Eli Stokols
United States Project

Politico’s latest hire leaves a hole in Colorado politics coverage

March 17, 2015
Eli Stokols

The latest threat to state-level reporting—Politico, which keeps hiring top political journalists away from local news organizations—has hit Colorado.

Eli Stokols, one of the state’s best political reporters, produced the final segment of #COpolitics: From the Source, his weekend public-affairs show, on Sunday. After nearly a decade in Denver TV, Stokols is leaving for Washington at the end of the month to join Politico’s team covering the 2016 presidential race. His last day at KDVR, the local Fox affiliate, will be March 31.

Stokols’ final episode was a memorable one. After a brief discussion with John Hickenlooper, the state’s second-term Democratic governor, about the recommendations of an oil and gas task force, Hickenlooper flipped the script, telling Stokols he’d be doing the interviewing for the rest of the segment. The governor immediately busted the anchor for breaking the three-year contract he signed with his TV station in April.

“Do you think that people, when they say they’re going to do something, they should do it?” Hickenlooper asked. You can watch the full segment below:

Stokols worked his way up from general-assignment hire to influential on-air (and online) political reporter before becoming a weekend host, and it’s no surprise he had ambitions outside local TV reporting—he’s already written several long-form pieces, a number of them for Politico Magazine. As The Denver Post put the news: “It was only a matter of time.”

But his departure will leave a noticeable hole in coverage of politics and policy in Colorado, and his own station isn’t sure yet how it might be filled.

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“I’m not positive what we will do when he leaves. Still working on that,” said Holly Gaunt, the news director and vice president for KDVR and its sister station KWGN. “Covering politics will still be important to us, but at this stage I don’t know how things will shake out.”

The Sunday show got its name from melding the popular Twitter hashtag #COpolitics with The Source, an artisan food market in Denver’s River North District. Stokols began filming his weekly interviews there last June at a table in the converted 1880s brick foundry, amid patrons eating and drinking.

“I didn’t want to do a show in a studio with a black curtain and chairs,” he told me. “I wanted it to look and feel a little different, and we made that happen even though I think some of the folks at the station were a little wary.”

Local public-affairs programming can have a reputation as a bit of a snooze-fest. But over the past nine months Stokols’ segments have shown how a show can elevate debate on a specific issue and have an impact, said Jason Salzman, a Denver-based communications consultant and the former media critic for the defunct Rocky Mountain News.

“Thanks to Stokols, that station is really one of the go-to places for political news in the state,” he said.

Highlights from the show’s run include Stokols’ combative interview with then-Congressman Cory Gardner during the politician’s successful 2014 campaign for US Senate. Stokols has also brought on authors such as Matt Bai and diplomats like Chris Hill, the former US ambassador to Iraq. The anchor dove into campaign politics, the shifting demographics of a Colorado swing district, and broader issues like race and law enforcement. He strove to untangle the nuances of public policy, from how to fix banking for Colorado’s new recreational marijuana industry to what the anti-immunization movement means for public health.

“I’m disappointed [the show] is going away,” Stokols said. “I hope there will be, down the road, a new iteration of a Sunday morning or some other time-slot show that is sort of substantive or issue-focused … I hope that at some point the station does something in that space.”

I sort of kicked and screamed my way into doing this beat and being left alone because I wanted to do it and I didn’t want to go cover snowstorms and shit anymore.

If that does happen, it may be because the station finds it has another ambitious, politics-junkie young reporter on its hands. After Stokols joined KWGN as a general assignment reporter, he said, “I sort of kicked and screamed my way into doing this beat and being left alone because I wanted to do it and I didn’t want to go cover snowstorms and shit anymore.”

He spent his days at the capitol filing political stories for the Web, and his bosses took a hands-off approach. He would often post online items without an editor, which meant editing might be crowdsourced. “I get people tweeting the typos at me,” he says. But it worked.

That autonomy followed him to the set of #COpolitics: From the Source, where he was able to decide each week’s guests and format. “We didn’t have conversations [with management] like, ‘What are you doing?’” he said. “I could just kind of get away with whatever show I wanted to do.”

Now, Stokols will be shifting gears to a DC-based publication where a team of editors will oversee his work. He doesn’t see it as a transition as much as just being part of a new breed of journalist, where working for converging platforms means kind of doing a little bit of everything.

And since he’ll be assessing day-to-day Colorado news from the perspective of a consumer rather than a producer, I asked what he hopes to see more of when he’s gone. More enterprise coverage, for one, he said. (I agree.)

And, he added, “I’d like to see people here be a little tougher on some of the people that we cover. I don’t know if I saw that enough in the campaign coverage last year. There seems to be a reluctance to hold people accountable for policy positions.

“I think for the most part people here do a good job,” he continued, “but I think it’s tough when you have these relationships and you’re everybody’s friend to really bang peoples’ heads around because you don’t want to do it. There’s always that catch between access and holding people accountable.”

That’s a worthwhile goal—and one it’s just as important to strive for in Washington.

Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he teaches journalism at Colorado College. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins writes about politics and media for the Colorado Independent and worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity; he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, the Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.