In my 17 1/2 years as editor of the Herald Democrat, I never once attended the Wednesday morning coffee. It’s not that I wouldn’t have been welcome (better make that somewhat welcome). But it was made clear to us at the newspaper that we were only to attend if we refrained from covering what people said. The idea, as I understand it, is that people might be afraid to express their opinions if they saw them in print the following week.
That left me with three options.
— Not attend the coffee.
— Obediently attend the coffee and refrain from reporting on it as requested.
— Attend the coffee and write about it. Then attend the next meeting and be asked to leave (or get thrown out). This could escalate. Law enforcement could be called. A brawl could ensue. Then there would really be a story, but it might appear somewhat manufactured.
So, what to do? Newspaper people tend to look for conspiracies. In Leadville especially, conspiracies are often real. I never spent too much time worrying about what was happening at Wednesday morning coffee, but occasionally I would wonder if some sort of coup were being planned.
So at times a Herald reporter would attend and would generally return saying that nothing happened worth writing about or some information was provided that could be followed up on later.
I never scouted the meetings myself for one simple reason. Tuesday is our press day and it doesn’t end until the pages are laid out and shipped electronically to the press down in Salida. Depending on the day and the news, this could be early or late, but generally by the time Tuesday ended, I had put in about 24 hours of work that week. To get up and attend an 8:30 a.m. meeting the next day didn’t hold all that much appeal. And, I don’t drink coffee.
But after my recent retirement as editor, I realized the time was perfect. On Wednesday, March 11, I attended my first Wednesday morning coffee. People were welcoming. I didn’t have to sign a paper saying that I would hold sacred everything that was said at the meeting. Discussion of the COVID-19 epidemic was on most people’s minds.
Attendees – I counted about 17 – shared what was going on in their agencies or businesses. None of this information appeared to be classified. In fact, most of it was news already or soon to be covered in the Herald.
Bob Hartzell runs the Wednesday morning coffee and told me that it actually dates back to the 1980s when he’d have coffee with a friend on Wednesday mornings and others asked to join in. Now the meeting appears in the Herald calendar, and all are invited to join in.
People seemed to be involved Wednesday morning. I always do the cell-phone test at meetings. How many people have their cellphones in hand furiously texting away, oblivious to the business at hand? Saying, at least in my mind, that we should be grateful for their presence, never mind their attention. I didn’t notice much of this at the Wednesday morning coffee.
There was something reassuring about seeing people engaged with one another on an equal basis. Although Bob kept everyone on track, there was none of this “three minutes or less” timing that happens at government meetings.
Face-to-face communication with no electronics involved is something that is dying out, but should be encouraged under normal circumstances. Of course these aren’t normal times. With “social isolation” becoming the new thing in the current health crisis, face-to-face communication may become a thing of the past. Will the Wednesday morning coffee also become a thing of the past? Another victim of the epidemic? If so, it’s something worth mourning.