When Dan Popkey, the Idaho Statesman’s — and perhaps Idaho’s — most veteran political reporter and columnist, visited and spoke with my Boise State journalism class on April 2, he gave the impression that inertia was one of the main reasons he was still in the game. Popkey, a 30-plus year veteran of the trade, seemed unsure of his reasons for staying in journalism, despite his record of accomplishments. Students later wondered if our questions had spurred an identity crisis.

With Popkey’s recent departure from the Statesman, we are losing one of Idaho’s most talented political journalists. Popkey’s decision to work for Idaho Rep. Raúl Labrador, a Tea Party darling and frequent thorn in the side of House Republican leadership, is baffling to many. But in light of our discussion in April and his understandably visible bewilderment at the now infamous Idaho Republican gubernatorial primary debate, perhaps Popkey was ready to move on.

More broadly, as a close observer of the decline of journalism over the past decade or so, I find it disappointing to hear that another journalist has gone to the “dark side” of public relations. The flight from journalism is concerning for two reasons. First, independent journalism — when done well — offers our best opportunity to become competent, self-governing citizens in a democracy. Without quality information obtained and distributed by folks who know who to call and what to ask, we are at the mercy of the wealthy and the powerful.

Second, those who leave journalism often move to PR, as Popkey did, which means not only less independent reporting but also more carefully crafted one-sided messaging. NYT reporter David Barstow: “The muscles of journalism are weakening and the muscles of public relations are bulking up ­— as if they were on steroids.” — via Propublica investigation on growth of the PR industry.

The ratio of PR practitioners to journalists in the United States now exceeds 4-to-1, and traditional news outlets continue to contract under financial strain and technological disruption. News outlets are forced to rely on PR “information subsidies” to help cut costs and save time. And the web has failed to live up to its potential as it becomes swallowed up by the same kinds of giants that dominate the rest of the media landscape. The result is a society awash in spin with many fewer people working to sort through it all. It is a cruel irony of the information age that it has become harder than ever to find reliable information.

Dan Popkey

Idaho Statesman mug shot
Former Idaho Statesman political reporter, Dan Popkey, circa 2012

Popkey’s announcement seemed to shock many observers in Idaho, probably because he had spent so long developing his reputation as a fearless independent reporter and becoming a household name — he is easily recognizable from his Statesman mug shot — and now he is giving that up to work for a congressman who, until last week, Popkey was responsible for scrutinizing.

Perhaps Popkey will reveal his reasons when he starts doing interviews later this week. (Popkey declined an interview for this article because he’d already promised an exclusive to another media outlet.) Typically, journalists leave for higher pay and better hours, but this seems unlikely in Popkey’s case. Surely he could set his own hours and run his own beat at the Statesman. The Idaho Press-Tribune reported that Popkey will make about $84,000 a year working for Labrador, not necessarily a significant financial windfall for a senior reporter. “He probably would have made more had he stayed at the Statesman,” Labrador’s deputy chief of staff Doug Taylor told the Press-Tribune. “This wasn’t about the money.”
More Popkey reax:
Marc Johnson’s “The Most Interesting Man
Chuck Malloy’s “The new press secretary
Emilie Ritter Saunders’ Storify
David Adler on the Fourth Estate

No comparable rumblings were heard when other talented Idaho journalists recently made the move from journalism. Todd Dvorak left the Associated Press to work for Attorney General Lawrence Wasden and former Statesman reporter and Idaho Public Television host Greg Hahn now works as associate vice president for communications and marketing at Boise State. Hahn said he and Dvorak were relative nobodies compared to Popkey and added that the reaction to Popkey’s move would have been much quieter had he gone to a more benign position.

Hahn also noted that nearly everyone who works in media relations in Idaho — especially in politics — once worked for a news outlet. (Indeed, the Ridenbaugh Press blog has a list of former Idaho journalists and their new gigs.) Hahn said it’s common for journalists to want to pursue a less grueling opportunity. “Nothing needs to be done as desperately as a daily newspaper or television show,” Hahn said. “Sometimes you want to be with your family on two Christmases in a row, and that’s hard to do at newspapers.”

Whatever the reasons, it’s important to realize that we’ve created a system that incentivizes one-sided spin by those who can afford it and simultaneously devalues independent investigation. Serious journalism is often difficult and costly, but it’s not well supported by the public or by large media corporations seeking short-term profit margins. As Emily Walton, director of the Idaho Civic Engagement Project, wrote on Facebook, “I guess any of us complaining about Popkey working for Labrador should think about if we value good journalism enough to pay for it.” This thinking has led some observers to call for increased public subsides for journalism, which is a public good that the market simply cannot produce enough of. Most other developed nations figured this out a long time ago, as a recent report from Free Press shows.

Everyone has a right to get his or her message out, and PR practitioners need not be faulted for doing so, especially if it earns them a good paycheck and a decent quality of life. Personally, I wish Dan the best and hope he can help bring some much needed sense and civility to our political discourse. But I hope the attention drawn to Popkey’s announcement will give us a chance to reflect on the complex nature of our information society and to think about ways to make it better.

As PR historian Stuart Ewen has said, “Part of the power of publicity is to make a public more possible. Rather than condemn publicity, I think it is our job to reappropriate it for more meaningful and more humane purposes.”

Here’s hoping that Popkey and other talented former journalists will do just that.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.