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WOSTER: Attention must finally be paid to AP’s Chet Brokaw

If you’ve never heard of Harl N. Andersen, don’t feel bad. Many folks these days don’t know the name.

Harl was an Associated Press reporter, editor and bureau correspondent for 35 years in Sioux Falls. He served from the late 1930s to the early 1970s. I mention him for two reasons.

First, he was a heck of a newsman, and as far as I knew, he lasted longer with the AP in South Dakota than any other reporter before or since. Second, a guy named Chet Brokaw very nearly outlasted Harl.

Chet retired from the Associated Press this year. He started in 1981 in Pierre as an AP reporter covering state government, the Legislature and any other newsworthy event that happened. When a guy comes within two years of matching Harl Andersen’s tenure with the AP, well, it’s a situation that fits the line from the Arthur Miller play, “Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.’’

Attention is being paid. The South Dakota Newspaper Association, meeting in Pierre this weekend for its annual convention, named Chet the recipient of its Distinguished Service Award. The award goes to “someone who has demonstrated outstanding service to the newspaper profession in South Dakota.’’

Chet fits the description. He covered 33 sessions of the South Dakota Legislature. For most of those years, he was paired with Joe Kafka, who resigned in 2008.The Dynamic Duo of Chet and Joe probably wrote more words and provided more information for citizens on what their government and their elected policy makers were doing than any other two reporters in South Dakota’s 125 years of statehood.

It isn’t always easy being a legislative reporter. Scheduled meetings sometimes are delayed for hours while a few legislators or executive branch officials work on issues behind the scenes. The reporters are hostage to the potential news, so they spend a lot of time waiting. It isn’t work for the impatient.

The issues can be complex, and the legislative reporter’s responsibility is to take the most complex issue and make it understandable for the folks who aren’t there but who want to know what their government is doing. The Associated Press sometimes is accused of being too staid, too slow to get flashy and snappy in its writing. Maybe, but one thing any good AP writer can do is boil an issue down to understandable prose and present that story in an organized manner -- slap the reader’s face with the biggest news, follow with important stuff and fill in the context as the reader’s eyes follow the words down the inverted pyramid.

Chet and Joe were masterful at organizing a news story. Done well, it’s an art, and I fear with those guys both gone, there are only one or two left in the entire state who can do it quickly and accurately nearly every time.

I’m biased, because I worked in the Capitol press room with Chet and Joe for more than 20 years. We officed across the hall from each other in a downtown building during the off-season. Sometimes on the craziest, busiest and longest of legislative days, when others had left the building and each of us was pounding at a computer keyboard, Chet or Joe would stop writing for a moment, sigh and say, “Isn’t it amazing? They pay us to do this stuff.’’ We’d all chuckle, and the clack of the keyboards would pick up again.

Chet, a devoted fly fisherman, was one of the first Peace Corps volunteers I ever knew. He remains the only guy I’ve known who was almost run over as he snoozed in a road ditch while waiting for the geese to fly past. He’s not related to that other Brokaw, but he’d be financially flush if he had a dollar for every time he was asked that.

Fittingly, he finished the main run of this year’s session before retiring. I’m sure he hung around until he was sure nothing else was happening that day that needed reporting.

He didn’t quite break Harl Andersen’s record, but like Harl, he had a long, solid career.

People who care what the Legislature does will miss his reporting.