All the News That Fits

What gets lost in the heat of Denver's newspaper battle.

"They'd change something, and then they'd wait to see it reflected in the numbers," recalls former executive editor Westergaard, who worked for the Post for fifteen years. "And when it wasn't apparent, they'd change it again. It was tough. I don't think Times Mirror ever got its arms around Denver."

When Dean Singleton and Richard Scudder bought the paper in 1987, many observers figured the Post was doomed. Their privately held MediaNews Group was in the process of losing newspaper wars in Dallas and Houston, and Singleton had a reputation of extracting the last drop of profit from an operation and then closing up shop. The fact that MediaNews had acquired the Post at a bargain price of $95 million--the same price Times Mirror had paid seven years earlier, with a down payment of only $25 million, the balance creatively financed and the Post's new printing presses thrown into the deal--further alarmed Singleton's critics. ("That had to be the best newspaper deal known to man," says one admiring newspaper executive. "Dean gave Times Mirror a crewcut.")

But Singleton, much to locals' surprise, was in for the long haul. After his Texas papers failed, the Post became his flagship operation. He relocated to Colorado, allowing the Post to reclaim the title of Denver's only "locally owned" daily. He brought in a senior management group that has remained the same for several years (including current publisher Ryan McKibben) and paid attention to the basics of reliable delivery and quality printing. The result was one of the most astounding circulation rebounds in the history of American newspapers.

One of the shrewd moves involved the 1990 hiring of Gil Spencer, formerly of the New York Daily News, to run the newsroom. An unflappable, shirtsleeve manager who was popular with reporters, Spencer encouraged his staff to think big and work harder. "Gil got everybody pulling in the same direction," says Westergaard. "He really brought an element of stability the place hadn't enjoyed for a decade."

The Post's turnaround came at a time when the News was engaged in some unfortunate tinkering of its own. The 1980s had been good to the tabloid, which concentrated on cranking out vanilla while Times Mirror was whipping up one fancy disaster after another. But in recent years the News has wrestled with a series of production and delivery hurdles as it set about sectionalizing the tabloid, bringing a $150 million printing plant online, hiking its single-copy price to 35 cents and conducting a long-overdue circulation cleanup--all at the same time. It didn't help that many of the newcomers arriving in droves up and down the Front Range had come from broadsheet towns and seemed to prefer the Post's larger format.

By early 1996 the Post was once again on top of the heap. So it was with some trepidation, if not outright dismay, that staffers greeted the news that McKibben was bringing in a new editor-in-chief over Westergaard, who'd been running the editorial side since Spencer retired to become a columnist. Why mess with success?

"I wasn't particularly pleased about it," Westergaard admits. "When the Rocky made its decision to shrink, I think Ryan and Dean had in their minds that they'd won the war. So where do you go from here? Dean wanted to have the best possible team at the top, and he wanted somebody who was nationally recognized."

That somebody turned out to be Dennis Britton, who had left the Sun-Times months earlier for a position at the MacArthur Foundation, spearheading a project on journalism and democracy ("I had a great gig. They were paying me big bucks," he says). Britton was initially reluctant to take the job. "Part of my reluctance was Dean Singleton," he says, "and his reputation of being very frugal." But after receiving reassurances from McKibben and Singleton, Britton landed in Denver.

Westergaard left six months later. "Dennis and I worked pretty well together for about three or four months," he explains, "but increasingly, I think, it was difficult for Dennis having me there. It was difficult for him to truly assume the role of editor-in-chief, because I had all these relationships with staff."

Staffers view Britton as aloof, cautious, demanding and competitive. He's been wary of making sweeping changes and says he's not interested in imposing his "vision" on the newspaper. "That's a lofty term I try never to use," he says. "I don't even know what it means, to tell you the truth."

At the same time, Britton hasn't been at all shy about devoting resources to stories he believes are important or clearing the decks of staffers who don't deliver what he wants. He dispensed with the services of business editor Jeff Copeland, a former Newsweek staffer whose style didn't mesh with Britton's ban on editorializing in news stories, and he removed the professorial Howie Movshovitz from his film beat, on the grounds that readers want movie reviews, not critiques of cinema.

What seems to worry staffers, though, is Britton's push to have more "positive stories" in the Post--or, as he put it in an interview with the New York Times, "I am crime-ing it down and Pollyanna-ing it up." In the past year, his critics say, the Post has become a much softer and squishier newspaper.

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