You might have seen Doug Bell catching a hot breakfast at The Place, or hanging chilly at the Muddy Buck of a Sunday afternoon. If you frequent Jeffco’s Open Space Parks there’s a good chance Bell has greeted you on the trail, because he’s hiked all of them at least a half-dozen times. Politically interested mountain-area residents will almost certainly recognize Bell as the level-headed moderator in charge of the candidate debates that periodically rage within the stout walls of the Evergreen Lake House. But if you’re among the few who haven’t yet had the pleasure, Doug would be the first to invite you to drop by his Meadow Drive office and introduce yourself. For the last 10 years he’s been the hard-working managing editor of Evergreen Newspapers, and his door is always open.
“I spent some of the best times of my life in the Evergreen area long before I became editor of the Canyon Courier,” says Bell, who spends nights in a tidy house in Denver’s comfortable Platte Park in a home he shares with his wife, Christa, their rescue-dog, Xena, and a three-legged cat named Shackleton. “Much of my 20s was spent immersed in the mountain music scene, hiking and climbing, eating barbecue at the Rib Crib and loaded baked potatoes at Dick’s Hickory Dock. So taking the job in Evergreen was a homecoming, of sorts.”
Bell was raised in Carmichaels, a wide spot on a secondary road in the rural coal country of western Pennsylvania. At school he liked to play alto sax in the band, hang with the Chess Club, and not study.
“I spent a lot of time in meetings with teachers and my parents trying to explain why I wasn’t a genius like my older brother and sister.” Bell hit his academic stride as a political science major at Pennsylvania State University. When he wasn’t working on his sheepskin, he was writing for, and later editing, the university newspaper, frequently finding himself at odd with now-notoriously head football coach Joe Paterno. Even so, his first love was government, and he dreamed of a role just behind the public stage.
“I was planning to become a speech writer and policy wonk.”
What he didn’t plan on was reaching the end of his senior year flat broke and several credits shy of a poli-sci degree. As luck would have it, there was a department willing to grant academic credit for his stretch at the college paper, and Bell skinned out on schedule in 1981 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism.
He officially launched his accidental career at the Daily News in Springfield, Mo., and moved west when the Coloradoan in Fort Collins came calling. It was a happy move, if only because his Penn State partner-in-crime, “Chief”, happened to be designing rockets just down the range at Martin-Marietta in South Jeffco.
“Chief and I had a tendency toward mischief during our college years,” Bell recalls. “We both left our gainful jobs to spend a summer hitch-hiking around the West. We thumbed it for nearly 3,000 miles, visited seven national parks, got extremely wet, and nearly starved on multiple occasions. Also, I was beaned by a double-A battery outside Townsend, Mont.”
In 1986, Bell started a six-year gig at the Rocky Mountain News that encompassed such potent news as the Challenger disaster and the first Gulf War, and ended with his promotion to copy desk chief at the tender age of 23. In 1993 he took a desk at the Boulder Camera which he occupied for four very eventful years.
“They included the mass insanity that occurred in the wake of the JonBenet Ramsey slaying, although ‘mass insanity’ is a relative term when applied to Boulder for any specific period of time.” Bell moved to the Denver Post in 1997, where he found himself standing directly in the path of the frenzied flood of bad news flowing in from Columbine High School. By 2004, and with nothing left to prove in the field of journalism, he began contemplating a less hectic existence. Having for many years taught a slate of advanced journalism classes at Metropolitan State College, he was offered, and accepted, a full-time administrative post at the school. It was arguably the only bad move Bell ever made. By then accustomed to the immediacy and adrenaline of newsgathering, the administrator’s tame reality left him cold. Fortunately for everyone concerned, Evergreen Newspaper’s then-publisher, Brad Bradberry was at that moment down one managing editor.
“I picked up the phone one afternoon and Brad said ‘I hear you hate your job.’ I was working in Evergreen two weeks later.”
If life West of the Hogback doesn’t provide the same pace of news that Bell had grown used to, it presents a whole catalog of unique challenges all its own. For starters, he found himself the captain of not one, but four weekly papers – The Canyon Courier in Evergreen, the High Timber Times covering Conifer and the 285 Corridor, the Clear Creek Courant in Idaho Springs, and the Columbine Courier in South Jeffco. For another, the curious constitution of this relatively mild mountain-area domain is, in many ways, a tougher nut to crack than a teeming metropolitan area.
“Evergreen is not an easy community to get a handle on,” Bell explains. “It’s a suburb, it’s a mountain town, it’s a place where tourists and others hang out on the weekends. It’s full of artists and pilots and engineers, blue-collar types and professionals. And it’s a place where all these different facets and interest groups co-exist. Yes – coexist, as opposed to melding together. It’s a challenge, especially for a newspaper editor, because everyone has a pet project, or cause, and rightfully believes their own bailiwick deserves attention and coverage.”
But finding a productive middle ground is what Bell is built for, and painting an accurate picture of the mountain community – the good and the bad, the upsetting and the inspiring – is his operating principle.
“A newspaper’s role is to reflect its community, and to keep an eye on governments and the taxpayers’ money. That sounds straightforward, but the audience has its own ideas and we somehow have to satisfy our readers’ preferences while also remaining true to those goals. The heart of our mission is to seek the truth and tell it, not to select only the favorable news and events that make the reader feel good. We are not a chamber of commerce brochure, and never will be on my watch.”
If that rock-solid commitment to the ethics of journalism may ruffle feathers at times, it’s also earned Bell a signal honor bestowed with respect by his colleagues and peers.
“One of my proudest moments was the night I received the Society of Professional Journalists’ First Amendment Award. It reflects a commitment to ensuring that governments do the public’s business in public, and my own commitment to passing that mission on to my students. Seeing former students and protégés take up the causes of open government and freedom of expression, I’m willing to take a moment and feel like maybe I’ve done a little good on this journey.”
But all work and no play can drive a fellow batty, and any portrait of Doug Bell would be woefully inaccurate which didn’t make mention of his favorite pastime (or obsession, depending on who you’re talking to and whether or not the Penguins are playing tonight). Bell may well be the hardest-working goalie on Colorado ice.
“I’ve played hockey an average of three times a week for 27 years,” he says. “It’s cost me three teeth and all the cartilage in my right hip. My nickname is ‘The Glove’. I’ve also been a fairly serious tennis player for most of my adult life, but as I said to my orthopedic surgeon, ‘Tennis is something I do. Being a goalie is who I am.’”
And being the head, heart and conscience of Evergreen Newspapers is Bell’s right and proper place in the world.
“I love Evergreen for its quirks and its characters,” he smiles. “I never felt that more strongly than I did while on midnight watch last September, hoping that the floodwaters didn’t rise another foot into downtown. This little place has been central to a huge chunk of my life, and my spirit will still be here long after I’m gone.”