Denver Post features editor Barbara Ellis ’80, twice a member of Pulitzer Prize-winning staffs, rose through the newsroom ranks at a time when few women were “knocking at journalism’s door.”
A “shirt-sleeve morning,” The Denver Post called it, “the kind when the sun bathes pansies and tulips in a way that makes their colors seem unreal.” It was the same Tuesday morning, April 20, 1999, that two students wearing black trench coats opened shotgun fire in the halls of a Colorado high school whose name has since become a shorthand for mass murder. The perpetrators of the Columbine High School massacre killed fifteen people, including themselves, that day. At the time, it was the deadliest school shooting in US history.
“Really, it was surreal,” remembers Barbara Ellis (née Yucka), who was then working as a copy editor and page designer at the Post. “The horror of it all, and in our own backyard.”
Almost a year later, on April 11, 2000, a five-person jury awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting to the staff of The Denver Post for its coverage of the massacre. Watching a livestream of the awards from the newsroom in Denver, Post staffers briefly celebrated when they heard their name announced, but the pain of the tragedy quickly resurfaced and tears began flowing.
“I don’t know anyone who brags about that Pulitzer,” Ellis says. “The cost was too high.”
According to Ellis, many current and former employees who worked for the Post at the time of the Columbine massacre “admit to some level of post-traumatic stress.”
“But on that day, and for the months that followed,” she adds, “every journalist who worked the story will tell you that their instincts kicked in. They had work to do; their own emotional breakdown had to wait.”
Ellis’s path to The Denver Post began some two decades earlier when she was an English major at AIC, taking literature and creative writing courses with the late Dr. Miriam Cavanaugh, who had covered labor as a reporter and features writer for The Republican before becoming a professor and chair of the College’s English department.
“She was amazing—always nurturing and engaged. She was so passionate about her subjects, and that was passed on to her students,” Ellis remembers. “Professor Cavanaugh recognized my love for the written word and for the precision of language. She helped me sharpen my focus and raised the bar for what I thought I could do. She had confidence in me that I didn’t have in myself.”
In 1978, Dr. Cavanaugh recommended Ellis, then a junior, for a position at the Springfield Morning Union.
“I hadn’t been certain what I was going to do with a degree in English Literature, but fell in love with the people at the newspaper and with the profession,” Ellis says. “I was given so many chances to prove myself there as one of few women knocking at journalism’s door at the time.”
Ellis stayed at the Morning Union for three years before taking a job at The Miami News, a now-defunct evening paper, as a scanner clerk, taking dictation and manually feeding typewritten stories into a “prehistoric” scanning machine to computerize the copy. A short time after starting at The Miami News, she was given the opportunity to write features and breaking news stories and asked to take the test to become a copy editor. She left in 1986 and returned to her native Western Massachusetts and the Springfield Morning Union, where she was the news editor until arriving at The Denver Post in 1990.
~ Barbara Ellis ’80
And there, in the shadow of the Rockies, she’s been for nearly thirty years. She began as a copy editor and has since worn a number of newsroom hats, including news editor, assistant Sunday editor, page designer, member of the editorial board, columnist, features writer, and now features editor. Her writing for The Post, which is archived on the paper’s website, represents a constellation of topics—from climate change to reality television, from Burger King’s new low-calorie french fries to the perils of learning to Rollerblade in middle age.
On July 20, 2012, tragedy struck again in the form of another mass shooting in Greater Denver. This time, a lone gunman killed twelve during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises at an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater. In its coverage of the aftermath, The Denver Post combined written reportage with digital resources, such as video, social media, and interactive maps and timelines, to keep up with the constantly developing story. And again the Post staff won the breaking news Pulitzer under grim circumstances. Ellis was then on the editorial board and had less of a hand in the breaking reportage than she’d had in 1999.
“Social media bolstered the coverage,” she says, “but it also led to some wild (and often incorrect) reports from the public. It’s sometimes difficult for the public to differentiate between vetted news and speculation.”
Ellis credits the Internet, its surfeit of “untrustworthy and dubious information,” with eroding readers’ trust in valid news sources, and the twenty-four hour news cycle with rendering printed news “obsolete before the ink is dry.”
Still, she says, there will always be a market for writing that’s dually entertaining and informative—and that’s where feature stories factor in.
“Today’s readers, who have many more media outlets to choose from, are constantly looking for things to do in their leisure time. Features sections fill that need, and then some,” she explains. “They also provide thought-provoking commentary and analysis on trends, politics, parenting, theater, television, film, and more.”
To anyone interested in breaking into journalism, Ellis offers two pieces of advice: Hone your social media skills and “be prepared to fight for the First Amendment and against those who attack you for ‘fake news.’ Strive to be fair and balanced and, above all, accurate.”
By Brendan Gauthier :: Photos courtesy of the Denver Post