When political reporter Lynn Bartels left The Denver Post last year for a communications job at the Secretary of State's (SOS) office, it appeared she'd left journalism.
But it turns out, maybe not completely--depending on your definition of journalism.
As the communications director for Colorado Republican SOS Wayne Williams, Bartels is writing a blog with some of the same types of stories that you saw her write at The Post and, before that, at the Rocky Mountain News.
Titles of recent Bartels posts, for example, include: "Senate Republicans embrace the past and future at pre-session fundraiser," "Back by popular demand! Sarah Moss' State of the Union bingo!," "More babies! Colorado politicos celebrate!," "OnSight Public Affairs' holiday card is outta site," "Wayne Williams: Colorado secretary of state and good Samaritan," "Secretary of State Wayne Williams outlines agency's goals, achievements at SMART act hearing," and "Sen. Cory Gardner, 'our environmentalist,' addresses CACI."
Some of this is good PR for Williams and his office. Some of it is human-interest journalism. Some of it is soft political reporting.
Regardless, it's quickly become part of Denver's journalism mix, in the era of disappearing reporters and starved political junkies.
And Bartels blog comes with a caveat that most other blogging flaks in the world can only dream of, "The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and not of the office."
When she started her new job, Bartels explains, she told her boss, "The Post and the Rocky used to have people assigned to the Secretary of State's office. And they don't have that anymore. It's just part of generic government. Some of this stuff you're just not going to get promoted, if you don't promote it yourself." He signed off on the concept.
But why all the posts that have nothing to do with the SOS office?
"When I started, someone from the Secretary of State's office said, 'This is going to be solely about the Secretary of State's office, isn't it?' And I said, 'No, who would read it?' And Wayne burst out laughing and said the same thing."
So for those of you who might hate the idea of Bartels doing Christmas-card stories on the taxpayer dime, she makes a good PR case for it, I'd say. And hey, her blog is featured number one on the list of "costumer favorites" on the Colorado SOS home page.
Bartels' blog could possibly be a model for how PR at a state agency could compensate, in an itsy bitsy way, for diminished journalism.
But you run into trouble when a state-sponsored blog is used for partisan purposes. Or even if it's perceived that way. That's yuck bad.
Bartels acknowledged the problem with, "If the secretary of state were Scott Gessler, people would be blowing a rod."
As it is, Bartels says one of her posts was used by a Democratic candidate for fundraising (without Bartels approval or knowledge, she says). A handful mention candidates, giving them a de facto PR boost.
Bartels wrote a partisan-looking post Jan. 12 titled, Senate Republicans embrace the past and future at pre-session fundraiser. This post is basically a GOP fluff piece, going out of its way to name Republican candidates and saying "at times" Senate President Bill Cadman is "pretty close" to being as funny as Bill Murray.
But if you look at her blog, it's clear Bartels, who says she's a Republican herself, isn't blatantly pushing Republicans over Dems (outside of her boss). She's written favorable posts about Democrats Sen. Kerry Donovan and former Lt. Governor Joe Garcia, for example.
Still, I think Bartels, who worked for 22 years as a Denver journalist, should stay away from mentioning candidates, potential candidates, and highly partisan stuff. Maybe she could assemble a bipartisan group to review the blog every few months to catch any partisan drift. Or maybe nonpartisan staff at the SOS could give her feedback on posts before they go out. In any case, some structural check on Bartels would be good for her and the dignity of the SOS office.
As for breaking news, one of Bartels' tweets broke a story about a GOP candidate entering the governor's race. One blog post broke news about the death of a well-liked Republican consultant.
"If I wanted to break political news on that blog, I could break it a lot. It's not my goal," she says, adding she's too busy anyway. "I could have broken the Jon Keyser story, but I didn't."
"I've used the blog to promote our office, to promote county clerks, to promote things that we're doing," Bartels says, adding that the blogging results in long hours for her. "The county clerks love it."
"If groups invite Wayne to speak, I'll write something," she said. (But I'm guessing fewer Democrats than Republicans will want to hear Williams.)
It makes you wonder, are PR folk pitching stories to Bartels, like they did when she was at The Post?
Not really, she tells me, sounding a little vague.
"Hey, I've got to take this call," Bartels said, ending our conversation. Some things never change.