On Bain Claims, Will Local Press Rise to the Challenge?

Connecting regional audiences to the national story is hard work. It’s also important.

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.

When I first started looking into how the layoffs might have affected the community, I didn’t turn up anyone who remembered them—an experience that mirrored what The New York Times found when it took a closer look at Gaffney, S.C., site of another plant closure by a Bain-owned company.

Then I spoke with Doug Eigsti, who worked at the Colorado Springs plant for 21 years, and whom I found via LinkedIn. Eigsti remembers when he first heard of the closure. “My fifth child was due. I was home on vacation [for the birth]. I got a phone call saying, ‘Hey, don’t bother coming back anytime soon. We’re closing down.’”

Eigsti also recalled tension between workers and the new owners, who before the closure had expanded the work week to six days and two shifts. And he said the company had first planned to lay off workers in December, “but then someone reminded them they had to give us 60 days notice or else pay us severance… so they called us all back.”

He described the six months it took him to find another job as “pretty awful.” But Eigsti did find work again—and he is employed today in Colorado Springs, as a technician at Pikes Peak Test Lab.

This is one piece of the Bain story—as is DDi’s subsequent bankruptcy and resurgence, which, other reporters have argued, has been misrepresented by Romney’s critics.

But on Monday, Carmen Boles, content manager at The Gazette, responded via email that her paper had no plans to localize the Bain story by revisiting the plant closure. “I wish we had the resources to do those kinds of stories, and would be interested in how many local news organizations do,” Boles wrote.

Similarly, Denver Post political editor Chuck Plunkett said his paper had no immediate plans for an article pursuing local angles on the Bain story—though a smaller investment Bain made in a doll-making company in the Denver suburb of Greenwood Village has already been reported in national media (and been fodder for a Maureen Dowd column, to boot).

As Mark Maremont wrote last week in The Wall Street Journal, at Romney’s urging Bain in 1996 invested $2.1 million in Lifelike Inc., maker of My Twinn, a doll semi-customized to look like the child who would own her. Lifelike hired Romney’s brother in law as a vice president, and Romney sat on the company’s board. But My Twinn was unprofitable, and in 2001, Bain sold its interest in Lifelike for $15,000, according to the article. (In 2004, Lifelike entered bankruptcy, leaving behind hundreds of angry customers whose orders had gone unfilled. The episode was named “Best Business Scandal” of the year by Denver’s alternative newspaper, Westword.)

The Lifelike story may not raise as many moral or economic questions as other Bain investments. But it could still be a useful point of entry to explain Bain’s business model to local readers and help them make sense of the national coverage of this story, which has been picked up regularly by the Post.

In an interview, Plunkett said the biggest reason the Post had not localized the story is that he is focused on the new state legislative session, which opened last week. “Two of the political desk members are covering that, and I am dealing with some other stories, and I was going to focus more on the Colorado [Republican presidential] caucus in an explicit way closer to the date of the caucus itself,” on Feb. 7, he said. (He also said that he was aware of the Dowd column mentioning a local connection, but that “it didn’t have a serious impact on me.”)

Plunkett added that the Post “routinely rel[ies] on the bigger papers that are covering the national races to provide that service to readers,” noting that the paper “spend[s] a lot of money” to feature content from The Associated Press, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other sources.

“I just don’t know that I’m ready to start jumping into that aspect at this stage,” he said.

At the right time, Plunkett conceded, it would “probably [be] a great idea for us to try to figure out what companies Bain operated here in Colorado.” He concluded with a caution about the enemy of all good journalists: assumptions.

“Reorganizations and layoffs aren’t always necessarily bad,” Plunkett said. “If the company survives, grows stronger and hires more people, it can be a useful thing. So the question is, ‘Was Bain raiding Colorado companies and sapping resources, laying off people with no [intention] of ever opening that position again?’ That would be where you would want to focus… Just because Bain got involved here doesn’t mean it was nefarious.”

It’s a good point, one that suggests the Post would handle this challenging story well. With Bain unlikely to disappear from the campaign, let’s hope that the Post rises to the challenge, as Plunkett hinted it may—and that other local news sources around the country do the same.

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Mary Winter has worked for seven newspapers, most recently the Denver Post, and was assistant managing editor at PoliticsDaily.com. She spent the bulk of her career at the Rocky Mountain News, first in features and later managing the legislative and state government teams. In 2008, she oversaw delegate coverage at the Democratic National Convention for the paper. She wrote a weekly column for the News for 10 years.