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From AJR,   February/March 2005

Stockpiling Journalists   

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson lures lots of experienced, underpaid reporters to his staff.

By Leanne Potts
Potts is a freelance writer based in Phoenix. She worked as a reporter at the Albuquerque Tribune and the Albuquerque Journal for six years but was never offered a job by Bill Richardson.     

Since New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson took office two years ago, the state's press corps has seen an exodus of some of its most experienced journalists.

The reason? The Democrat has hired a whopping 21 reporters, editors and producers from newspapers and TV and radio stations around the state to serve in his administration. State political watchers say politicians always recruit a few reporters but describe the number defecting to the Richardson camp as unusual. "It's more than five times the number of reporters who usually get recruited to a new administration," says Dan Vukelich, who covered state politics for the Albuquerque Tribune for more than a decade and is now an independent television producer and writer in Albuquerque.

Richardson has hired the primary political writers from both daily newspapers in Albuquerque, the state's largest city; the editorial page editor from the Albuquerque Journal, the state's largest daily; and an investigative reporter who worked for Albuquerque's KKOB-TV and KOAT-TV, two of the state's highest-rated stations. Most have taken public relations jobs in the administration and various state agencies. A former sportswriter heads an agency trying to attract a pro sports franchise to the state, and a former TV reporter heads the labor department.

Skeptical sorts have wondered if Richardson is out to muzzle the media by gutting the state's newsrooms of their best and brightest. "He's gotten better coverage," says Joe Monahan, a blogger who tracks New Mexico politics (www.joemonahan.com). "One day the media follows him closely. The next 10 days they're lapdogs. He's been an effective lobbyist with the press." Others worry about the experience and institutional knowledge lost when so many veteran journalists exit the field.

But everyone interviewed for this article agrees the governor is showing political savvy by hiring knowledgeable, underpaid people who know how to manage media coverage. "It's brilliant," says Kelly McBride, an ethics instructor at the Poynter Institute. "There's nothing unethical about it. He gets people who are comfortable with the media. He gets media access. And he gets this for moderate-level salaries, because pay is on the low side in the [journalism] industry." But she cautions that reporters and editors must remain vigilant so their news judgment isn't compromised when former colleagues join the public relations ranks.

Those who left media jobs to work for Richardson got substantial pay increases.

Loie Fecteau, who worked for six years as the Albuquerque Journal's state Capitol reporter and then political writer, was earning "in the 40s" at her paper. Now she makes more than $67,000 a year heading New Mexico Arts, an agency that oversees public arts projects. Matt Dillman, a former reporter at KOAT, makes $59,000 annually as communications director for the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department--an increase from his journalism days. And in a state where newspaper reporters' salaries seldom top $40,000, Gilbert Gallegos, the Albuquerque Tribune's former political writer, makes $76,000 a year as Richardson's deputy director of communications.

Asked why they ditched journalism, the former reporters cite disillusionment, a desire for new challenges, better hours and a chance to set policy instead of cover it. Money, they say, was not the issue. "I was a reporter for 10 years, and I wanted to try something different," Dillman says. "Some of the things done on local news broadcasts left a bad taste in my mouth."

Fecteau, a reporter for 20 years, says she would have switched careers long ago if money were her major concern. "It was about me being restless and wanting a change," she says.

The mass defection of journalists into politics probably wouldn't have happened in a richer state where media salaries match or exceed the national average of $50,000, McBride says. Or in a more populous state with additional career alternatives in journalism, adds University of New Mexico journalism professor Richard Schaefer.

He says losing so many seasoned reporters probably damaged the state press corps, but having all those former journalists in government is good for democracy. "The people Richardson hired are going to get more information out to the people than nonreporters might have done," Schaefer says.

Hiring former reporters also helps Richardson--a rising Democratic star believed to harbor higher political ambitions--stay in touch with the buzz. "Reporters can be your eyes and ears. They can know what the press is thinking and what the public is saying," says former Albuquerque Tribune reporter Vukelich, who first covered Richardson in the mid-1980s when the governor was a freshman congressman.

In an age of bloggers and myriad news and information sources, Schaefer says Richardson and his army of ex- journalists won't be able to control what gets reported. "It would be difficult to stifle a story by hiring a few mainstream reporters," he says.

Kent Walz, editor of the Albuquerque Journal, agrees. He says Richardson's hiring of four of the paper's senior staffers won't affect its coverage. "I don't think he has bought access," Walz says. "Reporters tend to be serious about their work. They're not going to fold their hand because the person they're dealing with used to be a reporter."

Walz sees an upside to having so many ex-reporters on the other side of the notebook. "I think we're better off having those people in those jobs instead of a professional public relations person," he says. Former journalists "know the issues. They know how to pitch a story. I'm not happy all these people went. But it's not all bad."

But blogger Monahan is flabbergasted more journalists aren't upset by Richardson's media raid. "If they think it's having no impact on coverage," he says, "they're drinking the Kool-Aid."