PERRY: Rep. Tom ‘Sully’ Sullivan’s insight on tragedy and local newspapers makes a case for backing

Rep. Tom Sullivan addresses the media during a 2019 signing ceremony in the governors office.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

No one in Colorado has made a better case for how critical newspapers are than state Rep. Tom Sullivan did at the state Capitol last week.

If you don’t know Tom, you know his story. The entire world knows the story of the 2012 Aurora theater shooting.

Tom is among those who know what the rest of us pray we never have to. Tom knows what it’s like to have family or friends killed in a mass shooting.

His son, Alex, was among those gunned down by James Holmes during the now infamous summer-night screening of a Batman movie. 

I’ve been a journalist for a long time. Trust me when I tell you how important yet dangerous it is in my profession to become immersed in what we write about. Like my peers, the scars from stories run deep no matter how hard you work to wall off being saturated with the worst things that happen in the world.

But among the traffic carnage, ghastly suicides, tortured children and millions of words and pictures of assorted anguish, Tom’s tragedy wounded me like no other.

A few hours after the massacre, as police, parents and friends floundered outside of an Aurora school for information about the wounded and the dead, Tom appeared.

It was morbid, controlled chaos in front of Gateway High School, yet Tom’s raw terror and determination stood out immediately.

He was frantically waving a photo of his son Alex, begging if someone knew him or where he was.

Denver Post photographer RJ Sangosti was able to capture images of Tom and then his family as the terror and reality spun out of control, searing me, and many others, for life.

Alex was celebrating his 27th birthday at the Batman premier. My own daughter was just old enough to begin heading to movies with pals, just like Alex had.

You didn’t have to be a parent to ache for Tom, but for those of us with kids like Alex, it was leveling.

I can’t even begin to count the volumes of stories, editorials, columns and photos I and other Sentinel staffers have logged from that day on.

Tom, like so many people in the Aurora region, can.

Last week, Tom, now a state lawmaker, sat on a House committee hearing testimony on House Bill 1121, which seeks to allow select businesses to get tax credits for buying ads in some newspapers and other media sites. The bill is meant as a remedy for the bleak reality of our industry in Colorado, drained of ad dollars by new types of media and slammed to the mat by the pandemic.

Tom talked emotionally about how often and in how many ways he told national TV and media outlets about the loss of Alex, about the subsequent trial, about preventing other mass shootings.  

“And through all of that, the people that have really understood and really get what happened that day — and how the people in my community were really impacted — has been The Aurora Sentinel,” Sullivan said. Report For America Journalist Steven Waldman captured the moment for Twitter below. “And that’s because they’re right down the street. They drive by that theater every day. They live with the people who are surviving that day. And if they weren’t around, people wouldn’t understand what we go through each and every day.”

Tom’s words immediately summoned that horrific morning at Gateway High School.

I cannot fathom his pain. I cannot fathom his strength.

My own daughter is about to turn Alex’s age in a few days, and even after almost 10 years, I falter recalling that morning.

What local newspapers do that no one else can is not just relay a story, but we’re able to convey the story, by telling it from within, long after the TV cameras leave town.

Just recently, Denver Post reporters updated the fallout from a horrific tale they uncovered of child abuse a mother inflicted on her daughter, killing her with a sick spectacle of faked illnesses and treatments. Without doubt, other children will be saved by the critical and diligent work of the Post reporters.

Right now, Colorado Community Media reporters, who write for the Douglas County News Press and other regional papers, are doggedly reporting about a cavalcade of chaos at Douglas County Public Schools, where critical school board decisions, alleged malfeasance and lawsuits look to affect tens and thousands of students and families, possibly inflicting irreparable damage to the district.

The Colorado Sun, a digital news source, has also resolutely reported on the plight of children mishandled by state agencies created to protect them and a bevy of quagmires that otherwise would never have been exposed.

Local newspapers like these, across Colorado, are the omnibus public watchdogs and defenders of the downtrodden that no one else can be or wants to be.

But we’re also who tells you how sweet victory was for a basketball team of hardworking and talented girls at Grandview High School, who brought home a state trophy this weekend. We’re here to explain why your schools will or won’t demand masks in a pandemic. We’re here to tell you what your police are doing about car theft and shootings.

Local newspapers are the only way to discover the news that affects you the most, every day, and be confident the stories are accurate and fair, clearly separated from the wealth of opinion and insight material we offer as well.

“So it is imperative that our local journalists and our local publications have the ability to continue to tell the stories of the people in their communities who are impacted by the day-to-day things that happen,” Tom said.

Imperative is the key word. We need you to subscribe, to donate, to advertise, to tell people when you say, “I read the other day…,” say that you read it in The Sentinel, The Post, The Sun or the paper in your world that’s there for you.

Follow @EditorDavePerry on Twitter and Facebook or reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected]


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8 months ago

The absolute necessity of local newspapers reporting on our communities and keeping the people elected to represent us accountable cannot be underestimated. Huge corporate conglomerates destroying beloved and sorely needed local newspapers to buy multimillion-dollar mansions for themselves is twisted and ugly. The work that is done at the Aurora Sentinel for our community needs to be supported. I so appreciate the hard and sometimes thankless work that everyone there is doing. How in the world would we ever get this information without them?

Debra MacKillop
Debra MacKillop
8 months ago

Thank you for the truth. From the Sentinel, I get the real facts, I get the latest objective science, I get the views and expert opinions from educated, experienced, qualified, experts. I get common sense. I get the behind-the-scenes truth too – and I get caring about our community and the common good and those most vulnerable among us.

Joe Felice
Joe Felice
8 months ago

We should listen carefully to Tom. I don’t watch or read the “news,” because it all seems too slanted. Reporting and journalism are in a sorry state right now. The Sentinel is the only news I read because it is geared towards the people here and it reports what interests and affects us, even if it does seem to make some people defensive.