All the News That Fits

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

Although the ailing Gene Amole puts in an occasional appearance, the rest of the page consists of a comatose cartoon by Ed Stein and celebrity sightings by that Avis of gossip columnists, Norm! Clarke. Say what you want about Norm!, his ascendancy at the News provided instant validation to Britton's notion that Bill Husted was a talent worth hiring.

Rocky Talk has acquired quite a few detractors in its own newsroom, if for no other reason than that it takes up a prominent page at a time when space for local news is at a premium. The crunch has become so severe that news stories are now routinely "jumped" to the bottom of the page.

"I think it shows a rush to judgment," says one staffer. "Rocky Talk was supposed to be a conversation with the community, but they didn't figure out how they were going to fill it. Now they're not even trying to do that."

Rocky Talk has been doubly disappointing, some reporters say, because it's the first major innovation in the newspaper under the reign of Bob Burdick, who was appointed editor in the summer of 1995. A former editor of the Los Angeles Daily News and business editor of the Post, Burdick had vowed to shore up the tabloid's traditional strengths in covering local news and bring more in-depth coverage to the paper.

Burdick's appointment was welcome news to a staff that had become demoralized after six years of his predecessor, Jay Ambrose. An "idea man" who seemed intent on making the News the ultimate in quick reads, Ambrose had demanded shorter story lengths, fewer jumps, more infographics and other visual grabbers. He also devised a rigid format that included pages devoted to science and education news and, at one point, a digest of regional and world events on page two. The formula yielded a higher story count, but some stories were little more than headlines by the time they'd been shoehorned into the newspaper.

"Sometimes we became slaves to the format," recalls former state editor Campbell. "They'd take my top regional story, and we'd have to make it ten inches so it could fit on page two. You kind of hoped your story wouldn't wind up there, because it would bleed the life out of it."

Burdick was seen as more of a hard-nosed newsman than Ambrose, and more personable, too. In contrast to his predecessor, who'd surrounded himself with a squadron of assistant editors and yes-men, in his early months on the job Burdick was a frequent presence in the newsroom.

"The time he was most visible was when Greg Lopez died," recalls Lynn Bronikowski, a former News reporter, now spokeswoman for Colorado Ski Country USA. "His leadership was commendable. He showed a great deal of compassion for everybody on that staff."

In recent months, though, Burdick sightings have become so rare that he's known in certain circles as Punxsutawney Bob. "He seemed very hands-on the first six months he was there," says one reporter. "But the most I see of him now is when they leave the conference-room door ajar." (Burdick didn't return calls from Westword requesting an interview for this story.)

Day-to-day operations of the newsroom are overseen by managing editor John Temple, who's been described by staffers as shrewd and dedicated and also as somewhat intimidating and obsessed with details--"a colonel fixing a jeep," as one observer puts it. Burdick's perceived inaccessibility has added a further note of uncertainty to a newsroom already rocked by losing the daily lead, the decision to retreat from statewide competition, staff turnover and other upheavals.

By dropping some of Ambrose's innovations, such as the page-two digest, Burdick has managed to free up some space in the paper. But the tabloid's vanishing news hole--the size of which is influenced by newsprint costs and management decisions about the kind of advertising-to-editorial ratio that's necessary to keep the paper profitable--remains a fundamental stumbling block.

"The news hole has just shrunk over the past three years," says one recent Rocky refugee. "On a given Monday, it seems like there's hardly anything there. And the size of the news hole really affects coverage--not only what you cover, but how you cover it."

The squeeze has had a particular impact on local news coverage, for many years the tabloid's strong suit. Its beat coverage is still superior to the Post's in many areas, but the knowledge that their work is going through a buzz saw hardly inspires reporters to track down more information than space allows. "If you know your story is only going to be a few inches, that makes it easier to just go to one or two sources," one staffer explains. "That's your six or eight inches. That's all they have room for, so why bother to do more?"

The tabloid's smaller format, coupled with a policy of discouraging the jumping of a story from one page to another, only compounds the problem. It's not too much of a stretch to contend that the paper's designers now have more impact on its contents than anyone else, since they can (and do) order stuff shrunk to fit without even reading a paragraph of it. Copy editors do the trimming, long after the reporter's called it a day.

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