The Message

Saint John

Media consumers who complain about the dearth of good news may change their tune after John Elway's enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The buildup to this get-happy ritual, slated to take place on August 8 in Canton, Ohio, is well under way, and if the offerings to date are any indication, even those hungriest for upbeat reportage may find themselves pining for a refreshing splash of murder and mayhem.

Then again, maybe I'm the only one who found Rocky Mountain News scribe Lynn DeBruin's June 29 look at the Utah artist who's making Elway's Hall of Fame bust to be a tad excessive. After all, the piece was only 2,000 words long, and its ten-step guide to making your own heavy-metal tribute included practical tips like, "Breaking off the ceramic shell leaves the bronze in two pieces. The sprews must be ground off and the sculpture welded together, then sandblasted."

Go ahead and try this at home, kids. Elway would undoubtedly be honored.

Perhaps I'm also alone in feeling that the Denver Post may have gone overboard in placing a July 9 Jim Armstrong article about Elway inviting former coach Dan Reeves to the Hall happening on page one, above the fold. I mean, just because the Iraq war, terrorism threats and the run-up to the presidential election are dominating headlines across the country doesn't mean that a semi-thaw in the chilly Elway-Reeves relationship wasn't the biggest story of the day.

Okay, okay -- the ceremony that's inspiring this hoopla is newsworthy. Elway, the first Denver Bronco to earn induction into the Hall, defined Colorado sports during the '80s and '90s, and he remains the only local celebrity famous enough beyond the city limits to impress Madison Avenue. NBC used him and feathered-hair rocker Jon Bon Jovi in spots pimping the Arena Football League, in which Elway's Colorado Crush franchise participates. And the Horse-Toothed One currently serves as the spokesman for Prevacid, a heartburn remedy whose name bears an unfortunate resemblance to Provasic, the lethal "wonder drug" that led to the slaying of Dr. Richard Kimball's wife in The Fugitive. Buy the stuff, or else you'll be stalked by a one-armed man.

On the other hand, the interaction between commercial interests and the news value of the event can't help but leave a queasy aftertaste. The Post sponsored a ticket giveaway for the John Elway Celebration Concert, held July 7 at Coors Amphitheater, and in her column that day, the Rocky's Penny Parker noted that her colleague, Drew Litton, would be signing copies of his latest book, Give My Regards to Elway, at the show. (Rocky editor/publisher/president John Temple also hyped Litton's tome in his July 3 column.) In addition, Parker revealed that tickets for the soiree were still available, and boy, was she right. Over 8,000 tickets went unsold, proving that even Elway's presence couldn't lure people to see a date headlined by (yeeesh) Kenny Rogers.

Predictably, Parker failed to mention the middling turnout in her July 9 followup -- and the fact was likewise omitted from coverage by Channel 4. Having recently forked over big bucks to become the "official" Broncos station, the outlet dutifully devoted a sizable chunk of its 10 p.m. newscast that night to footage of folks like ex-jock-turned-broadcaster Mark Schlereth lauding his former teammate from the amphitheatre stage. Broadcasters hardly ignored the July 10 and 11 Sun Microsystems John Elway Celebrity Classic golf tournament, either, and they'll undoubtedly be on hand in droves when Elway and fellow Hall of Famer Joe Montana square off in an August 20 flag-football contest. Sounds hard-hitting.

The puffery doesn't end there. In the July 6 Post, for instance, writer Patrick Saunders paired a misty profile of Elway's cancer-stricken high school coach, who's "determined to be at the Pro Football Hall of Fame next month," with an accompanying piece gushing that Elway is expected to attract "the biggest crowd to witness a Hall of Fame induction."

If a choir of angels doesn't visit as well, it'll be because they can tell the difference between John Elway and Jesus Christ -- unlike a lot of people in the Denver media.

Getting a Woody: Along with loads of other high-profile Denver journalists, the Post's Woody Paige will be in Canton for John Elway's coronation -- but this trip is one of the few he's expected to make for the paper over the next twelve months. Although he'll continue to write a Sunday column, he's taking what's described as a one-year leave of absence from the Post to further explore the wonderful world of television.

For a couple of years, Paige has been a fixture on Around the Horn, an ESPN yell-fest that's turned him into an unexpected cult figure on college campuses. The series' ratings have been growing at such a clip that Mark Shapiro, ESPN's head of programming and production, asked him to expand his presence on the network. To that end, he's relocating to New York City this month, and in early August, he'll join the cast of Cold Pizza, a two-hour morning show on ESPN2. His Around the Horn duties will continue, too, but now he is also expected to fill in on ESPN staples such as Pardon the Interruption and The Sports Reporters, and he has even been chosen to serve as a Simon Cowell-like judge on the next edition of Dream Job, a sports-oriented variation on The Apprentice. "It's all pretty goofy," he admits. "But I've been a goof my whole career."

Paige says he turned down Shapiro three times before finally accepting his offer. "I love Colorado and I love being what I am, a columnist here," he insists. "I was very comfortable. But a friend of mine said, 'You've been in your comfort zone for a long time. It's time for you to challenge yourself' -- and he was right." If the newspaper war was still going on, Paige doubts the Post would have granted him a leave, but he says Post owner Dean Singleton, editor Greg Moore and sports editor Kevin Dale "were all very receptive to the idea." He expects that a new columnist will be hired to fill his weekday slots, and while he has no idea who might be chosen, its likely the Post will seek to diversify a lineup dominated by Caucasian males such as Mark Kiszla and Jim Armstrong.

In the meantime, Paige prepares to embark on his new adventure with a mix of anticipation and anxiety. "I'll be on ESPN more than anybody else," he says, unbelievingly. "They're putting a lot of faith in me, which kind of scares me. I'm afraid they'll look at me after a while and think, 'What the fuck did we do?'"

The later shift: On June 10, assorted editorial employees at the Rocky Mountain News received a startling internal e-mail. The message was penned by city editor Tonia Twichell, and its subject line bluntly stated, "We're Broke...;"

In the body of the message, Twichell wrote, "The overtime budget for cityside is flat broke. That means barring the Granbys, Columbines and Hayman Fires of the world, we won't be approving any more -- at least through the summer. Please work with your ACE [assistant city editor] if you feel you're edging into OT territory."

This note sent such a shudder through Rocky journos that Twichell quickly composed a sequel. "I'm sorry for the confusion created by my memo concerning overtime," it began. "I attempted to address a serious subject in a less than serious manner and I would like to clarify. The overall city desk budget is fine. But we do need to make certain that we are following company policy in dealing with overtime. As you know, the Guild contract requires that overtime be approved in advance by your supervising editor or myself. Our goal is to minimize unnecessary overtime through better planning, and thus use overtime for the greatest benefit to our news coverage."

The gulf between "flat broke" and "fine" is a wide one, even taking into consideration Twichell's reference to "unnecessary overtime" in the second e-mail. Aforementioned Rocky boss John Temple attempts to bridge the gap. "We're trying to better manage overtime," he says. "We just did 'dozer rage" -- the act of slow-motion suicide committed by Granby's Marvin Heemeyer -- "and obviously, that involves a lot of overtime. It's what overtime is for. But there should be really good communication when you're deciding to use overtime. We need to ask, 'Do I need to do this? Should somebody else do it?'"

Temple doesn't want anyone to suspect his paper of skimping on coverage to save a buck or two. He points to "The Healing Fields," assistant business editor Jane Hoback's twelve-part series about a Cambodian- American couple devoted to freeing women sold into prostitution in their native land. The narrative required a significant outlay, since the paper paid for Hoback and photographer Ellen Jaskol to visit Cambodia last November, but Temple says the expenses, which fell into the previous budget year, haven't put the squeeze on the overtime fund. He credits the paper's good financial health to the joint operating agreement that links business operations at the Rocky and the Post. "The Rocky has more money to operate its newsroom today than pre-JOA, and we're more ambitious than we were pre-JOA," he says.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Little ado about plenty: The Denver Post spent the better part of 2003 and the first portion of this year developing, revising and massaging a new ethics policy intended to update the paper's standards for the morally ambiguous 21st century. The proposed guidelines, shaped by committees made up of managers and their underlings, stirred debate among staffers, many of whom felt that rules intended to further objectivity on the job might restrict their privileges as citizens off it. For instance, the October 10 draft of the document stated that employees "should not participate in rallies, demonstrations, marches and the like," and "may not, in public, wear political buttons, post political signs or attach political bumper stickers to their vehicles." (Bumper stickers on cars that never left the garage were apparently okay.) Moreover, the manifesto's last sentence -- "Any editorial employee of the Denver Post who violates this policy will be subject to disciplinary action, which may include termination" -- raised the possibility of the regulations being administered in ways that contradicted contracts approved by the Denver Newspaper Guild.

Against this backdrop, the paper finalized the policy, and in the months since its spring unveiling, it's gone from a major controversy to a relative non-issue. "There was a lot of talk about it before it was finished," says Tony Mulligan, who heads the Guild. "But I haven't heard a word since."

The silence has everything to do with the removal or altering of the policy's most divisive proclamations. In the version of the directive linked to the paper's home page, www.denverpost.com, the section about public protest has been changed from a decree to a suggestion: "Employees should take care in considering whether to attend any rally, march or demonstration, especially those events that are overtly political." On top of that, there's no longer any mention of political buttons, signs or bumper stickers, and the threat of firing that once punctuated the plan has been replaced by much more diplomatic verbiage. "The Guild may grieve any alleged arbitrary, capricious or discriminatory application of this policy," it states. "Any discipline or disputes arising out of the application of this policy that concerns Guild-covered employees shall be subject to the grievance procedures under the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the Denver Post and the Denver Newspaper Guild."

On the surface, the policy seems significantly diluted, but Post editor Greg Moore doesn't see it that way: "I'm very happy with the policy," he says. "It's a very strong policy." Even so, he concedes that "the final policy came as the result of constructive negotiations with members of the Guild, and in some places it was toned down for some legitimate reasons, some contract reasons. They had some good suggestions, and it was appropriate for them to participate, because for the policy to be effective, it's the responsibility of everyone."

To Mulligan, the new language delineates "the separation between work and personal life, and in no way diminishes the rights of the employees and the obligation of the employer to comply with the contract." As for the last paragraph, he doesn't believe it renders the blueprint toothless. "I think the intent of the policy is still intact," he says.

Whatever the case, Mulligan reveals that no Post staffers have complained to the Guild about the ethics policy being used against them. Furthermore, the paper treated at least one clear violation of the policy's principles with kid gloves.

In a March 2 profile of singer Sarah Brightman, writer Elana Ashanti Jefferson used quotes from a Q&A provided by a public-relations outfit without the proper attribution. Such a move is identified as a major sin in the policy, which notes that "attribution is crucial.... Information, quotes and passages from another publication must be attributed. All writing and reporting in the Denver Post must be original or credited to the proper source."

Moore spoke in even stronger terms last November, around the time that longtime rock writer G. Brown resigned in the face of plagiarism charges. He called plagiarism "one of the cardinal sins of journalism. Even at newspapers that believe in second chances, when you have blatant lifting of material, you just have to impose the severest penalty." Yet Jefferson remains at the Post, and Moore feels that's as it should be.

"I don't talk about disciplinary actions, but we dealt with Elana on that -- and there's a big difference between what she did and plagiarism," he says. "She took information that was given to her to use and didn't attribute it properly, which is different from lifting quotes from someone, actually stealing someone's work." He adds, "I'm not trying to be a killer or anything like that. Everything that happens has to be looked at in its own light."

No wonder the ethics policy isn't frightening anymore.

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