to lift its ambitions.

Q: Will readers see changes?

A: We will definitely try to evolve and improve, but again too early to make any statements about specific changes.

Q: How important will digital and social media platforms be for The Gazette going forward?

A: The Gazette is lucky in that its print edition is still well-supported and vibrant, thanks to this community. But future growth is more and more on digital platforms, and much of that will be on mobile. So much of my focus will be on creating a conversation between The Gazette and its audience on multiple platforms, sustaining the robustness of the print edition as well, which is still our bread and butter.

Q: Newspapers have been branded as dinosaurs that are on their way to extinction. How do you respond, and how optimistic - or pessimistic - are you about their future?

A: I'm one of those who believe the dinosaurs didn't die out; they became birds. I think newspapers are evolving, not dying - becoming new things, fleeter and more digital. The barriers to entry in the media have never been lower, so right now you're seeing an explosion of new media outlets. And the reach of one piece of journalism has never been greater; a story that goes viral in Colorado Springs can truly be seen around the world. So I'm optimistic, but also realistic, that newspapers will look very different in the coming years and new business models still need to be figured out.

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Questions and answers were edited for brevity and clarity.

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