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Why Boise collects more ex-journalists than anywhere else

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Look around you, Boiseans, and they are everywhere: former newspaper and television reporters, refugees from the deadline-driven life, happily ensconced in Boise.

A working journalist can reasonably expect to encounter a former member of the Fourth Estate on the phone, or in meetings, perhaps. But in Boise, you can't swing a laptop without hitting a former newsperson.

"Boise is loaded with ex-reporters," said Betsy Russell, the Boise correspondent for the Spokane, Wash., Spokesman Review and president of the Idaho Press Club.

Whether they go to work for government agencies they once covered (most common), or to work for politicians (a few) or find some new niche they like, it seems that many ex-reporters are loathe to leave town, which results in Boise's over-average collection of recovering reporters.

"It's pretty unusual," said Mike Keckler, a former reporter for KBCI Channel 2 in Boise, now working for the Idaho Fish and Game.

As happens with most political seasons, last year's elections swept up a few reporters in their wake. First there was Wayne Hoffman, a former Idaho Statesman political reporter who went to work for the Idaho Department of Agriculture, then left to work for Republican campaigns such as that of new Congressman Bill Sali and new Superintendent of Schools, Tom Luna.

Later in the election season, Jon Hanian, formerly the managing editor at KBCI, left a 20-year career in journalism to work for Gov. Butch Otter during the campaign. Upon arrival in the Otter press office, Hanian joined former Associated Press reporter Mark Warbis, who has been with Otter since his days as a Congressman.

"It was a very personal decision for me," said Hanian. Like many others who once worked as reporters, Hanian says that the life of a journalist--beholden to the 24-hour news cycle left him unable to lead a "regular" life.

"Chasing stories at all hours of the day was taking a toll on my family," said Hanian, who is going through a divorce. "That had an impact on my marriage."

Troubles like Hanian's aren't rare. In 2005, the journalistic think tank Poynter Institute polled hundreds of journalists and media executives on the quality of life they felt they had in their career.

Overall, 47.2 percent of the poll's 750 respondents said they have seriously considered leaving the field. Many reporters in the Poynter Institute survey lamented the lack of a "work-life" balance. More to the point, they felt that if they were to ask for accommodations for this balance, they might miss an opportunity for advancement in the field.

But Hanian said he timed his exit from an award-winning television career with what he sees as an ugly evolution of his old profession.

"I think journalism is in the middle of reinventing itself, and not necessarily for the better," Hanian said. With television stations making expensive technology upgrades at the expense of news people, and with station managers determined to send reporters chasing crime-of-the-moment news, Hanian said, he became disillusioned. Ditto for his former partner, Keckler, who together with Hanian broke many stories surrounding former Boise Mayor Brent Coles.

"The indications were that they just weren't interested in doing that kind of journalism," Keckler said. "I reached a turning point. Did I want to do stories about lawn bugs or do serious journalism?" After a hiatus and some soul-searching, Keckler, who is married with two small children (his wife also used to work in television but now works in public relations), decided it was time to get out.

But television isn't alone in chewing up and spitting out its reporters. Greg Hahn, a political reporter for the Idaho Statesman since 1999, has lost count of the former Statesman scribes in town. One of those is Chuck Oxley, now the spokesman for the Idaho Democratic Party. Oxley was formerly the state editor at the Statesman and worked for the AP before making the leap from the press corps.

"After you've worked at the Statesman and the Associated Press, there's not a lot of media outlets that will pay a living wage," Oxley said. Plus, he said, he became disappointed in the corporate culture at the Statesman while it was operated by Gannett News Service. (The paper has since been sold to the McClatchy Company.) Oxley left the Associated Press for politics when he felt stifled by the AP, he said. Journalistic burnout is real at Idaho's largest daily, Oxley said. Reporters developed a name for the cluster of editor's desks that sat near the center of the newsroom: The Wheel of Death.

"People would work in there, stay for 18 months, then leave not only the Statesman but the entire industry," Oxley said.

"Gannett, I think, is pretty hard on its people," said Karen Baker, former editor of the Statesman, who is now a vice president at Healthwise, a local health publishing company. She counts a few former Statesman reporters and editors with her on staff, she said, and when they visit with one another, they do not talk about reporting.

The phenomenon has stripped newsrooms of its old hands. People around the state mourned when longtime AP reporter Bob Fick left in 2005 to work for the state's Department of Commerce. Fick's old AP bureau has gone through a major sea change with the departure of Fick, Warbis and Oxley and, since then, of its latest bureau chief Chris Smith, who recently started work at Micron Technology.

"You really did have a lot more veterans in the newsrooms," said Randy Stapilus, who was at the Statesman from 1984 to 1990.

Some reasons for an exit from journalism are as simple as money, said Lynn Hightower. Now the spokeswoman for the Boise Police Department, she had a satisfying career with local television stations like KIVI Channel 6 and left on good terms. But like others, family commitments and a desire for a normal schedule drew her away.

"It's not the highest pay around," said Hightower. The average pay for an entry-level television reporter in Boise, she said, can be as low as $25,000. But, she said, it is one of the more rewarding careers in other ways, including the connection with people at the heart of big or interesting stories.

"I don't know any other job where you get that kind of personal satisfaction," Hightower said.

But when they leave the newsrooms, instead of leaving town to chase better opportunities, many choose to stay in Boise, for a reason that is as obvious as it is simple.

"People just love Boise so much, they try to find ways to stay here," said Hahn.

Others try less traditional routes, like Statesman reporter Ken Dey, who left to work for the state department of Commerce and Labor before returning to the paper last year to report on business.

Journalism doesn't loosen its grip on former reporters easily. Many still miss the front seat to the world they had as a journalist.

"God, yeah," said Oxley.

"It's life experience like you can't get anywhere else," said Mike Journee, who was a business reporter at the Statesman before going to work for former Gov. Dirk Kempthorne. Journee now works at Scott Peyron & Associates, a public-relations firm. Like Oxley, Journee and Keckler miss the buzz, and the chance to interact with key players in big issues.

"There are times when I see a big story and I think, 'Boy, I'd like to be a part of that,'" Keckler said.

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