For Vince Bzdek journalism is a way to bring people together. In a time of increasing media polarization, Bzdek, who took over as Editor-in-Chief of the Colorado Springs Gazette in August, cites creating unbiased journalism as “one of my biggest frickin’ challenges.” Since taking over at 30 E Pikes Peak Ave., Bzdek has helped produce stories on water contamination from firefighting foam in Security, Colo., juvenile detention centers in Colorado, and the building of houses on landslide-prone areas in Colorado Springs. Bzdek’s career started at the Catalyst at Colorado College and took him to Washington, D.C. to work as News Editor for the Washington Post and eventually back to Colorado Springs to lead the highest-circulation paper in the Springs.
The Catalyst: It’s always interesting talking to CC graduates about their path after CC. I know about your time at the Washington Post, but could you talk a little bit about how you entered the world of journalism?
Vince Bzdek: I started at the Catalyst, working on the Catalyst. I was the News Editor of the Catalyst. I worked for a paper in town called the Colorado Springs Sun, which was bought out and folded by the Gazette in ’86. I did an internship there while I was working at the Catalyst. I was an English major and kind of got interested in writing through that. When that paper folded, I went to the Denver Post and worked on the newsdesk there, and did some reporting there. I was working various jobs and then I became the Sunday editor and then the Deputy Managing Editor. That was my main job, supervising the Sunday paper. I went from there to the Washington Post, and I was News Editor at the Post, kind of like the front page editor, kind of the guy that runs the front page, decides what’s on the front page. At the same time, I did a lot of feature writing for the Post, and wrote a couple of books. I wrote a book on Nancy Pelosi, who was Speaker of the House. I wrote a book about the Kennedy brothers, which came out right before Ted Kennedy died, and that was kind of the reason that I was doing that, because that legacy was sort of coming to an end.
TC: I was reading about your Nancy Pelosi book, and I was wondering if seeing this past election and how hated Hillary Clinton was, as a woman, brought up any memories about seeing how Nancy Pelosi worked within government?
VB: That’s a great question. I think the thing that was most surprising to me when I was researching that Pelosi book was how sexist Congress was. She really had to fight against that to rise in that. It did feel to me, more than I had any sense already that there is a glass ceiling, it seemed more so in Congress and in politics. One of the reasons for that is just the culture of the place. It’s really just a good old boys’ club. It’s such an old boys’ network, and it’s been that way for so long, breaking in there, she really had to push her way through. She had to be very aggressive and very organized in how she approached that job. She ran for the office of Speaker years before she got it, and a lot of people said, ‘Oh, that just isn’t done. We sort of pick you.’ She said, ‘A woman is never going to get this job if I don’t make some noise and go after it.’ She once was turned down for a job early in her career and somebody went to her, a head of a committee, and he said, ‘It’s just not a job for a woman.’ I think that pissed her off and became this sort of jet fuel, where she needed to break through.
TC: As an editor at the Washington Post, how do you make the connections to be interviewing Nancy Pelosi for a book?
VB: I think I had some contacts within her organization. I knew her press person, because he’d worked in journalism before. My family, my father-in-law, had some contacts on the Hill. I’d gotten to know some congressmen through those contacts. Just being in Washington, you start to get to know people. It’s actually a small town, really. In my neighborhood I knew her Chief of Staff, he lived a couple of blocks away. It was really through those personal contacts. She grew up in Baltimore, just an hour away, and her family members live there. I contacted them and they were great about talking. Once I’d contacted them, got to know them, developed a relationship with them, she trusted me more. She gave me a couple of interviews. It took me about six months before she would give me an interview. She had to sort of check me out. Someone else was working on a book about her that she didn’t trust, so I think I sort of got the benefit of that. It was like, ‘I’m not going to go talk to this guy, I’m going to talk to this guy.’ Which is sort of Washington in a nutshell.
TC: I wonder if you see a big cultural difference between the two places, D.C. and Colorado, where you’ve worked. How is the culture different?
VB: There’s a huge cultural difference. There’s some good and there’s some bad, let me just get at both a little bit. The good is that at the Post, it’s a lot like CC in some ways, it reminded me of a college a little bit in Washington. There’s a lot of intellectual firepower there, there’s a lot of people doing interesting work. A lot of them are there because they want to do more than just earn money. They have some cause or some greater thing that they are fighting for. The jobs are fascinating in the city. On my block there was someone working on Israeli-Palestinian issues, someone working on rule of law in Ecuador, the Drug Czar lived down the street, the lead lobbyist for the solar industry all on my block. There’s this great collection of people doing interesting, intellectually stimulating things. You don’t see such a concentration of that in Colorado. The downside is that it’s more of a culture where everyone is out for themselves. You’re working non-stop and you are defined by your job. Some of this is an East Coast culture, sort of jockeying for position and working against people. In Colorado, everyone works to help each other and it’s more of a cooperative, collaborative culture. I didn’t realize it until I had gone there and come back. Just walking around people are willing to help out and say hi. There was something about that that I missed. Colorado is a bit more community-oriented. There’s not much community in D.C.
TC: When you are hiring new reporters, and when you see younger people in journalism, is there a unifying characteristic among this new generation of journalists?
VB: Young journalists and people entering journalism have this huge advantage right now because most of them are digital natives. They get social media and how to get stuff out on social media and that whole stream. I’d love to hire more and more digital natives because the whole business is pivoting to become more digital. It’s interesting because Colorado Springs still has a thriving print newspaper. In a small town there’s not as much competition, but it still does well. The demographic skews older and a lot of people still love the print newspaper, but as a business we have to pivot more towards that online model. It’s the thing that connects most young journalists. They just have that ease in a digital media environment. They have a familiarity with the tools and video. They bring stuff to us. It used to be that we were a teaching newspaper, but we kind of learn stuff from the new people we bring in now. We just started a digital news desk, and it’s young reporters doing digital stories. I think that’s a huge advantage. It’s a cool time for young journalists because the barrier to entry is lower than it’s been ever.
TC: Do you think the proliferation of news on social media will contribute to more political polarization and more people getting their news from sources that reinforce their long-held beliefs? How does the Gazette become a balanced news source when people often pigeonhole the paper as a conservative news source?
VB: It’s the biggest frickin’ challenge, I’ll tell you that. Newspapers have a long history of sort of associating with one political view or another. The Gazette has this history where it was a libertarian paper. When Freedom owned it, it was off-the-charts, they didn’t believe in government. There’s this long, kind of radical history, that the Gazette has. And then, we do live in the most conservative community in the state. So there is that reputation. I get that all the time. My approach has been to explain to people that there is the editorial page and then there is the news section. I think journalism should have a wall between the two, just like church and state. One does not influence the other. That’s something I’m still working on. I took the job and said, ‘Listen, I’m not going to let the editorial and opinions slant of the opinions page affect what we do here.’ I want people to see it as balanced. I want people to see it as fair. Everybody has biases. All the reporters do. I think it’s important not to show those biases in your reporting or people won’t trust you. You won’t be credible. I just put in a new social media policy that I copied from the Washington Post, and they’re not happy about it, but I don’t allow our reporters to express their opinions on political issues on social media. Because then there’s this trail and people can go back and say, ‘See, you’re clearly biased.’ So my approach has been to be as fair as possible on the news side and I don’t have control over the editorial side. Some editors get involved in that, I don’t want to be involved. To answer your larger question, which is a great question and I’m thinking about writing a column about this. More and more news sources, because of the web, they have some slant. Fox News, Huffington Post, they have some slant.
TC: Many people are heavily informed by a single news source, or sources similar to one another. Is the job of journalism, then, to bring people together or are we retreating into isolated stances and worldviews?
VB: I think the job of journalism is to bring people together. Like I said in that column that I wrote, you can come and compare your ideas. You shouldn’t be afraid of hearing what the other side has to say. It should be that forum, and that’s essential. We are missing some of that and I would argue that democracy does not work as well without that exchange of ideas. People have sort of got in their corners and find stuff that reinforces their own beliefs, and that’s too bad. We have so many choices, why not do a mix? Why not do a variety? Even coming to live here in such a conservative community, it’s been good for me. I’ve been rubbing elbows more with people that I just didn’t in D.C. I mean, D.C is like 90 percent Democratic. We were all very like-minded and had similar values. Here it’s more of a conversation and I think that’s a good thing. The hard part is that Fox and Huffington Post have found incredibly profitable business models in appealing to those groups. So it’s harder to find a business model where you do both and have balance. It’s too bad, it used to be a very successful business model. Where that goes I’m not sure, but boy, I think it’s cyclical. Media history is cyclical and you saw so much fake news and there was so much news out on the internet that I think people are going to start wanting news sources that they can trust. Journalism needs to show it can be trusted and the only way I see that to be possible is to be fair.
TC: Can you point out one or two stories from The Gazette that you are really proud of?
VB: There are a couple that I am really proud of. We did a great story on this water contamination down south in Widefield area. We did a story where we looked at documents and records from the military going back to the 70s. We demonstrated that they knew this fire-fighting foam could be toxic to humans for 30 years yet they continued to use it. Now their water is polluted, and they could have listened to their own studies, listened to their own advice from their experts and changed. Fort Carson changed, the Air Force changed, and they did not. Now I think that will result in some action. They set aside $400 million to help people, they’re doing testing, they’re going to change the way they filter water that comes out of aquifer, and they’ve stopped using the foam. So we got that stopped. An impact like that that actually saves frickin’ lives, so that’s pretty cool. We also did this big series on landslides on the east side of town, a very local issue. We went and got some geological surveys and found where houses were built on known active landslide areas. There are some houses that are sliding and just being destroyed. We looked into why they got approved, why they are still being built, and why home owners weren’t being notified. We let everyone know, ‘hey, your house is in the landslide.’ When I came here we were doing this series before I bought a house and I knew I wasn’t buying over there because it’s a frickin’ landslide zone. We told people that and now they’re going to change the law on how people are notified and how approved developments can happen. Again, we had an impact on changing the law. The last thing I’ll mention is Debbie Kelley did some reporting on juvenile prisons. We’ve been doing this for a while and they are horrible in Colorado. We got some people to send us videos of people getting beat up inside of prisons, and we got the Head of Prisons fired and there are reforms starting. I was very proud of that. When you can actually change public policy I get pretty excited. That kind of accountability journalism is what we all kind of live for.
TC: What sort of stuff have you been reading, watching, and listening to lately?
VB: I’m a political junkie and I was a digital politics editor in Washington so I’ve been reading a lot. Washington Post did a great book on Trump called “Trump Revealed” that went into his background in New York and all his business deals and how he got from there to here. So I read a lot of that. I just like good writing. Since I’ve gotten here I’ve started to read some authors that are from here. Jon Krakauer did a great talk here, that just blew me away. I’ve always liked his stuff. I’ve been reading some of his stuff. An old friend of mine Mark Obmascik, who is a columnist at the Denver Post, has written some books. He might write a column for us so I’ve been reading his stuff. He wrote a book called “The Big Year” about a year-long bird-watching contest. It’s this hugely competitive thing where guys go all over North America. It’s a fabulous book. They made a movie out of it actually with Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson. He’s coming out with another book soon about the time that Japan occupied Alaska during World War II. I’ve been trying to catch up with writers that live in this area and especially environmental writers.
TC: Do you feel like you’re more sure now at this time in your life than you’ve ever been in the past about the question: What is good writing?
VB: Yeah. Yeah. God, I was exposed to such great writers at the Washington Post. You don’t even realize it at the time, but when you’re sort of in that soup it rubs off on you. You kind of get dazzled when somebody does something that you haven’t seen before. I would guess there are 50 Pulitzer Prize Winners on the Washington Post staff. I was part of this project that 70 people worked on about police shootings around the country to calculate how many there are. We built our own database and it won a Pulitzer. There were 70 people involved. At the Gazette, when I see something that is good writing I put it on the front page. I think that people just respond to storytelling and if it has a emotional impact, if it makes you feel, if it’s a good human narrative. On that, I’ve hired a few CC professors to write for us. Cronin, and Levy, and Steve Hayward, he’s done some culture stuff for us, like appreciation of Bob Dylan when he got a Nobel Prize, or Mike Love when he came to CC. I just love good writing. It was a writer’s newspaper at the Post so I really got exposed to some extraordinary writing. There are good writers here, it’s not like the East Coast has a corner on the market; I’m trying to give good writers a forum.