Calling All Columnists

A writer's departure from the Post raises questions about the paper's commitment to metro columns.

Temple has promised Griego that she'll have plenty of say regarding when and how she speaks out, and if her Rocky return, on December 7, is any indication, he means it. The column, about an undocumented worker caught up in a DIA sweep who faced deportation shortly after giving birth, was longer than usual and as angry and impassioned as anything Griego's written.

In the future, Griego says, she'll be a regular on Mondays, but for the rest of the week, "I'll float. Sometimes I'll just be in one time a week, or I might feel particularly chatty one week and come in twice. And sometimes I might not show up at all, because I'll be working on something longer for the following week."

This dream calendar reflects how happy the folks at the News are to have stolen Griego back from the Post. During her previous incarnation at the Rocky, she was rightly seen as a gifted writer of long-term projects, exemplified by her sprawling coverage of life at ThunderRidge High School in the year after the shootings at Columbine.

In other words, Griego was a News star, which only made her crosstown move more painful. So, too, did its timing: She changed partners less than six months after the announcement of the JOA, which many observers thought would turn the Rocky into the Post's weak sister, or doom it entirely. Some of these insiders predicted that Griego's exit would be the first of many from the News -- a fear that may have accounted for what happened after she announced her new pact with the Post. At the time, Griego said Temple was personally gracious to her, but she wasn't given the Rocky's traditional sheet-cake goodbye or even allowed to bid farewell to her co-workers. Moreover, her name was stripped off her final story for the Rocky, which was credited to "News Staff" ("Show Them the Money," November 16, 2000).

For Griego, the presence of the Post's managing editor, Larry Burrough, made going through this process worthwhile. Burrough, who was largely responsible for luring Griego to the Post, stirred open resentment among a sizable segment of the paper's staff during his two years or so in town, but Griego holds a much more positive view of him. "He was my very first editor when I started at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner in 1988 -- I was a general-assignment reporter and he was the city editor -- and I always tell people he was the editor who saw something in me I didn't see in myself," she says. "Larry shaped me as a writer. He told me, 'Look, don't worry about the inverted pyramid and all that. Just tell me a story.' And then he threw me into stories that were much bigger than my experience" -- including such Southern California blockbusters as the Rebecca Schaeffer murder and the Stockton schoolyard massacre. She adds, "It was Larry's idea I become a columnist."

Her move into this field in early 2001 wasn't entirely bump-free, and she admits to some self doubts along the way. She wondered if she was too even-tempered to be a good metro columnist, when was the right time to get personal and how to push her personality to the forefront as opposed to getting out of the way of other people's stories, as she'd been trained to do as a reporter. Burrough helped her find answers to these questions, but when he left in early autumn ("Not Kinder, Not Gentler," September 19), neither Moore nor anyone else stepped in to fill the gap. "There was a bit of a vacuum there," Griego notes. "And it was unsettling to me."

Even so, she says, "I don't regret leaving the News for the Post, and I'm leaving the Post a better writer and a better thinker, and with a better sense of what I have to offer. My strength is reporting -- going out and finding the person or the place or the issue that intrigues me and challenges me and that I think will challenge readers as well. And I think that's an important thing to do."

Mike Littwin, who's far and away Denver's best metro columnist, feels the same. In his view, the power of columnists has faded since the glory days of Mike Royko and Jimmy Breslin, because metropolitan newspapers in general have become more of a middle-class medium as opposed to a predominantly urban one. But, he says, "I think people still like to read columns. All the surveys show that. And I don't want to sound corny, but it's an honor to know that people read you over breakfast in the morning and discuss what you've written, whether they like it or they hate it. To become part of another person's conversation is a fantastic thing."

There's no telling if Bill Johnson, the most erratic of the News columnists, feels the same, since he didn't respond to interview requests. Gossips may interpret that as evidence that Moore will try to get back at the Rocky for swiping Griego by luring Johnson to the Post, as the grapevine buzz currently has it. But Moore dismisses this hypothesis. "I've seen Bill twice in the last six months, and every time I do, rumors start going around just because there's two black guys in a place talking. There's nothing more to it."

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