COLORADO — When a big national story breaks, job one for a city or metro editor is to make it relevant and accessible to local readers. And one thing every cub editor learns is the bag of tricks that can uncover the local angle: talking to a suburban mom affected by the event, consulting an expert at a local college or company, digging up some forgotten bit of regional history with ties to the unfolding story.
Localized news is not always artful (an overzealous editor can turn “250 passengers hospitalized after jet explodes on takeoff” into “2 local women trapped on airline.”) But neither is it always easy to pull off. For every piece of low-hanging fruit—asking local travel agents what impact the Italian ocean liner debacle has had on area cruise bookings—there’s a complicated financial or political story that requires expertise and hours of research and interviews before a writer can understand it herself, let alone explain it to readers.
The intense national spotlight on GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney and his record at Bain Capital exemplifies this challenge for local journalists. Here in Colorado, the state’s two largest newspapers have not yet taken up that challenge.
A quick recap: Romney co-founded the Boston-based private equity firm in 1984 and was its CEO for most of the period until 1999. Romney’s tenure at Bain—buying low-performing companies, restructuring them, making them leaner and meaner, then putting them back on the market—made him a multi-millionaire; his work at the company reportedly earned Romney a fortune totaling between $190 million and $250 million.
It has also earned him sharp attacks from his rivals in the Republican presidential field, some of whom are trying to cast Romney as less capitalist hero than capitalist pig. Newt Gingrich has described Romney and his fellow Harvard MBAs at Bain as “rich people figuring out clever legal ways to loot a company,” while Rick Perry branded him a “vulture capitalist” who benefited by putting people out of work. According to a new PEJ report, the attacks have led to the most negative coverage of Romney since the campaign began.
Romney, however, not only defends his Bain record—he’s running on it. Romney has claimed that his work at Bain helped create 100,000 jobs at companies like Staples, Domino’s Pizza, and Sports Authority—a claim he’s offered as proof he can accomplish the same on a national scale.
With the Obama campaign signaling that it intends to press the anti-Romney argument into November, assuming Romney wins the GOP nomination, the Bain debate looms as a central front in the message war. Reporters for national outlets have already started scrutinizing the competing claims—and have discovered that the story is complicated. Fact-check pieces have found fault with the assertions advanced by both Romney and his critics, particularly a 28-minute video aired by a super PAC aligned with Gingrich. More far-reaching articles, like a solid McClatchy story that appeared Tuesday, note that private equity firms like Bain have complex economic effects that can’t be boiled down into jobs created or jobs lost.
What is clear is that reporters diving into the Bain-Romney storyline will benefit from a solid footing in high finance and venture capitalism, and experience reporting on private equity deals, the details of which typically aren’t public.
For newspaper editors with many other stories to worry about, a bar that high makes localizing this story even trickier. Which is perhaps one reason why Colorado’s largest newspapers have not yet looked into the histories of two Bain-controlled companies that operated in the state—histories that, grounded in the appropriate national context, might make this story more accessible to local readers and help them make sense of the competing political claims.
One of those histories involves California-based Dynamic Details, Inc., (DDi) in which Bain Capital invested about $40 million in 1996, according to a prospectus detailing Bain’s investments posted online by the Los Angeles Times. Soon after, the company bought a circuit board manufacturing plant in Colorado Springs owned by a business called NTI. In early 2000 it closed the facility, laying off most of the 275 workers and moving the operation to Dallas. The Gazette of Colorado Springs announced the plant closure in a Jan. 5, 2000 article, in which a company official said the move was driven in part by competitive pressure from Asia.
The consolidation was emblematic of the efficiency-boosting maneuvers Bain and its peers had been pushing on American business since the 1980s. “By combining the Texas and Colorado operations, we eliminated lower-margin product lines and decreased overhead costs, and we have gained efficiency through better capacity utilization and streamlined management,” company officials said in an SEC filing.