The Message

Free at Last

 Rich Tosches has every right to be depressed. Last fall, his nine-year run as the Colorado Springs Gazette's most popular and controversial columnist came to an abrupt halt, motivating him to jump to the Rocky Mountain News in January. Too bad the Rocky position didn't work out, either, and he opted to pull the plug on February 3, around four weeks into his tenure. That's a couple of significant wounds in a short period of time, but Tosches isn't sitting around nursing them.

"I don't feel bad about anything that's happened," he says from his Colorado Springs home. "I think things are going to start being fun again."

Not that he's thrilled about how everything went down. He has particularly harsh words for Gazette publisher Tom Mullen, whom he holds largely responsible for what he sees as the deterioration of a once admirable newspaper. "It's almost stunning that he hasn't been fired," Tosches maintains. "He's dismantling the place, and I didn't want to watch anymore. It got too painful to work there."

After leaving two dailies, Rich Tosches is looking 
Brett Amole
After leaving two dailies, Rich Tosches is looking ahead.

Mullen, for his part, chooses not to respond to the most personal of Tosches's charges. "I don't normally comment on the opinions of one of our staff writers or former staff writers," he says. Nonetheless, he disputes the characterization of the Gazette as a paper on the slide, noting that "we still have, by far, the biggest and most powerful media audience in El Paso County."

A healthy portion of that readership loved Tosches's work, and so did his peers; the Colorado Press Association once named him the state's journalist of the year. Nonetheless, he had no shortage of adversaries. He considers himself to be a humor columnist -- a vocation he began practicing regularly during his eight years at the Los Angeles Times, where he toiled prior to 1993, when he joined the Gazette staff. Rather than limiting himself to innocuous giggles à la Dave Barry, however, Tosches often needled Colorado Springs institutions and newsmakers from a perspective that was considerably to the left of center. He mocked the Broadmoor resort for what he saw as its gluttonous thirst during a widespread drought, and he made a habit of ridiculing James Dobson and Focus on the Family, the powerful, Springs-based religious and cultural organization. "They'd have book burnings and then get angry because I made fun of them," Tosches says. He adds that "Dobson came to the paper on more than one occasion. Focus put enormous pressure on the paper because of me."

Although Tosches thinks ideology may have played a role in the stripping of his column, Jeff Thomas, the Gazette's managing editor, states categorically that it did not. "Rich wrote something on the order of 1,300 columns for us during his tenure," Thomas says, "and if he were as controversial as some people want to assume, we would have pulled his column after thirteen, not 1,300. If we're going to have thin skin, well, nine years is an awfully long time to be thin-skinned."

Whatever the case, Tosches was notified in September that his column was getting the ax, and he would be reassigned to the features section. He subsequently told the Colorado Springs Independent, the area's alternative weekly, that his specific beats would be seniors and local authors like himself; he's the writer of a 2002 fly-fishing tome with the saucy title Zipping My Fly: Moments in the Life of an American Sportsman. In his Independent interview, Tosches downplayed his frustration over the move. "I don't get disappointed anymore," he insisted. "Things come and they go. I have a job, and I like my job. When this is done to some people, they get all excited and dart out in the middle of traffic. I'm not going to dart into traffic."

Gazette readers presumably resisted the urge to do likewise, but they didn't hide their displeasure. Thomas informed the Independent that he received over 240 phone calls complaining about the death of Tosches's column, supplemented by e-mails aplenty. He included a sampling of these missives, complete with his responses, in a hefty document viewable online at One complainant wrote, "I wondered when the right wing in this town would be able to get rid of him [from] your paper, and now I just wanted to let you know I have absolutely no reason to read the Gazette." And a grammatically challenged but pithy reader hit Thomas with the question, "Are you the Nazi that's getting rid of Rich's column?"

He's no Third Reicher, but Thomas did pull the trigger in this instance. He says the primary reason was a lack of bodies at the Gazette, whose owner, Freedom Communications, has been feeling the financial pinch in recent years. (In 2003, Freedom was put up for sale, and Dean Singleton's MediaNews Group made a substantial bid for the chain. In the end, the kin of R.C. Hoiles, the company's founder, retained it.) Thomas steers clear of specifying how many editorial-department employees have been lost through attrition over the past several years, saying only that "our newsroom staffing levels are smaller now than they've been in a good number of years." Nonetheless, numerous Gazette readers have noticed that local matters of great interest, such as repercussions from the scandal at the Air Force Academy, are sometimes dealt with via wire stories -- a clear indication of a significant manpower shortage.

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