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Vince Bzdek: Newspapers have always had soul, now they are finding their spine

April 16, 2018 Updated: April 16, 2018 at 8:08 pm
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The Gazette's downtown building Sunday, December 15, 2013. The Gazette, Mark Reis

In the recent movie "The Post," publisher Katharine Graham comes inspiringly into her own in a fight for the right of journalism to hold the powerful to account.

But before there was Katharine Graham, there was Colorado's own Helen Bonfils.

After the 1933 death of her father, Frederick G. Bonfils, she took over the newspaper he co-founded, The Denver Post.

Helen Bonfils began a legal fight in 1960 against the attempted takeover of her paper by New York newspaper baron Samuel Newhouse.

After 12 brutal years, the original iron lady won her battle for local control and went on to take her place as one of the Grand Dames of Colorado history.

It's worth quoting the ruling that upheld her right to keep ownership of her newspaper in Colorado.

"A corporation publishing a newspaper such as The Denver Post certainly has other obligations besides the making of a profit. It has an obligation to the public, that is, the thousands of people who buy the paper, read it, and rely upon its contents. Such a newspaper is endowed with an important public interest . A corporation publishing a great newspaper such as The Denver Post is, in effect, a quasi-public institution."

The national outrage over the ongoing gutting of The Denver Post resounded loudly in Colorado Springs last weekend at the annual Colorado Press Association conference.

Nearly 400 journalists gathered, and it was clear they have had enough. Instead of the general sense of defeat I've seen in recent years, battle-hardened scribes from throughout the state - from the Canyon Courier, the Ouray County Plaindealer, the Golden Transcript, the Brush News-Tribune, the Telluride Daily Planet, the Cortez Journal, the Johnstown Breeze, the Julesburg Advocate, the Mountain-Ear out of Nederland, the North Forty News, the Pagosa Springs Sun and the Steamboat Pilot - all were spoiling for a fight.

"These days, journalists need a soul and a spine," said my old boss in D.C., Washington Post Editor Marty Baron, after his reporters won two Pulitzer Prizes on Monday. They need a soul to seek and find the truth, Marty said, and they need a spine to overcome "deceit, denial, obstruction and threats."

I saw a lot of soul at the Antlers hotel convention, but I saw even more spine.

Conversation after conversation was about how this devaluing of journalism has gone on long enough. "Journalism isn't expendable," newspaper people insisted. "It's a pillar of democracy, and the towns and cities we serve ought to figure out a way to support their newspapers before they lose their damn democracy."

One conversation I overhead: "If Denver cut the number of teachers in its schools to 70, like the number of journalists now left at The Denver Post, parents from Golden to Aurora would go batsh**."

And this: "Newspapers are classrooms for grownups - why would a community tolerate the loss of its newspaper any more than the loss of its schools? Or its hospitals? Or its museums?"

Refreshingly, a politician at the conference sounded one of the strongest notes of defense for a free press.

"There has never been a greater need than now for what you do," Gov. John Hickenlooper told the gathered journalists.

"When people begin to doubt everything they read, there's a willingness to distrust any news organization," Hickenlooper said. "That's when the corporations of great size, the individuals that control huge amounts of wealth, begin to have a greater level of control over the decisions made by this country.

"We accept this at our own peril," he added.

The governor then did something I can't imagine happening in D.C. He issued a proclamation declaring Colorado Journalism Week, invoking the words of President James Madison: "A people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives" and said "an informed constituency is essential to a healthy democracy."

Journalists, so good at telling other people's stories, have been notoriously bad at telling their own and fighting for their newspapers and their vital foothold in society.

This week, in Colorado, that changed. Since Denver Post editors and writers defied their owners and pled their case for local control in the pages of their own newspaper, their defiant spirit has spread like wildfire.

Jerry Raehal, executive director of the Colorado Press Association, stoked that spirit this weekend, vowing that the CPA will kick off a year of advocacy for journalism.

"This is not about one week," Raehal said. "This is a launching pad for a year of talking about journalism - about what journalists do and why their work matters. It's about what the forefathers put in the First Amendment. We need to talk about this in our cities and towns."

News organizations are engaging their communities on social media this week using the hashtag #RealNewsCO to better explain themselves and the vital importance of what they do.

Gazette reporters over the next week will post minidoc videos about what we do and why we do it. We hope you'll get to know us better, understand us better and support us in our mission of soul and spine.

The reason to do so is expressed wonderfully in another ruling, the one that settled the Pentagon Papers case that made Katharine Graham famous. In allowing The New York Times and The Washington Post to publish the Pentagon Papers, which eventually led to the end of the Vietnam War, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black wrote, "In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press," he concluded for all time, "was to serve the governed, not the governors."

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Vince Bzdek is editor of The Gazette.

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