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2020: The Year That Changed Everything

How 2020 Has Affected the Way We Cover the News

To discover how the pandemic and protests against racial inequity affected journalism, our writer interviewed the editor of Denverite—aka his wife.

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Most men’s wives are smarter than they are. But most men don’t have to suffer through the public display of their intellectual inequity day after day after day. Rather than continue to grapple with my feelings of inferiority, however, I decided to use my inside access to interview my ride or die—Ana Campbell, editor of Denverite, a daily news site owned by Colorado Public Radio—about the major events of 2020, and how they forever changed the media landscape.

5280: First of all, I know how busy you are, so thank you for making time to come here, to the dining room, to speak with me.
AC: This is really weird.

Let’s start with your background. Do you remember the name of the paper you started at immediately after college?
Yes. The Tolucan Times in Toluca Lake, California.

Is that the same Tolucan Times that won the Pulitzer for investigative reporting?
It’s pronounced Pull-itzer.

Ana Campbell, Denverite
Denverite editor Ana Campbell. Photo by Spencer Campbell

I’m pretty sure you’re wrong, but we can discuss it at dinner. 
Is there an actual question coming any time soon?

OK, you spent a few years in North Carolina before moving to Denver. Here, you spent a little time at 9News, three years as managing editor at Westword, and in February 2020, you joined Denverite. A month later, COVID-19 happened. How did it affect your coverage?
This is the first story of my career that has drawn out for a very, very long time. I imagine in a very small way it’s how journalists must have felt covering World War II or the invasion of Iraq: constant, thoughtful, impactful journalism on the same subject all day, every day.

Nothing else mattered.
I’d say COVID-19 took a backseat to some of the things we saw last summer, like the protests after George Floyd was killed.

When did you know the protests were different than protests you had covered in the past?
The first night they happened, they were clearly in response to what happened in Minneapolis. Then it became bigger than George Floyd. It started to become a response to the way the United States, Colorado, Denver law enforcement have treated people of color. About a week in, when there were still thousands of people showing up to the Capitol, when there were these sustained, all-day protests, that’s when it felt like, OK, this is unprecedented. At least for my generation.

You were working remotely at the time. Did that cause you to feel removed from what was happening?
To a certain extent. There was a point early on when every Denverite reporter was out covering a protest. And they were all experiencing some level of tear gas or charging crowds or something. I was at home in the safety of my living room, but at that moment it felt very real and scary. I think there was a point where you and I—I think it was that first Sunday after the protests started—we went down to the Capitol. Still being able to feel the tear gas a little bit, smelling that burning smoke smell, seeing people cleaning the Capitol—that’s when it felt real.

At this point, leaving the house was still considered dangerous because of the virus. The protests also often became violent. How did you deal with that? Because it seems to me this was the first time you really had to reconcile putting reporters in harm’s way.
We reiterated to the reporters that no story is worth getting injured. There were certainly situations that reporters couldn’t have predicted being in that resulted in something fairly traumatic happening to them.

Do you remember any examples?
Police were trying to corral the crowd and one of our reporters, who was wearing a vest that identified him as press, told the cop, Hey, I’m press.  The cop almost seemed to react to that.

Aggressively?
Yeah. In that moment it was clear that the threat wasn’t just from the people who were trying to incite violence in the crowd. It was coming from the police department.

Did you guys ever institute any precautions? I’m thinking about the incident that resulted from 9News hiring a bodyguard for its reporter.
We never sent a reporter out with a bodyguard. We sent reporters out with vests clearly indicating they were press. Around the election, we bought some bulletproof vests for them to wear, because I think that incident brought that situation very much home for us.

How difficult was it this summer?
It was definitely a lot harder on the people who had to go out and do this reporting. I think it took an emotional toll. But here’s the thing: Early on, we decided, yeah, there’s this spectacle of what you’d expect from a protest. People lighting trashcans on fire and things like that. But there was this message underneath all of it that we wanted to make sure we covered thoroughly. We wanted to make sure to make that a priority. There was always this point during the day when the crowd would transition into a different crowd which would come out at night and it would just be chaos. And we made the decision early on not to send reporters to the chaos. That wasn’t the story we wanted to tell. We wanted to focus on the message of racial equity and police brutality. So I think that helped in mitigating some of the possible negativity that the reporters could have experienced.

Looking back, what are you especially proud of?
I think there is a really strong system in place at Denverite and CPR to vet information before it’s published. When you’re out covering something in the heat of the moment it’s totally human to make mistakes. We instituted a couple of layers of editing, and reporters were very cognizant of the words they were using in their stories to try and tell exactly what it is that they saw, not an interpretation of what they saw. So I’m really proud of that.

Even people that you know—I don’t want to mention any names, but she did give birth to you—questioned the validity of news that you know to be accurate. What sort of effect does that have on you as a journalist and editor?
I think for a long time, journalism has hidden behind this notion of objectivity. But for decades, and to this day, mainstream media has largely spoken to a straight, white, male audience. And it just so happened that the people writing and editing those stories were straight, white, and male. It wasn’t really until this year that newsrooms seriously reckoned with the massive issue we have with equity in our newsrooms. When people lob that kind of criticism at us, I think they’re totally warranted. But as for people who think we’re all liars, I think the good newsrooms, they work very hard to be unbiased. They are actively working against perpetuating a narrative. And I think we did that this summer. Regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, I hope that we put out stories that challenged you a little bit and educated you a little bit.

So what has permanently changed because of 2020?
It remains to be seen, honestly. I think we’ve been given this massive opportunity to change. To speak to more people. To reach a complete audience, not just the audiences we have been speaking to for decades. I hope that we can take this moment and really truly change. Otherwise, this whole year would just be a wash.

Cool. Anything else I didn’t ask?
No, now go away.

The Year That Changed Everything

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