This issue “10 Questions” talks with Michael Hicks, editor of Evergreen Newspapers Inc., owned by Landmark Community Newspapers LLC.
After replacing Doug Bell (who served 11 years as group editor) Hicks now has a year under his belt leading these mountain publications a bit south and west of the Denver metro area – the Canyon Courier covering the Evergreen area, Clear Creek Courant in that county and the Columbine Courier in south Jefferson County.
When not working or commuting, this award-winning writer and designer enjoys family life with his wife, Jennifer, and children, Brandon and Abigail, at their Arvada home. Here’s what Michael has to say about his life in community journalism:
1 – You studied business administration at Central Carolina Community College (Sanford, N.C.), and economics, business administration and management at Red Rocks Community College (Lakewood, Colo.). Where were you headed with all that?
I guess we should first address a bit of my background. When I was in high school at Culpeper (Va.) County High School my studies centered on marketing and business. I was a member of DECA (Distributive Education Clubs of America). I’m a big numbers guy, so math was a strong subject for me. And while I took creative writing and art classes, I was more focused at the time on marketing and the advertising side of things.
In some ways, that’s been beneficial to me now in my role as editor. I make it a point daily, weekly to communicate with our graphics and advertising staff. It may be small talk, chitchat, but I’m well aware that the success of our business is more than just what we are reporting on in the newsroom.
2 – You’ve worked at newspapers in Virginia, the Carolinas and Colorado for 28 years. Back east, you started out as a sports writer/editor and copy editor. You worked freelance in prep sports for The Denver Post (2008-2011), freelance for The Dallas Morning News, Sacramento Bee and MLS magazine, and as sports editor for the Berthoud Recorder (2008-2009).
You became sports editor for the Evergreen group in May 2010, which you did for the next seven years. Did you see yourself focusing on sports as a career?
I’ve taken an unusual path with my journalism career. In a lot of ways, it just happened. I started out part time with my hometown newspaper the Culpeper (Va.) Star-Exponent in June 1990. I was 18 years old and just a year out of high school. I’ve always been a sports fan and enjoyed writing, but it wasn’t until I landed that job that I thought that journalism could possibly be a career. Initially, my plans were to study in business school and go that route.
I worked my way up to sports editor twice while in Culpeper – once in 1995 and again in 1997, after a short stint working for the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. I left Virginia in 1998 for the Rock Hill (S.C.) Herald and in 2000 I joined the Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer. For 10 years there (1998-2008) I was strictly a copy editor/page designer, mostly on the sports staff. It wasn’t until my final six months in Fayetteville that I really started to dabble in news, moving over to the news copy desk and serving as our staff’s nighttime web producer.
In January 2008 my family relocated to Colorado. My wife is originally from here. I came out here unemployed, but saw it as an opportunity to get back on the writing side of things. That’s when I started covering preps for The Denver Post under the leadership of then-preps editor Neil Devlin. I did that for three years, while also picking up freelance gigs with The Dallas Morning News, Sacramento Bee and MLS magazine. Most of those were covering out-of-state college programs who came to Colorado to play our local teams. The sports editor job in Berthoud was part time and supplemented my freelance work for the first two years that I was here before the Evergreen sports job opening became available.
3 – You left Evergreen Newspapers in late 2015 to work in Boulder – as a page designer for Prairie Mountain Media and a copy editor for the Camera, Times-Call and Reporter-Herald – then returned in June 2016, at which time you wrote you were reminded of what you had missed. What did you miss, and did you bring new ideas back into the mix?
In 2015, I was looking for a little more with my career. I loved the sports editor job in Evergreen, but at that time I was thinking of moving up the ladder again and challenging myself some more. Three months prior to accepting the job in Boulder, I was offered a similar position as a page designer/copy editor with the Wyoming Tribune Eagle in Cheyenne, Wyo.
It was tough turning down that position, but I knew in my heart that I was looking for a job that would give me a solid work-life balance, and I was afraid the commute and/or relocation to Cheyenne was not going to do that. That’s where Boulder came into play. I enjoyed working with the staff in Boulder for nine months, and I miss seeing my former co-workers there. But going back to working more of a night shift (3-11 p.m. schedule) was challenging for me and my family.
The decision to leave Boulder had as much to do, if not more so, with me still finding that work-life balance than anything else. That, and having that passion to work out in the public, interviewing sources and covering sports, were big draws to come back to Evergreen. I really missed that connection with the public. It’s something that you don’t necessarily get working in the office all of the time.
4 – At Evergreen, you took over in March 2017 from Doug Bell. As far as direction of your publications, how are you and Doug alike, and how are you different?
I can’t really answer this for Doug, who has been one of, if not the best, bosses I could’ve ever asked to work for. That said, as far as how similar our direction of the publications, I would have to say it is the primary focus on the unique and diverse communities that we cover. Be it Evergreen, Conifer, Bailey, Idaho Springs or South Jeffco, we both, I think, have always looked to fill our staff with strong, creative journalists who understand the importance of covering our communities first and foremost. There’s an intent to provide fair and balanced coverage
As for how we’re different, I don’t know if it’s so much a difference in philosophy as much as it’s a difference in the time and culture that we are living in. I know one of my biggest objectives is to build a stronger presence on the web, be it our websites, social media, Twitter, Facebook, etc. We already had those tools in place when I took over and while it’s still a work in progress, I understand that we have to beef up that end while not sacrificing our bread and butter, which is our print products.
5 – What’s different about community journalism in mountain communities?
If I had to say that there is one major difference, it’s the people. Our communities – Evergreen, Conifer, Bailey and Idaho Springs, in particular – are chock-full of compassionate people, folks who care about where they reside. That’s not to say that other communities don’t have similar residents, but people up in the mountain locales choose to live here. It’s the serene surroundings that lures them here. There’s a good chance that most people know everybody else in town. They’re not ones for the hustle and bustle of the city life.
More than that, for our staff, we understand that locales like this aren’t likely to find out what’s happening in their town from any other news source, unless it’s something that garners statewide or national news coverage. That in itself keeps us on our toes. We know as the local news outlet that we have a duty to keep the public and our customers informed about what’s going on in their community.
6 – What do you think community journalism will look like in 10 years?
I don’t envision a huge change other than providing readers more outlets to consume the news. I truthfully believe that newspapers will have staying power in local communities because of the lack of other reliable news outlets that cover them. That said, we can ill afford to solely rely on the newsprint. We have to be aggressive with social media, be it Facebook, Twitter, our websites or producing news apps.
We’ve had our share of breaking news in the community, especially in my first year-plus as editor. It is my goal that we reach as many residents/customers as possible with the news and provide them with the most accurate information possible. I’m not here to be first, per se, as long as what we report is accurate.
7 – You and your newspapers just won quite a few awards at the annual Colorado Press Association convention. Two were for Best Website for weeklies, for the Clear Creek Courant (first place, Class 2) and Columbine Courier (second place, Class 5). What are you doing different with your websites that sets you apart from other newspapers?
Truthfully, I would say not a whole lot. In all honesty, the awards were a surprise for all of us on staff. All of the websites under Landmark Community Newspapers, Inc., based in Kentucky, have the same format and setup. That said, my staff understands my desire to beef up our website coverage as much as possible, be it adding reporter or editor blogs, producing more videos, or altering the design on our cover pages from time to time to produce more homepage highlights.
I want the sites to not just be more user-friendly, but interactive. I want us to utilize the tools we already have at our disposal on a more regular basis. That means producing more reader polls, more graphics and more local advertisements.
We already produce breaking news regularly on our sites, and our photo editors – both past and present – have produced some high-quality multimedia galleries. To me, this is still a work in progress, but it’s something that is essential in this day and age to provide readers, especially our younger customers, a productive, user-friendly outlet so that they can consume their local news.
8 – Has there been a particular job you’ve had in newspapers that you were surprised to discover you really enjoyed?
It would be hard for me to say that I was surprised by any of my jobs where I was covering sports because I’ve been a fan for nearly four decades. To me, that was a bonus to be paid to cover sporting events, be it interviewing Cal Ripken Jr. after a Baltimore Orioles game or watching the Evergreen-Conifer Mountain Bowl football game. They both offered their share of excitement.
Surprised? I’d have to say it’s my current job and, more than that, the road that got me here. I always thought dating back to my time in Virginia that I had the organizational skills and work ethic to run a newsroom. When I was working for Prairie Mountain Publishing, I would occasionally be assigned the duties of designing The Fort Morgan Times newspaper a couple of days per week.
That experience rekindled that fire to run a newsroom. That said, however, if someone had told me when I came back to Evergreen Newspapers in June 2016 that I would be named editor nine months later, I would’ve said you were crazy. I wasn’t expecting it, but I never doubted my abilities to handle the situation.
9 – Neat desk – why or why not – and what would we see there?
Neat? Uh, no. Far from it. I can’t say that it’s buried under a pile of newspapers – thankfully, those are stashed away on a shelf in the office – but it’s not squeaky clean, either. You’ll find handy-dandy guides, such as my AP Stylebook, a dictionary and thesaurus. Yes, folks still use hard copies of those. There are files for various paperwork. Oh, and plenty of sticky notes. Not an overabundance of them, but enough that I need the reminder to call somebody or remind myself of something that I have scheduled.
You’d see a small desktop calendar; sorry folks, it’s the Dallas Cowboys. I know, I know. It comes with the territory of being a lifelong supporter. A small fan – believe it or not, it gets hot in the office, mountain or not, during the afternoon, especially in the summer. Then there’s a coffee mug full of pens. Drink coffee? Nope, not happening. I’ll stick with my water bottles and usually a Mountain Dew, though I need to cut those out.
10 – We’ve heard something really interesting about you. What kind of connection do you or family members have with wrestling?
Ha. Here we go. OK, I started out as a professional wrestling fan back in the late 1970s, watching Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling and the WWF, which is now WWE. By the mid-1980s, if I wasn’t already hooked – I was – I was more so after getting involved with my older brother, Tim, in helping a local East Coast promotion run shows. In 1993, I got my break to referee on the independent circuit. I refereed pro wrestling matches back east in Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia and the Carolinas for the next 15 years.
When I moved to Colorado, I hooked up with a few promotions here and I refereed on and off over the next six years before stepping out of the ring in 2014. I’ve been fortunate to have refereed matches with some of the greats of years gone by – Road Warrior Animal, Rick Steiner, Ivan Koloff, Terry Funk and many others. In 2012, I had a tryout with TNA Wrestling, now known as Impact Wrestling. It was a tremendous experience. If I hadn’t become a journalist, I almost certainly would’ve been a pro wrestling referee. That’s quite the contrast in careers, wouldn’t you say?