By Joel Warner
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Britton says the Times quote was taken out of context and has "bedeviled" him for months. He spoke at length with the reporter about the kind of stories he wants to see in the Post, he explains, "but it didn't fit what he was writing. It was one of the poorest interviews I've experienced by a journalist, ever."
He bristles at the suggestion that the Post's local news coverage is going soft, citing his own track record in hard news, from overseeing Watergate coverage at the Los Angeles Times to fielding death threats at the Sun-Times over its exposes on Congressman Dan Rostenkowski. "I have a history of investigative journalism that's more impressive than anybody who's working here now," he insists. "To write positive news doesn't mean that you're soft."
For Britton, positive news includes stories that "celebrate" the community or deserve prominent play because they're of value to readers. For example, a recent article about research that indicates piano lessons at an early age can help children develop intellectually was played on the front page, above the fold; Britton believes Denver parents are far more interested in that kind of news than the latest bar shooting.
"The people who complain about this are reporters, who don't understand the dynamic that's going on," he says. "A newspaper has an absolute, total responsibility to do good-citizen stories, hard-hitting stories, uncovering stories--but they'd better have a point. There's been a history in Colorado of that kind of journalism not having a point."
Good-citizen stories? "I'm not at all embarrassed about boosterism," Britton says. "Our town is a good town in which to live. We should be happy to write about that. If we're doing it in a way that's disingenuous and we forget to write about the warts, then come at us and clunk us in the head."
The Post has had a few clunkers in its quest for happy news, such as a front-page story about a party at McNichols Arena last month to reward middle-school students for regular attendance and good grades. The celebration ended in brawls in the parking lot involving up to 200 youths, a detail that was buried deep in the Post's story. The News skipped the congratulations and covered the ruckus. (A fuller account of the fights ran in the Post the following day.)
"The Rocky over-covered it, and we under-covered it," Britton says now. "We missed the story. When you have forty police [officers] respond to an incident, it's a major event in any city."
Significantly, the original story of the celebration was written by a freelancer; shorthanded even in comparison to the much-trimmed staff at the News, the Post has come to rely on stringers to cover substantial areas of local news, including the suburbs. A few years ago the Post had one staffer to cover all of Arapahoe and Douglas counties; now it has one staff reporter assigned to Arapahoe and a stringer writing about Douglas, the fastest-growing county in the country.
The practice is a sore point among local Newspaper Guild representatives. Under Singleton, the unionized staff has already endured a five-year wage freeze, followed by five years of modest increases in salaries. (In contrast to the News, the Post still doesn't offer its employees a 401(k) plan--except, of course, for management.) Britton, who left the Sun-Times because he was "tired of fighting corporate greed" and has steered clear of labor negotiations at the Post, says he would prefer to use staffers to cover the suburbs and is working on the problem.
One area where staffing isn't a problem is society news. One of Britton's first moves was to hire boulevardier Bill Husted from the News to write a gossip column, at a reputed six-figure salary comparable to that of columnist Chuck Green. He also added a full page of society photos to the Friday fashion section--a feature that recently presented the editor's wife, Tere Romero Britton, greeting diva Marilyn Horne. (A similar photo of Mrs. Britton appeared days earlier in the local-news section, with another account of the event.) The chief's clear enjoyment of the perks of his office and his fascination with high society have the ink-stained minions in the newsroom scratching their heads.
"None of us have quite sorted it out," sighs one reporter. "He's said he's basically a shy person, yet he's turned up society coverage to a new level."
Britton doesn't see what all the fuss is about; at the Sun-Times he had three gossip columnists and two society writers. "My aim in that was so simplistic, it almost embarrasses me to say this," he says. "Part of the formula is, the more names you get in the paper, the better off you are."
Of course, some names matter to readers more than others. It's hard to imagine that many folks are worked up about the nomenclature of Civic Center, the subject of a loony front-page Post article two weeks ago by Paul Hutchinson, who quoted colleague Joanne Ditmer on the pseudo-controversy. But there's one name that has become such a Big Story that the Post has devoted acres of newsprint to its invocation, like a sacred mantra: JonBenet Ramsey. JonBenet Ramsey. JonBenet. Ramsey.