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Coups, resignations and late budgets: Capitol Correspondent Karen DeWitt retires after 34 years

Capitol Correspondent Karen DeWitt and WAMC's Ian Pickus in 2022.
Capitol Correspondent Karen DeWitt and WAMC's Ian Pickus in 2022.

Pretty soon, Karen DeWitt’s reporting career will belong to the history she’s been chronicling for more than three decades. The longtime public radio Capitol Correspondent is retiring after a career in which she interviewed six governors, scores of lawmakers, and advocates for just about every issue under debate in Albany. On June 3, the current Governor, Democrat Kathy Hochul, attended DeWitt’s retirement party at WAMC’s venue The Linda, where she was also honored with a legislative proclamation. DeWitt spoke with WAMC's Ian Pickus.

We've talked so many times over the years about budgets and late budgets and elections and so on, and there's a real rhythm to the year in Albany. So as you're preparing to say goodbye, do you think you'll miss that part of it?

Yeah, I do think that I will. And as you know, Ian, and any reporter will tell you, without a deadline, we don't know what to do with ourselves and how to structure our day, because I've been so beholden to the daily deadline, and sometimes even after the deadline into the evenings, for so many years, I think, oh my god, can I really structure my life without having that pressure? It was really kind of hitting me last Friday that it's my final, last day of session.

It's fun to be part of something that's dynamic. I mean, the capitol for a while has been something of an anachronism, whereas you have to interact with real people in real time. I mean, who does that anymore? And that's been a real privilege, but there's a lot of good young reporters who are at the capitol right now who are going to do a good job and, you know, really fill in any gaps that might temporarily happen from me not being there.

So how did you get started reporting on the capitol all those years ago?

It was one of those things, you know, if you can't go in the front door, you go in the back door. I started off after college at SUNY Geneseo working in local radio around the Capital Region, there was even an all news radio station at one point. It was kind of a precursor to what you see on Spectrum News now, that was a great training ground, because we were all young reporters. We ran out, covered everything, we're live on the air, and it was really cool and really fun. But I always liked politics more than covering fires and the state capitol was very exciting in those days. In the 1980s Mario Cuomo was governor. He was a national figure. We had New York City Mayor Ed Koch, who would come around to Albany now and then, all these larger than life people walking the halls of the capitol. And so I found a backdoor when a stringer position opened for 1010 WINS, the really great all news radio station in New York City. And I managed to get that job and then filled in the rest with magazine articles. I worked for the news weekly Metroland, which some people might remember. I also worked for Adirondack Life, and kind of patched it all together until in 1990 this public radio job became available. It was just a two-year-old bureau and just getting started up.

And nowadays, a lot of different stations across New York all share your reporting. When you started to have like a statewide perch, how did that influence the way you went about the job?

Well, it was trying to find a perspective that would appeal to all the stations, from the north country to Western New York to Long Island. It's always been a little easier at WAMC, because in this area, we're really tuned in to the capital, so any news that's coming out about the politicians or the capitol is of interest to people, but yeah, it was a challenge, because a lot of times New York City news dominates, the whole dynamic, the whole session. We're seeing that right now with this big fight over congestion pricing and Hochul's kind of shocking reversal over that. So that's always been a bit of a tough balance, but I would try to find something that would appeal to everyone, mostly to be honest, Ian, because if I ran and did OK, the Rochester mayor speaking, the Buffalo mayor speaking, this is happening in Binghamton as one person. I never could have done all of that anyway.

You said in your retirement remarks at that party on June 3 that you were gratified to finally see a female governor elected in 2022, and a lot of the tributes to your career have pointed out your role as a trailblazer within the Legislative Correspondents Association. So both in terms of the reporting but also in terms of the makeup of the state government and the legislature, what do you think about the gender balance now that you're at the end of it in 2024?

Right. And, you know, I never really thought of myself as a trailblazer. I just went to work every day and tried to do my best. But it's true, it is very different than when I started. It really was a man's world. You know the phrase three men in a room, the governor and the two legislative leaders would hash out the budget, all the end of session details. Well, now it's two women, female governor, female leader of the Senate, Andrea Stewart-Cousins and one man, Speaker Carl Heastie in a room, and it's a big difference. I mean, I think women aren't treated equally. They're treated a bit different still, but I think it's a big change that almost seems like it's it's not an issue anymore, certainly not the way it was, you know, a few decades ago. That's a good thing. I'm very happy that I got to witness that.

So there's no question that it's a challenging time for the news media and for public outlets like the ones that you've been filing for all these years. What do you think about the state of journalism now that you're preparing to leave this role?

Well, you know, I hate to be negative, but oh, that's the role of a reporter anyway, right? No, just kidding. But, you know, there's a lot of concerns about where the media is going right now. Public trust in the media, a lot of it is that we have less access to the top politicians. You know, Governor Hochul, she definitely limits her availabilities. We have the Assembly Speaker, Carl Heastie, who I mentioned, we're no longer allowed in the back of the Assembly chamber anymore, which might not seem like a lot, but reporters used to be able to hang out there, see what lobbyists were coming and going, catch the speaker as he was going off to a meeting with his members, and we're just banned from there. And it just it makes a difference, because you don't really have your finger on the pulse of what's going on. But all of the politicians now, they have their own social media feeds, their YouTube channels, so they don't really need us, and they can bypass any scrutiny or pesky questions that reporters might ask. The other thing that's a concern is, you know, everyone has their own set of facts these days, and even a trusted media source like us, like NPR, you just not readily believed in the same way that you were, even though we're reporting facts, it's all much more fragmentary, and we're in the midst of a really big change. I'm sorry I'm leaving to make the rest of you deal with it, but it's really hard to know what's next with journalism. I mean, I hope the core values stay in some form in the future.

If I may say, I think part of the reason that you've been celebrated so universally right now, and it's all well deserved, is that we don't see a lot of people getting to finish their career in the capitol reporting offices. They do it for a couple years in their 20s, and they get out, they become lobbyists, or they work in PR or they join a government office. And it's pretty rare to see somebody finishing up nowadays. So what advice do you have for people who might just be starting out on this path?

Yeah, and nothing against lobbyists or spokespeople for politicians. If that's your calling, that's great. I'm super grateful I didn't have to do that. I do not have the personality to, you know, sell things in that way, or work for other people in the way you need to. I think my advice to young reporters has been the same as you know what was told to me. If you want to do journalism, you have to want to do it more than anything else in the world. Otherwise, it's going to be too hard and you're going to end up with a different job. I think now, if you're starting out as journalist, you know that you're going to have several jobs. You're not going to stay 34 years like I was lucky enough to do, but I would say, use those changing jobs to keep upping your salary. I mean, use it to your advantage. And also, you know, as I said, I'm grateful I didn't have to be a lobbyist or a spokesperson, but I think it's more acceptable now to move in and out of what we used to call the dark side. You know, you can go to PR, you could be a spokesperson for a politician, and you can come back, so you might need to structure a career where you sort of go in and out of journalism. As you find your different opportunities and just, you know, find your angle, a way to get in what kind of reporting you want to do. And you know, like I said, I got in the back door to this to this job of public radio. And so, you know, if you if the front door is not open, try the back door. There's always a way.

So we're speaking just after this legislative session ended. And as always, a lot of the big bills were left on the table. You know, there's things that stick around year after year. We heard some of your career highlights earlier, and people will obviously remember the resignations and the really late budgets and some of the wars that we saw between the Senate Leader Joe Bruno and Speaker Silver. But what are some things that stick out to you as you're looking back that aren't necessarily the huge headline grabbers, but were really important moments during your time on the beat?

I think some of those were some of the long-term fights for legislation, for rights for different groups of people. I particularly loved seeing that the disability rights movement, the mental health rights movement, the gay marriage movement, that led to the dramatic, passage of same sex marriage in New York State in 2011, so it was sort of those, more of those slow moving dramas where you see incremental progress and, you know, just kind of see, hopefully, the world changing in some way for the better. And I think those are the moments I enjoy the most.

OK, it's next, let's say, March, 30, 31, April 1, April 2, April, 3, whatever. And we don't have a budget yet. Where are you? What are you doing next?

Actually, I do know what I'm doing, and this is part of why I decided this was the year to retire. I'm actually taking a Viking river cruise from Budapest, ending up in Germany, and then going to Prague. So, you know, you can think of that when you're slogging through the the late budget, which will probably be late, later than ever next year, is my prediction.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.