Todd Hartman has served as communications director at the Colorado Department of Natural Resources since 2010; he also did media work for the Governor’s Energy Office. Prior to 2009, he spent 24 years in daily print journalism at four newspapers, including the Rocky Mountain News. For much of his career as a journalist he specialized in environmental and energy coverage. He was recognized with more than 10 national awards for reporting projects, including several related to energy and water issues in the West. Hartman holds a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Colorado and later spent an academic fellowship year studying environmental issues, also at CU. He lives in Thornton with his wife Sherry, an undisclosed number of cats and a border collie and enjoys frequent drop-ins from two adult sons who really just want a beer from the fridge.
Colorado Politics: As a newspaper reporter, you spent years dealing with — at times, wrangling with — government agencies and their official spokesmen and spokeswomen. Flacks, as reporters unaffectionately referred to them. Now, you are one. How has your view of a public communications officer’s work evolved since you made the transition?
Todd Hartman: Now that I am firmly embedded in this role, with time served in two agencies, I can assure you they are wise, charming and savvy folk. On a serious note, I usually found comms staffers to be helpful and perhaps had a more charitable view than many of my journo colleagues. With experience, I recognized when they were in a tough spot and tried to respect their position while still focused hard on fulfilling my role as a journalist. One key takeaway: In certain ways, you’re still a reporter. In a large agency with diversified subject matter like DNR, a person in my role is an expert in exactly nothing, and still often has to gather facts and context from colleagues, shake the agency tree so to speak, to address queries from media.
CP: Were there experiences back in your reporting days — especially the bad experiences — that influence the way you now deal with reporters? Do you try to avoid mistakes you feel spokesmen/women once made in dealing with you?
TH: On the occasions when a story really went sideways on a person or an organization, it could generally be tied back to people clamming up, holding on to information for too long or falling back on lawyers. Those are all lousy communications strategies, even as I understand how events might take an issue in that direction. It’s an even poorer approach today, in our connected age, when everything is going to get out sooner or later. Turning your question around a bit: One thing that typically worked for me as a reporter was to be kind and human and realize that in most cases you and your counterpart in the spox role are both doing your jobs within certain confines. Those approaching most stories as some kind of gotcha, or with some kind of manufactured contentiousness, are … less successful.
CP: You left the news business at a rough time for the industry, and it’s still rough out there. You spent a long time in the business, and your dad was a career newspaper man. Drawing on that perspective, where do you see Colorado’s print, broadcast and digital news media heading over the next 10 years? Any particular trends seem evident?
TH: When I left the Rocky Mountain News as it was in its final weeks, I along with several colleagues had this perhaps naive idea that we could all find various ways to wait things out a few years until the business model sorted itself out. From where I sit, 8+ years later, that hasn’t happened. An array of journalists, entrepreneurs and others keep trying to crack this nut. I admire the hell out of them. We all know the hunger for news coverage has never waned. We just need more people willing to pay for it. I try to do my part. We still pay to get the Denver Post tossed on the lawn every day, donate to nonprofit news and pay to subscribe to three national publications online. Without doing the math, I figure if everyone would just subscribe to one news publication — just one! — that might be enough.
CP: One characteristic common to both your previous line of work and your current one is that you for the most part are expected to check your opinions at the door each day. Are you ever attempted to let loose — to tell a reporter what you really think?
TH: I confess to a weariness for what I think is an overemphasis on narrative — at times forcing individual, largely unrelated events, into a storyline that suggests something larger and trendier is going on. Surely, sometimes, something larger is going on. But usually probably not. We live in a big, messy, noisy, high-achieving world. Today’s narrative is nearly as fleeting as a tweet. But since you’ve asked, I am most consistently frustrated by an absence of context. In my little world of natural resources, problems arise related to man’s relationship with, and impact on, the environment. These are important issues, to be sure, and I care about them deeply or I wouldn’t work here. At the same time, I often see them presented naked, in silos, without contextualizing them to our larger world. I wouldn’t trade any of our environmental problems for a trip back to the 14th century, and I often wonder what a person living in a slum outside New Delhi would think of our self-described and often overwrought “crises.” Those are extreme comparisons, I understand. But the way some environmental stories are presented, I wonder if people realize just how good we have it in the early 21st century. The language can be horribly overreaching. I’ve seen environmental mishaps related to human actions in Colorado described as “catastrophes” or “disasters.” Verdun was a catastrophe. Breathe.
CP: What do you miss most about your old profession?
TH: I had wonderful colleagues at every newspaper; many of them are still at it today, and some even ruin my supper to this day when they call me about a tip. I don’t write as prolifically in this setting, and I miss that at times. OTOH, writing is hard, so … There is indisputably a deep level of satisfaction associated with crawling into a confusing topic, one fraught with claims, counterclaims, messy history and associated hyperbole, and emerging with a coherent and thoughtful piece of journalism that helps a few readers decode our nutty lives. I cannot lie. I miss producing that.
CP: What do you miss the least?
TH: The journalism world now is not the one I had the benefit of swimming in for most of my 24-ish years in that field. It’s a tougher place to be nowadays. Far fewer resources, tighter deadlines, tweets, web stories and all that. The feed-the-beast-conveyor-belt stuff. Ugh. I do not miss dropping everything to go cover a breaking news story along with eight other reporters all hounding the same poor victim, witness, or what have you to write on something that will be forgotten by lunchtime tomorrow. To be clear — and fair — some journalists love this, and they’re great at it, and as a news junkie I appreciate them. It’s just not for me.
CP: What’s the best advice you could give someone hoping to start a career as a newsperson?
TH: I would encourage them to do it! They can see squarely what they are getting into, and 20-somethings I would guess are perfectly comfortable with the pace, multiple platforms and mediums — all the developments that disrupted my generation of journalists, both in how we did our work and in the way it made shrapnel of a staid industry. Further advice — and it was advice I had to learn to take myself: Listen to people. Really listen. We all have our politics and our preferences but with listening and thinking one starts to realize what one doesn’t know. Understanding that makes one a better journalist. Finally, and along the same lines, let go of assumptions. The resulting reporting will be more interesting and more people will read it. The country needs journalists. Please, go be one!