The Message

The ESPNing of America is being felt in Denver.

Fortunately for Channel 4, there was a loophole: Outlets can run as many highlights in the course of their regular newscasts as they wish. So producer Cox and station execs came up with the idea to fold a sports program into the late-Sunday news. The resulting effort, Super Sports Sunday, was assembled with Lombardi's specific talents in mind. "The show takes someone with a certain style," says Cox, "and Vic is a showman. But that's not to say what he's doing is shtick. This isn't an act with Vic. It's who he is. And if people think you're putting on an act, it can backfire on you."

This observation is underlined by the one Denver sportscaster who's made the leap to ESPN: Kevin Corke, a staffer at Channel 9 from 1989 until last year. During his decade in Denver, Corke worked overtime to add some zest to his sportscasts, and these efforts eventually brought him to the network's attention. But upon his arrival, he discovered that more was expected of him than zingers.

"When I got here, I found out that the higher-ups were trying to rein in the new guard. The men and women who've been here for ten years or more have been grandfathered in; they're not going to ask Chris Berman to tone it down. But they want us to dole out our doses of fun a little at a time, and to be more thoughtful in our writing."

He could go all the way: Channel 4's Vic Lombardi spices up Denver's sports news.
Susan Goldstein
He could go all the way: Channel 4's Vic Lombardi spices up Denver's sports news.

Corke believes that local anchors in love with the ESPN way should keep such a balance in mind. "You've got to remember that you have a lot of viewers in their fifties or older who are counting on you for information on things in the area that they can't get on ESPN, and if you get too cutesy, you're not respecting them." He adds, "I was guilty of doing that sometimes, too, and I had to learn how not to do it. In the words of Clint Eastwood, 'A man's got to know his limitations.'"

Lombardi understands the restrictions imposed on him by his hometown quite well. He describes the Denver sports media environment as "very, very conservative -- probably more conservative than the next ten markets smaller than it."

Other places might be more open to Lombardi's brand of sporting theatricality, but for family reasons, he'd much prefer staying in Denver to hitting the road again. He even turned down overtures from ESPN. "A lot of the people on there anymore are kind of cookie-cutter -- like, 'You use that nickname, I'll use this one,'" he says. "But I still love their flamboyance. Sports is supposed to be entertaining, you know? That's what ESPN taught us."

In "Eyes on the Prize," the February 10 edition of this column, handicappers inside the Denver dailies predicted that both the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News had an excellent chance of winning a Pulitzer (the Oscar of journalism) for breaking news and photography, respectively -- and they were right. The breaking-news Pulitzer went to Post staff writers for their "clear and balanced coverage of the student massacre," while the News photography staff was feted in breaking news photography "for its powerful collection of emotional images taken after the student shootings." (Another victor with local connections: J.R. Moehringer, whose prose during his time at the News was more purple than anything in Prince's closet, earned the feature-writing Pulitzer. Really. No kidding.)

How much did the worldwide attention generated by Columbine play into these triumphs? In a live Webcast of the April 10 announcements, Pulitzer administrator Seymour Topping denied that its omnipresence was a factor. But it's hard not to see the decision as an attempt to split the Columbine spoils, thereby maintaining equilibrium in America's last great newspaper war. Or maybe the judges were just trying to prevent mass suicides at one office or the other. Insiders describe the post-announcement mood in the two newsrooms as relatively subdued, although the News made sure Channel 4 was on hand to videotape editor John Temple's remarks to his staff, and the Post staged a big bash that evening. As for the various April 11 award articles, they may have set a world record for most uses of the word "bittersweet." Both papers are donating their $5,000 prizes to the HOPE library fund, with the Post kicking in an extra $5,000 -- perhaps to mute criticism that while the News had given cash to the cause, the Post had balked.

Not that everything is sunshine and lollipops at the Post. The paper was blocked from covering the April 8 meeting between the media and parents of slain Columbine students because of participants' anger over Chuck Green columns suggesting that library-drive supporters are asking for one handout too many. "The only thing the families have ever asked for is for people who agree with what we're doing with the library to help us," says Brian Rohrbough, a vocal critic of Jeffco sheriff John Stone whose son Daniel died in last year's attack (see page 28). "So for him to say we're running around doing this or that is ridiculous. And if the Post isn't going to hold him factually accountable, then there's no reason to talk to the Post."

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