This month's “10 Questions” checks in with Corey Hutchins, who manages to keep busy as a journalist for The Colorado Independent online news site, a correspondent for Columbia Journalism Review and a visiting lecturer at Colorado College. He’s also well-known as a fount of information on All-Things-Colorado-Journalism and then some.
He has written for The Washington Post, Slate, The Nation and The Texas Observer, among other publications, and worked on year-long projects at The Center for Public Integrity. He got his start in alt-weeklies in South Carolina as a reporter for the Columbia Free Times, and also found time to write a graphic novel, “The Accidental Candidate,” about the true story of a bizarre U.S. Senate race. A news-and-politics hound, here’s what he has to say about how he gets it all done:
1 – You’re from upstate New York, earned an associate’s degree in journalism at The State University of New York at Morrisville, and a bachelor’s degree in literature at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. When did you know you wanted to be a journalist?
I got my first job in the industry when I was 11. I was a paperboy. I wanted a skateboard and a Starter jacket and dad said “get a job.” I don't know if that had something to do with it, but I always knew I wanted to write. Journalism school was really enchanting early on and that cemented it.
What surprised me, though, is how I got involved in political journalism because politics did not interest me growing up, or even my first couple years in college. Moving to South Carolina and going to USC changed that. Politics there comes close to religion and football on the what-people-care-about chart. And the characters were legendary and weird, and it's like another planet. Political reporting became an addiction and I haven't kicked it.
2 – Your first full-time reporting job was for Free Times in Columbia, S.C., in 2010. You were named journalist of the year by the South Carolina Press Association for weeklies in 2012 and 2013, and won the association’s Award for Assertive Journalism in 2014. How did you accomplish such early success and who mentored you?
Location might have had something to do with it. South Carolina was an easy place to have serious impact as a journalist because it's so corrupt. It's a target-rich environment for accountability reporting. Those awards largely came from coverage exposing wrongdoing. I was in the right place at the right time.
But I also just worked really hard and all the time. I got obsessed about the job; it was never a 9-to-5 thing. I owe a lot to Dan Cook, the editor who hired me at Free Times, who was one of the great alt-weekly editors and let his reporters be autonomous, but also save them from themselves. Colleagues Eva Moore and Pat Wall made journalism fun and not feel like work. And I owe a lot to sources who trusted me.
3 – You’ve been a reporter for The Colorado Independent since December 2015. How do you decide what to cover and how in-depth?
What's great about The Colorado Independent is the ability to go as in-depth as we want and need. We don't have a print deadline and because it's online there's no word count. We do stories that investigate, explain or add missing context so our readers can make informed decisions. We also realize we're competing for attention so we better make it worthwhile. We're a small newsroom so we try to recognize where our strengths lie and that’s in part covering stories others might not, working hard to connect public policy to the day-to-day lives of people, and trying to move beyond the echo chamber. We know we aren't going to compete on the daily level – we don’t have the resources – so we have to pick our shots.
We've also been doing explainer-style items with original reporting instead of dense narrative on certain politics and policy pieces, and readers are responding. We have owned some coverage beats. Our explainer on caucusing for newcomers has been read by about as many people as actually went to the caucus. One of my favorite notes about that was: “I just saw your article on how to caucus floating around the Colorado belly dance community.” I think about all the new arrivals to Colorado and I want our public affairs to be accessible and for someone to email or text a story to a friend saying, “Did you know this?”
4 – You’ve been a correspondent for Columbia Journalism Review’s United States Project since January 2013. What are the parameters?
We focus on what's going on at the local news level across the country. That means reporting and analysis on issues facing local news orgs, highlighting quality local accountability journalism, and pointing out what's being done well – and what isn't. We look at new initiatives, identify trends, monitor and critique public affairs coverage, and keep track of local press freedom and open government issues.
Correspondents on the project also engage with journalists in our regions and try to foster partnerships and collaborations within local newsrooms, and to get reporters talking to each other about what's working and what's not and how we can do things better in a really uncertain time, particularly at the local level. A weekly email newsletter I publish, Colorado Local News & Media, which is cross-posted at The Colorado Independent as a column, grew out of that. The journalism industry is changing so much so fast, and it's been a really fulfilling experience being on the front lines covering that.
5 – Covering politics can be time-consuming, complex and also hugely rewarding – sometimes all at once. How do you work with your contacts in the Colorado Legislature and other state offices to ensure you’re getting the truth?
Talk to as many people as you can – and not just to get a quote for the published story. Get documentation. Make sure you understand the motives some sources might have and point that out. Try to develop expertise and a good bullshit detector, but don't have a complex about asking super-smart people in high-profile positions to explain something to you like you're a fourth-grader.
Policy reporting can be complex stuff so I try to bring readers along for how I came to get answers. The explainer-style question-and-answer-type format can be great for that. I've crowdsourced a question on Twitter, and every once in a while something useful might come back.
6 – However you define “The Trump Bump” – a rise in U.S. stock markets, or as the Urban Dictionary terms it, “The more obnoxious, outrageous (etc.) you are, the more popular you become” – it has affected reporters. Any tips for covering such volatile politicians?
Thankfully I am not on the White House beat. I don't particularly envy a reporter who is. As the country seems more polarized we're seeing a silo-effect in media consumption. These days people read sources that probably affirm their own assumptions rather than seek out new information that might challenge it.
I would tell emerging journalists not to fall into a trap of getting pigeonholed. A lot of that is just being reasonable on social media. Don't give readers an opportunity to make a credibility issue out of your reporting. Be fair. Be transparent about how you might be coming to conclusions.
7 – As a visiting lecturer at Colorado College in the Springs, how do you discuss fake news, and how can reporters fight their work being labeled as such?
I taught a class on politics, ethics and journalism earlier this year that started right around the time Trump held one of his early news conferences, when he just unloaded on reporters and went off about “fake news” and saying the public doesn't believe journalists anymore. I showed the whole thing on the second day of class, nearly an hour, to kind of set the stage about the current media atmosphere. We talked about how different news organizations operate – I like the idea of this news quality chart created by a Denver patent attorney – and how to try and track a story to its original source, vet items before sharing them on social media, and also about transparency in our own sourcing.
Anyone who remembers looking at the tabloids in line at the grocery store knows “fake news” has been around awhile. What's super troubling for us now is how those in power have weaponized the term against credible news sources. Here in Colorado an anonymous blog relied on an error in a Denver Post story about a politician to discredit the substance of an accurate story by another local news outlet.
Right now news consumers seem very interested in how our business works, how we conduct ourselves, choose stories, interact with sources, frame coverage, and the inner workings of what we do. So it's an opportunity to engage. With perhaps more distrust of news stories by some, one easy thing we can do is be judicious with anonymous sources, and when we use them explain why.
8 – Are you an optimist or otherwise, and how is that mentality reflected in your work?
Case by case maybe? There are times after a series of interviews on a particular story where I might think to myself “eff this world, man.” It's easy to get cynical, too, especially in political journalism when you're intimately familiar with the transactional nature of politics. I'd say I'm an upbeat person but I haven't really interrogated how that might reflect in my work.
9 – How many contacts do you have, how long did it take to cultivate them, and what do you hope are the benefits of your political writing?
When I lost my iPhone in the Arkansas River and thought all my contacts went with it, that was a pretty edgy panic. So a lot, yeah. I was lucky, though: when I first moved here to work on a yearlong project at The Center for Public Integrity doing a risk analysis for corruption in state government, it covered something like 350 questions and required sources for each in more than a dozen areas of state government. So it was a crash course in Colorado politics and policy right off the bat where I met a lot of government and non-government sources, policymakers, activists, public officials and other journalists.
Colorado is a place where a lot of people who live here came from somewhere else, so they might not be completely aware of how government here works, affects their lives and what they can do about it. Colorado is also a place where I don't get the sense people obsess so much about what's going on in government, so I try to write about it in a way I hope is compelling, doesn't waste their time, is informative enough to make a difference, and can have an impact.
10 – You have to always be on the go. Do you have a neat desk/office/car or not, and what would we see?
That's funny. I actually don't have a desk. I work remotely, so basically anywhere I can put a laptop that has Wi-Fi or cellphone service. My car is pretty clean, but often you’d see a rigged-up-and-ready-to-go fly rod. I caught two brown trout off the side of the road outside Alma on the way back from reporting on a candidate forum in Breckenridge recently. That sure is one great aspect of field reporting in Colorado.