Mike Curtin is a freelance journalist who worked for 38 years as a reporter, editor and associate publisher for the Columbus Dispatch. During his career, Curtin specialized in the coverage of state and local government, public policy and electoral politics. From 2013 to 2016, he served as a Democratic member of the Ohio House of Representatives for the 17th district. On Monday, he gave a talk titled “The Fall of Newspapers and the Rise of Fake News,” an event sponsored by the Center for the Study of American Democracy. In a discussion organized by the Career Development Office, Curtin also spoke on Tuesday about the field of journalism and gave career advice to students.
During your 38 years working with the Columbus Dispatch, you have served as a reporter, editor, associate publisher and chief operating officer. What has your experience been like in each role? Which positions, if any, did you particularly enjoy?
I always enjoyed being a reporter and trying to master a beat, trying to gain as much information as I could about a particular subject in an area of coverage and explaining it to the readers of the newspaper. Of all the roles I had at the Dispatch, I most enjoyed not the leadership roles, not being editor, not being a front office manager, but simply being a beat reporter and trying to master subject areas. Most of my beats were governmental beats — city hall, county government, state government — and those are important areas that affect the lives of everyone. I’ve always enjoyed it; it was a continual learning experience. I thought I was getting paid to learn and to pass on information that was relevant to people’s lives.
What kind of audience would you say there is for local and state news today?
Well, unfortunately, it’s a shrinking audience. Newspapers have been going out of business very rapidly over the last 20 years, and those that are still in operation have very reduced news staffs. Even though those papers have made a valiant effort to create online versions of themselves, they don’t command nearly the audience — either the readership audience or the advertising audience — that they did in previous days. As a result, we’re getting much less coverage of our communities, much less coverage of our local governments. Therefore, we’re not doing as good a job as we used to do at holding those in power accountable at the local level, something we’ll need to figure out how to solve in years and decades to come.
How did your time at the Columbus Dispatch, or as a journalist in general, frame your experience serving as a representative?
As a freshman representative, I knew a lot more than most freshmen representatives did simply because I had studied and covered the Ohio General Assembly and state government. I had covered it in-depth for many years, I had written about it in-depth for many years, so I knew the machinery of the state government, I knew the machinery of the state legislature. When I went in, there were really no surprises. I was already well up the learning curve and didn’t have to go through the basics, if you will, of learning what my job was and learning how to represent the constituency in my district.
You began professionally reporting in 1973, a year after the Watergate scandal — generally noted to be a turning point in journalistic history — appeared in the news. In what ways have you seen the ethics of journalism shift since you first began reporting? Are there any developments which prefaced the rise of fake news?
The Watergate saga influenced a lot of young people to go into journalism. Newspapers were at the very height of their strength and vitality in American society. One could say that the New York Times and the Washington Post, arguably, took down an administration by virtue of their investigations and their reporting power. That had an enormous influence on journalists across the country and spawned an era of investigative or enterprise journalism, where there was a lot more energy and a lot more vigor extended toward looking more deeply into government functions at all levels. It definitely had an influence on me as a young journalist and on people in my age cohort. But what I found in my experience at the city, county and state level was that good journalism was not so much about exposing scandals, but about the daily nuts and bolts of following the money, trying to ensure transparency, trying to show readers what their elected officials were up to. And just by doing that, day in and day out, you keep scandals from happening.
What career advice do you have for students interested in journalism today?
I encourage students to try to develop a double major in something other than journalism to have that in your bag of goods, if you will, because there are fewer jobs for people to apply for in journalism these days. Successful applicants, more often than not, will have a wider skill set, so I encourage students to either consider a double major or a minor in something in which they have an interest, so when you go to a potential employer, you can show that you’re not only a very promising and skilled journalist for your age, but that you have a knowledge of something else which may be relevant in the communities where you’re trying to apply for a job. A good example would be to major in a foreign language. Newspapers and other media outlets are looking for people who can bring a skill set that allows them to cover, with some depth and some skill, an area that’s important to their given community. If one can carry that extra load, I encourage students to consider doing that.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.