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Swing Shift

Unhappiness over a newsroom shuffle is only the latest sign of malaise at the Post.

Since the mid-'90s, morale at the Denver Post has been an up-and-down affair. And after a run of sunniness, the mood may be clouding over again.

The latest flood of grumbling was prompted by the reassignment of several veteran reporters to suburban beats -- decisions that mystify numerous observers inside the paper and out. But editorial types are finding plenty of other things to gripe about as well, including dissatisfaction over the way higher-ups at the Post are covering -- or failing to cover -- local news. One person puts it bluntly: "The Rocky is kicking our ass."

Such tail-whuppings were commonplace under Dennis Britton. During his three-year reign as editor, "El Britto Grande," who departed in 1999, spawned a cotton gin's worth of puff pieces, a "Dennis Britton Go Home Page" on the Internet, and a staff-wide depression of the sort that's commonly associated with mass suicide.

But following the arrival of current editor Glenn Guzzo, the outlook brightened considerably. For one thing, the Post's reporting of the Columbine High School massacre earned a Pulitzer Prize that placed the broadsheet in the national journalism spotlight for the first time in ages. (Some observers see the honor as tainted, because managing editor Jeanette Chavez was on the jury that made the Post a Pulitzer finalist. But Chavez told the now-defunct Brill's Content that she followed contest rules against touting her paper's coverage.) For another, the Post emerged as first among equals in the joint operating agreement that merged its business operations with those of the Rocky Mountain News. The News doesn't appear to be on the brink of financial collapse, but it lost more than $15 million last year, while the Post reportedly edged into the black.

Nonetheless, this undisclosed profit wasn't nearly large enough to allow Post owner Dean Singleton to hire one hundred new editorial employees, which he had announced he would do over the next few years after the JOA scheme was made public. On the contrary, the paper began slimming down with the help of an early-retirement option designed to seduce longtimers with sizable salaries. Among those who headed into the sunset were Janet Bingham, an education writer; Ginny McKibben, the point person in Arapahoe County; and George Lane, an Adams County specialist. (Bingham departed last August, McKibben split in late 2001 and Lane is expected to exit at the end of March.) Other departures added to the strain: Stacie Oulton, who'd been toiling in Jefferson County, left last fall to become Lakewood's public-information officer, and Susan Besze Wallace recently went on maternity leave. And attempts to fill gaps created new ones. A case in point: When Monte Whaley took Bingham's place in education territory, his previous bureau, Boulder, was left unmanned.

These vacancies might have been more obvious were it not for the Post's concentration on world news in the wake of September 11. The paper has maintained a presence abroad since shortly after the collapse of the World Trade Center (at present, Steve Lipsher is reporting from terrorist hot spots), and while Singleton, in a previous interview, declined to specify how much this was costing, the figure presently zipping along the Post grapevine is $300,000.

Whether that estimate is accurate or not, the Post's international commitment hasn't been cheap. It's not surprising, then, that such a hefty portion of editorial space has been devoted to dispatches about the war on terrorism, be they self-generated or picked up from wire services. But because of this focus, numerous reporters complain that they're having difficulty getting hometown stories into print -- and their frustration is tripled when they see such items in the News. Consider the tale of Nolan Thornton, a five-year-old with cerebral palsy whose wheelchair and a computer that allowed him to communicate were stolen. A Post source says a representative at his paper was contacted about Nolan's plight but passed on the story, only to see it turn up in the January 19 Rocky, not to mention practically every TV newscast in town.

Granted, the view that the News is spanking the Post on local news isn't universally shared. "The Rocky certainly was ahead of us on the latest Columbine developments," Guzzo acknowledges via e-mail. But, he adds, "both papers get a jump on the other from time to time. Overall, I think the Post's coverage of local news compares very favorably. That's certainly so, in my view, on a good many important local stories of the past year -- Xcel, energy charges, Qwest, terrorism-related stories, police shootings, education, legislative coverage, forest fires, Dan Issel's troubles..."

Actually, the Post had to play catch-up in regard to Issel, with the News beating its rival into print by a day, despite the fact that the Post's broadcast partner, Channel 9, broke the story ("He Got Blame," December 20, 2001). But such embarrassments don't fully explain the sweeping nature of the beat reassignments. Some of the moves seem roughly parallel: Sheba Wheeler, previously situated in Denver, will now be reporting from Aurora; Karen Rouse, most recently rooted in Douglas County, is going to Arapahoe County; and Jim Hughes, who usually writes about state and regional matters, has been sent to Boulder County in what's called a temporary mission. The Hughes move is the only change designated that way, but Guzzo points out that, given the fluid nature of the news business, there's not much that can be regarded as permanent.

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