Madison (Wis.) Police Department public information officer and former TV reporter Joel DeSpain knew his Denny’s story was a winner when the national media — including NPR and the Huffington Post — started calling him about it.
“That was the first time I’d seen that happen,” he says of the national media’s inquiries.
DeSpain’s post about the well-dressed 52-year-old man who walked into Denny’s, claimed he was the new general manager, then started cooking his own meal became an instant online hit.
“It’s just one of those water-cooler talkers,” he says.
The former WISC-TV reporter joined the Madison Police Department in 2007, after deciding to spend more time with his family. (“Now I’m out of here at 4 o’clock, and off coaching for my kids’ teams.”) He handles the police PR job much like a cops reporter at a newspaper or TV station: “I monitor the police radio, I go through the 911 call log on a daily basis, and I also go through the daily arrest log. I also count on people from the districts to send me what they believe to be important or interesting cases.”
Initially, he was very serious about what incident reports he posted on the department’s website: only murders, burglaries and the like made the cut.
“Then a few years ago I posted one or two lighter items as kind of therapy to get away from the ugly stuff, and people liked them. Now the odd crime news items get more hits than the homicides or armed robberies.”
DeSpain’s work has become more important to Madison media in recent years.
“It used to be that reporters would come down here and go through the logs,” he says. “But now, with all of the downsizing of the newsrooms, there’s nobody here.” Reporters now rely on DeSpain’s postings for their police news.
The information officer says his Denny’s story has 10,000 hits “and is still rising” on the department’s website. It has a long ways to go, though, to top the all-time “weird news” favorite: the arrest of Beezow Doo-Doo Zopittybop-Bop-Bop. DeSpain says that incident report got 75,000 hits — and, of course, national coverage.