Calling All Columnists

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

Shortly after his June arrival in Colorado, Denver Post editor Greg Moore declared that his paper was overstocked with columnists -- a point he elaborated upon during a subsequent interview with Westword ("Moore Than Before," August 8). As he put it then, a surplus of columns "gives the paper a decided lack of urgency. An opinion is never urgent. When you have material in the paper where, if you saw it, great, and if you didn't, so what, that's a recipe for not having a compelling product. I want people focused on breaking news stories and not spending a day and a half or two and a half days to write a column -- and I'm not even sure people are spending that much time doing it."

To that end, Moore eliminated some columns, including one by KOA military analyst Bob Newman, and reduced the frequency of others, most prominently the showcase for broadcasting authority Joanne Ostrow. But the largest changes in this respect have taken place among metro columnists, whose jobs are widely seen to be among the paper's most prestigious.

When Moore was hired, the Post had three city-side specialists: Chuck Green, Tina Griego and Diane Carman. However, Green flamed out before Moore officially took hold of the paper's wheel ("Three the Hard Way," May 16), and longtime sportswriter Jim Armstrong, announced as Green's replacement, lasted only a few weeks in the Denver and the West section before he skittered back to his old playing field in late October. Then, at the end of November, Griego, the wife of Westword staff writer Harrison Fletcher, elected to return to the Rocky Mountain News, where she'd worked until two years ago. Carman was on an extended vacation at the time Griego made her move, and by the time of the former's scheduled return to print on December 15, around a month will have passed since the Post published a metro column -- a remarkable, arguably embarrassing gap for a paper that's made such a big deal about its aspirations to journalistic greatness.

Some observers have speculated that Griego fled the Post partly because Moore wasn't terribly interested in columns. Griego refutes that conjecture, although she does so in a manner that hints at a lack of support, editorial or otherwise. "The Post has many good people working in its newsroom, but for whatever reason, I never quite found a home there," she says. "I guess the position isolates a little bit; I think some of it is the nature of the job. And I'm not used to that."

Griego's leaving couldn't have thrilled Moore, especially because he's spoken so frequently about his interest in diversity; as a Latina, Griego was the paper's only metro columnist with an ethnic background. But in speaking about her departure, Moore has only compliments to pass along. "I like Tina, really respect her and her talent," he allows. More intriguing are his remarks about filling the Post's vacant slots. He says he's "possibly" looking for two new metro columnists, but "I haven't fully made up my mind."

Why not? Moore points to recent experience. Several months ago, he ended the Post's practice of intermittently publishing two city columns on the same day because "it's not an opinion journal; it's a newspaper." This dictate meant that Carman, Griego and (briefly) Armstrong would be able to write only twice a week. This light schedule may have been nice for the columnists -- "We were like, 'Woo-hooo!'" Griego jokes -- but Moore concedes that it worked against any of the trio building significant momentum.

"We have to make some decisions about where our columnists are going to be," he says. "If you only have six days to publish [as the Post has since formalizing its joint operating agreement with the News], two days a week might not be enough to gain a following, to put your stamp out there." As such, he's considering hiring just one columnist, not two.

If this is the direction Moore heads, it will set up a clear distinction between the Post and the News, whose editor/publisher/president, John Temple, loves, loves, loves columns. He writes one himself -- an often uneasy blend of opinion and pro-Rocky drumbeating -- and energetically touts specialty columns by the likes of features editor Mike Pearson and sentimental human-interest scribe Gary Massaro. With the addition of Griego to a contingent that includes Mike Littwin and Bill Johnson, the paper will be back up to three metro columnists for the first time since the May 2002 death of Rocky longtimer Gene Amole. Moreover, Temple has no problem spotlighting more than one of these three on the same day in RockyTalk, the portion of the News devoted to columnists.

"I don't understand why you shouldn't do that," Temple says. "Is that like some health formula, where you should only have one -- that if you have more than one column a day, you'll get sick or demented?" Temple guesses that Moore wants to restrict metro columns to one a day "because it's a traditional practice in journalism to run a vertical column on a broadsheet front; that makes it look punchy. But I think unique voices are far more important to a daily newspaper. Of course, if we're not covering the news, that would be a problem -- but we are. And I think it's positive for the newspaper to have more than one voice."

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."

With Johnson on board, the News seemingly has the sort of columnist mix that most appearance-conscious dailies would envy: a Caucasian man, an African-American man and a Hispanic woman. But despite its mainly conservative editorial tone, the Rocky's three columnists all lean to the left, raising the specter of redundancy. This situation cropped up earlier this year at the Post, when Griego and Carman repeatedly had similar takes about matters related to Jesus Apodaca, a Mexican-born student who wound up in the crosshairs of fervid immigration reformer Tom Tancredo. Nonetheless, News editor Temple isn't worried.

"If I had the right conservative columnist that I thought other people would connect to, I would be interested in that," Temple says. "But the reality is, the first reason you connect with a columnist is not ideological. You connect with them because they're a human being who you can relate to. So what I'm interested in is columnists who can communicate at an extraordinary level -- and that's what we've got."

As for Moore, he's willing to throw philosophy into the pot when discussing the perfect Post-columnist candidate. "I'm looking for diversity here, and that includes ideological diversity. There's no litmus test, but I want someone who can talk to both sides of the audience -- someone who's not going to be all the way to the left or the right, but who can move across the spectrum and has a broad view of things, some ideological range. I'm looking for someone who can get around the city and write about it with a sense of discovery. And I'm looking to see that we have someone who can represent the views of the little guy, the outcast, the in folks and the out folks."

That Moore doesn't use plurals when talking about columnists may mean nothing at all. Then again, it might.

Reversal of fortune: In 1999, just three years before Greg Moore came to the Post, Dennis Britton, a veteran of the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Sun-Times, held the editor's job, much to the chagrin of many employees. Several of his more disgruntled charges channeled their displeasure into an Internet site dubbed the "Dennis Britton Go Home Page," and when he eventually did so, few tears were shed. Fewer still are apt to fall today, despite the fact that Britton has gone from running a big newspaper to running around for a much smaller one.

After he was given the heave-ho at the Post (the same fate that befell his successor, Glenn Guzzo, this past spring), Britton became editor of ChinaOnline, a Chicago-based Web service. Yet earlier this year, he and his wife, Tere, moved to Palm Springs, California, where Britton took a business-reporter position at the Palm Springs Desert Sun, a paper with a circulation just north of 50,000 -- a mere shadow of the Post's total. His recent articles identify his beats as "tourism and gaming."

"I started here last month, though Tere and I have been living in the desert since midsummer," Britton wrote in an e-mail exchange. "I am greatly enjoying the opportunity, and once the rust is off, it will be even more fun. I think I would have been a far better editor if I had been a reporter immediately before taking the job. The perspective is quite different."

Britton calls the hiring of Moore "an inspired choice. Given adequate resources and staff support, he should enjoy great success. He is inheriting a wonderful newspaper with a committed staff, from the composing room to the circulation trucks to talented reporters and editors."

A hefty percentage of whom are probably grinning right now.

All the hype that's fit to print: Considering Post editor Moore's emphasis on news, an article that turned up in the paper's December 2 entertainment section can't help but seem a bit contradictory. Headlined "Book Offers Safety Tips for Protecting Yourself, Your Possessions," the piece -- about Safe at All Times, penned by Janet Rodgers and published by Reader's Digest -- reads like a press release for a very good reason. It is a press release.

According to its byline, the item came from PRNewswire, a service that disseminates promotional copy to media organizations all over the world in the hopes that editors will choose to produce stories on the topics they pimp. But rarely do such outfits simply publish this material, and when they do, they generally are up front about its origins. Even Yahoo! Finance, which put the Rodgers promo online on November 29, clearly labeled it as a press release and identified its source as Reader's Digest -- two things the Post didn't bother doing.

With news like this, who needs advertising?

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