Abandoning Ship

The News wants to discourage its stars from sailing to the Post.

At first glance, the Denver Post's January 14 introduction of columnist Tina Griego seemed benign -- but wrapped inside it was a needle aimed straight at the Rocky Mountain News, the Post's joint-operating-agreement buddy. Specifically, the item announced that Griego's work will appear on the editorial page in Saturday papers that, beginning April 7, will otherwise be a product of the News.

The significance of that? Until last year, Griego worked for the News, and when she opted for the Post, Rocky bigwigs were so miffed that they ran her final story for them without a byline. Now the prodigal daughter is returning whether they like it or not.

Granted, News honchos have reason to rue Griego's exit. She's only in her third week as a columnist, yet the quality of her writing to date puts her among the finest practitioners of this specialty at the dailies, with only the News's Mike Littwin offering consistent competition. So far, though, the Post's proofreaders haven't done her any favors: Because of her concentration on multiculturalism and the Latino community in particular, she's used a lot of Spanish words, but several of them have appeared with improper or missing accent marks. (In her January 15 debut, "taquerías" became "taqueriás," and on January 20, "¿Cómo estás?" appeared without accent marks.) But these errors failed to break Griego's, um, spell.

Of more concern to the News is a further break in ranks. After all, the publication has lost plenty of valuable toilers since last year's JOA declaration, which cast the Rocky as a failing newspaper. The pact wasn't the major factor in departures like that of gifted reporter Carla Crowder: An Alabama native, Crowder is heading to the Birmingham News, which itself is half of a JOA with the smaller Birmingham Post-Herald, a part of the E.W. Scripps chain that also owns the Rocky. But the defections to the Post of Griego and photographer Glenn Asakawa, who moved last year, were noteworthy hits, and News types plainly fear there will be more to follow, thereby causing power to shift even more drastically toward the Post.

This concern is underlined by negotiations for a new contract between the News and the Denver Newspaper Guild, which represents editorial workers at both papers. News representatives won't comment on the talks, nor will Guild president Tony Mulligan. Additionally, Scripps senior veep Alan Horton, speaking at a January 22 press conference, denied that the News was having trouble keeping or attracting strong talent, using the arrival of sports columnist Bernie Lincicome to strengthen his point. But reliable sources confirm that the News has floated the idea of a non-compete clause that would prevent its people from jumping to the Post for an unspecified period of time -- something that's been common in radio and TV fields for ages.

The odds that workers will be forced to swallow this pill without a scrap are slim, as is made clear by Linda Foley, Washington, D.C.-based president of the Newspaper Guild, the union parent of Denver's group. She won't gab about News negotiations, but she will say this: "We tend to resist those kinds of proposals by management. Employers with joint operating agreements set them up for business reasons, so we want employees to be able to seek the best deal they can for business reasons, too."

They've been successful thus far. Spokespeople say that none of the contracts in JOA cities where the Newspaper Guild plays a role sport non-compete riders. Moreover, union reps in several JOA hot spots suggest that the problems such a stipulation would be intended to prevent haven't really cropped up.

Dan Fink, interim head of the Guild local in York, Pennsylvania, notes that the York Dispatch, owned by Dean Singleton's MediaNews Group, which controls the Post, regularly snapped up staffers at the competing York Daily Record prior to the JOA there, but he recalls comparatively little back-and-forth afterward. Lou Mleczko, president of the Newspaper Guild of Detroit, where a JOA links the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press, says worker traffic from one paper to the other has been fairly light. And Wayne Cahill of the Hawaii Newspaper Guild, the union in the middle of the JOA that temporarily binds the Honolulu Advertiser and the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, suggests that scribe switches haven't undermined either operation. What's more, he says he's witnessed greater movement from the bigger Advertiser to its comparatively modest rival because of deteriorating working conditions at the Advertiser since its purchase by the massive Gannett conglomerate.

But the infrequency of talent raids hasn't made these JOAs bulletproof. In York, the 1990 treaty has resulted in relative stability, but it could break apart as early as 2004 because of an understanding between Singleton and the Record's owner; at that time, Singleton can buy the Record and do with it what he pleases (even shut it down, providing the Justice Department agrees). The Detroit pact has been more acrimonious largely because of labor strife: A December settlement ended five years of strikes and unrest that Mleczko blames on the JOA. As for the Hawaii compact, it wound up in court after Gannett tried to pay Star-Bulletin execs to close up shop. When a judge intervened, the Star-Bulletin was put up for sale; its eventual purchaser, Canadian mogul David Black, takes over in March, thus ending the JOA. This twist doesn't guarantee a happy ending: Ted Fang's recent purchase of the San Francisco Examiner, half of another messy JOA, has resulted in such embarrassing snafus as the misspelling of "San Francisco" on its masthead. But at least Honolulu readers will know the papers are entirely autonomous, and not just partially so.

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