Alessi’s grand finale

Ryan Alessi, like other class acts, is leaving at the top of his game. Tonight, his last broadcast at the helm of cn/2’s “Pure Politics” marks a melancholy milestone in Kentucky journalism.

In January, The Washington Post named him among “the best state capitol reporters in America” along with bluegrass state natives Joe Gerth of The Courier-Journal and Ronnie Ellis of CNHI. The elite trio comprised the panel of KET’s “Comment on Kentucky” May 23, when the retirement of Alessi, a Baltimore transplant, was announced.

“I am amazed at your ability to absorb this state in the years that you’ve been here,” said host Bill Bryant. Ellis added, “We’ve lost a lot of people over the last few years in journalism, but this is one that’s gonna really hurt.”

“Well, I appreciate you saying that,” Alessi said. “I’m moving (from Louisville) to Murray, so I’ll still be a Kentuckian. I’m going to get my master’s degree in non-fiction writing and will still be watching Kentucky politics. It’s too interesting to ignore.”

Alessi provided more detail via email: “My wife, Elizabeth, has been living and working at Murray State for the last two years. She is an academic research librarian, and there just wasn’t a job around Louisville for her. She found a perfect match — it just happened to be in Murray.”

Both appreciate western Kentucky, which he knows well from his years covering the annual Fancy Farm political picnic in Graves County. The cherry on top is that he’ll be advising journalism students at The Murray State News. After his year as editor of his alma mater’s student newspaper, Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism named him the most outstanding graduating senior for the 1999-2000 school year. In March 2010, Insight Communications (now Time Warner Cable) hired him to preside over statewide news and public-affairs coverage. “Underground Rooster” blogger Tim Havrilek noted the award-winning apex of his seven distinguished years at The Lexington Herald-Leader: “Ryan Alessi became a Kentucky household name by bringing to light the scandals at KACO (Kentucky Association of Counties) and KLC (Kentucky League of Cities).”

Others bemoaned his transition from print to TV journalism, but it allowed his audience to see interviews that often draw a crowd, wow his colleagues and break news. A prime example of the master at work aired in early June, when he pressed Senate President Bob Stivers on future relations with a Republican House leader and a senator-elect, who campaigned to upset a Republican incumbent.

Alessi: “Do you plan on expressing your displeasure?”

Stivers: “I never said I had displeasure.”

Alessi: “Well, are you displeased?”

Stivers: “I just said it was unusual.”

Alessi: “Are you displeased on that unusual occurrence?”

Stivers: “Well, it’s unusual; I’ll say that.”

Alessi (smiling): “You did say that.”

Stivers (smiling): “I did.”

The interplay was reminiscent of a Carol Burnett skit.

Since his announcement on KET, Alessi has been especially bold in his role as a public advocate. A week later, he and two cn/2 colleagues outlined “why McConnell and Grimes must debate” and “seven topics that Kentuckians deserve to have covered.”

“Both sides keep saying this is the most important race in the country,” he said. “They owe it to the voters of Kentucky to debate often and closer to the election, when more Kentuckians are tuning in. Heck, they’re trying to get Kentuckians to hire them — and debates should be considered the job interview.”

A viewer posted, “I think this is exactly what good journalists do.”

An hour before PBS aired “A Capitol Fourth” from the National Mall last Friday, I tuned into “Pure Politics” to see Alessi ignite the equivalent of a brilliant Independence Day fireworks display. It was among the most vital expert discussions I’ve seen — must-see TV for state policymakers and citizens alike. Steve Shannon of the Kentucky Association of Regional Mental Health Centers said, “The No. 1 public policy issue facing the commonwealth is addiction — not education, not jobs; it is addiction.”

Rep. Jimmie Lee, D-Elizabethtown, called the underfunding of mental and behavioral health a crisis and worried that many lawmakers still don’t get it. Alessi, a ravenous researcher, showed how undiagnosed mental illness costs Colorado billions of dollars per year.

Alessi hopes to teach when he gets his master’s degree.