Idaho State Capitol building on March 23, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)
It might have been surprising to some to see Steve Hartgen’s regular column in Times-News on Sunday, given the fact that he died two days earlier. But leave it to Steve to take care of the small details – such as sending out his column to editors in plenty of time for Sunday’s paper.
Knowing Steve, he’s probably trying to figure out how to send out at least a few more from the afterlife. If anyone can pull that off, it’s Steve Hartgen.
He has worn a lot of hats in his 77 years. He served more than a decade as a state representative and held several other titles, including author, historian and a pillar of his community. As a legislator, he reflected the conservative values of his constituents in the Magic Valley. As a columnist, he consistently wrote from a conservative perspective, which was a rare thing to find here, even though Idaho is one of the nation’s reddest of red states.
I remember him as being a heck of a newsman … and a great friend for almost 40 years.
I met Steve in 1984 when I was working as a press secretary for then-Congressman Ed Bethune of Arkansas. I had this idea of opening a Washington bureau for newspapers in Idaho (my native state), and Steve gave me all the common-sense reasons why my idea wouldn’t work in the Gem State. The bottom line was that newspaper publishers would never make that kind of an investment.
Something better came along for me. After Bethune lost in his bid for the U.S. Senate, I landed a job with the Post Register in Idaho Falls and continued to have occasional contact with Steve. I worked more closely with him when he came to the Legislature in 2009 when I was communication adviser for Idaho Republicans, spurring some deep conversations about the state of the newspaper industry and politics. In more recent years, we have been members of a dwindling club – old geezers who don’t know when to quit writing about politics.
I didn’t work with Steve during his time as editor and publisher of the Times-News (1982-2005). But another one of my longtime friends, Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News, was a city editor for the Times-News from 1996-2001 and well describes what a treasure Steve was to the newspaper profession.
“A huge part of Steve’s legacy is the long list of great journalists who got their start in Twin Falls, or moved to this remote news market to sharpen their skills,” Richert said. “His community, and his profession, was well served by his commitment to smart local reporting. Our business needs more people like him, now more than ever.”
Amen to that.
As Kevin tells me, working with Steve was not a picnic. He stood for tough, no-nonsense local journalism and his standards were high. In the end, Richert said, “I knew he’d have our backs as we went out and did our jobs. You can’t ask for more than that from a publisher,” Richert said.
“I learned a great deal working for Steve. Perhaps the biggest lesson was a simple one: The best journalism comes from running out every ground ball. He expected reporters to attend government meetings, listen closely, ask smart questions, and spot the bigger stories by working the smaller stories. And he expected me to expect that from our reporters.”
Kevin acknowledged that Steve was “infuriating” at times, which is a nice way of staying that he could be a royal pain. “But all that came from a good place: from high standards. Sure, we had our disagreements from time to time, but he’d let me have my say, he’d listen, and then he wouldn’t hold a grudge. And perhaps what I respected more about Steve, professionally and personally, was that you always knew where you stood. There were no hidden agendas. He was upfront and sometimes brutally honest, but I’ll take that any day.”
And so will I. Steve’s brutal honesty kept me from making a horrible mistake way back in 1984. He didn’t tell me the things I wanted to hear, such as, “Go ahead and give it a try, Chuck.” Instead, he gave me the reality check that I needed at the time, the kind that made him a great newsman and an even better person.
RIP, Steve Hartgen.
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