The Message

Business Call

"My goal," says Stephen Keating, who takes over as business editor of the Denver Post on November 3, "would be that when people pick up the paper every day, they have to see what's in the business section."

If he manages this trick, Keating should package his formula and sell it to newspapers across the country, because he'd make a fortune. Business news can affect the average person much more directly than, say, the accounts of random violence that often wind up on page one, yet many readers are allergic to it. Demographically attractive capitalists naturally drift toward such coverage, as do entrepreneurial wannabes and investors who actually follow the market instead of blindly pouring their loot into 401(k) plans and hoping for the best. However, others tend to view the financial section as the equivalent of a math lesson; they'd rather spend their time in sports (comparable to recess) or the comics (like hanging out in the bathroom with the class clown).

Keating, a onetime Post reporter who's returning to the paper after a three-year absence, is a strong choice to help change this reputation, and he'll have the able assistance of his predecessor, Al Lewis, who gave up the business-editor title to become a full-time columnist. Still, Lewis's three years at the helm illustrate how large a task has been set before the prodigal son. Lewis is an enjoyably opinionated scribe, but his lively, bare-knuckled approach hasn't always carried over to the section as a whole. For each impressive edition, such as those anchored by reporter Kris Hudson's dogged coverage of Qwest's occasional ups and frequent downs, there have been efforts that are rote, dull or so nondescript that plenty of subscribers may not have given them a second glance.

All business: New Post business editor 
Stephen Keating.
Brett Amole
All business: New Post business editor Stephen Keating.

Take the October 22 section. The main story concerned a $22.1 million grant to Colorado State University for the construction of a biodefense lab -- an interesting and timely topic that deserved prominent placement. But while reporter Jennifer Beauprez was able to get the grabby phrase "vaccines for anthrax, tuberculosis, smallpox and other bioterrorism agents" into her first paragraph, none of these words found their way into the sleepy headline and deck: "CSU Hopes Lab Leads to Biotech Hub: Public-Private Efforts Eyed." Even snoozier was the headline on a Kristi Arellano story that appeared above the fold: "2 Retail Centers Mulled in N. Colo." (There might be less active verbs than "mulled," but not very damn many.) As for art, the section front featured a couple of decent photos and a pair of exceedingly similar maps. The result was a generic look for a generic section padded with business briefs, wire stories and page after page of stock listings.

The business pullout from the same day's Rocky Mountain News was no earthshaker, but it put some of the Post's weaknesses into context. The headlines regularly made the stories appear more attractive than they might have seemed otherwise; for instance, a report about a Lockheed Martin defense contract ran under the oversized banner "Lockheed Jackpot." Moreover, the use of graphics, info boxes and the like provided diverse and energetic visuals, and the amount of locally generated material was impressive. The Rocky offered fourteen articles with local bylines; the Post managed six, if a short credited to "the Denver Post staff" is counted.

Such comparisons don't address the quality of the Post's content, which editor Greg Moore believes is much improved since he arrived in Denver last year. Back then, the plainspoken, pull-no-punches boss was upset that the Post was receiving routine beatings from national competitors. "I think our readers expect us to tell them important news about [local] companies and not be quoting the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times," he groused ("The Joy of Sections," August 8, 2002). Today he says his reporters have made sizable strides in this area; he describes the staff as "really good. They work hard and know their subject matter."

Of course, subscribers won't fully appreciate the talents of these individuals unless they read what is written. To get them to do so, Moore says, "we need better display for the stories -- to work with graphics and not be so dependent on the five-stories-and-a-photo layout. We have a graphics person and a designer who pay attention to those things, but we need to refocus that effort in a much more concentrated way so we can have greater coordination between designers, reporters and story editors."

Moore also worries about those sections that lack a blockbuster, or at least a compelling spotlight item. "The news regarding the big industries, like United and Qwest, gets big play, and it should. But on other days, some smaller stories get pretty big play, too, and I want to change that." He insists that he's "not against writing stories about folks who invent seat belts for dogs" -- a reference to reporter Vicky Lio's overview of a Boulder company's pup-protection product that opened on the July 17 business section's front page. "But I think there's a way to rethink the section so that won't be the centerpiece. We're a little inconsistent."

Maybe so, but the business department is much steadier than it was when Lewis arrived at the Post in early 2000. Prior to that, he was a reporter at the Rocky, but he says, "I was pretty burned out. They wanted me to write three stories a day, and I wasn't getting the time to do the things I really loved to do: investigate and do project work. I just didn't see a future over there." Then he received a call from Don Knox, the Post's business editor at the time. "Don's a very entrepreneurial guy," Lewis points out, "and he didn't have it in him to be business editor again; he'd done that at the Rocky. So he told me, 'How would you like to be business editor? Come over as an assistant for a year, and then you'll get the job.'" But something went wrong with the scheme. Knox left six months earlier than he'd originally anticipated, and when Lewis took the reins, he says, "I basically inherited a bank of empty desks."

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