Trading Places

The Post moves staffers outside their comfort zones.

Is Ed Smith experiencing an identity crisis?

Smith is the longtime entertainment editor of the Denver Post. However, a recent call to him from yours truly prompted the person who answered the phone at the paper's features desk to ask, "Entertainment editor or radio and TV?" I chose the former, and within seconds, I was plugged into the voice mail not of Smith, but of William Porter, usually the assistant entertainment editor. In the meantime, a new byline has started appearing in the broadsheet's Scene section: "Edward P. Smith, Denver Post staff writer."

There's a not-so-simple explanation for Smith's multiplying designations. This month, four members of the Post's entertainment team have switched duties. Smith is serving as the radio-and-television specialist, while Joanne Ostrow, who's acted in that role for more than two decades, is taking care of stories related to theater. For his part, John Moore, the paper's theater critic, has been moved into the assistant-entertainment-editor slot, thereby allowing Porter to fill in for Smith.

Mark Andresen

This beat-flipping experiment isn't unprecedented; Moore says he's heard that the Colorado Springs Gazette tried something similar. But if it catches on with other news organizations, the possibilities for journalistic mash-ups are practically endless. Imagine: Channel 9 anchor Adele Arakawa standing by the entrance to the Eisenhower Tunnel monitoring snowfall totals rather than idling in a nice, warm studio watching some poor underling slowly succumb to hypothermia. Or Channel 7 sportscaster Lionel Bienvenu trying to report straight news stories without smirking. And what about having Channel 4 investigator Brian Maass handle the weather chores? Maybe he could figure out why forecasts are wrong about half the time.

Of course, substitutions like these probably won't happen unless things go well at the Post -- but Ray Mark Rinaldi, the Post's assistant managing editor for A&E and features, sees reason for optimism. "My sense is that people are enjoying the process," he says.

Rinaldi came up with the idea for the journalistic roundelay, which he sees as an opportunity to broaden outlooks. "We're always trying to keep people interested, keep people developing, keep people fresh," he points out. "This was a chance for a highly competent group of editors and writers to think about writing in new ways and to experience culture from a different perspective."

The compliments in Rinaldi's comments are there for a reason; he doesn't want the job changes to be seen as punitive, as such moves often have been throughout the history of newspapering. His point is echoed by editor Greg Moore, who believes that an occasional change of scenery can be positive, as many Posters have discovered. Prior to the implementation of Rinaldi's plan, an internal Post memo documented new duties for a dozen scribes, many of them prominent: "David Migoya will join the city desk staff as social service reporter," "Kevin Simpson will be a general-assignment reporter," and so on. Moore insists that these moves, which are intended to be permanent (or at least as permanent as any transfers at the Post), weren't punitive, either. In his opinion, "Those are all good job changes."

As for the temporary swappers, a couple of them were either too busy or too something to talk about their experiences thus far. In an e-mail, Ostrow offered a couple of jokes about missing her remote and being surprised that theater doesn't have commercials before referring questions to Rinaldi. And Porter? He responded to an interview request with two prefab paragraphs capped by the line "I think there's a consensus that while we'll all experience some aggro as we get out of our normal routines, we'll also learn something." But after receiving some follow-up questions via e-mail, he firmly declined to elaborate, asking facetiously, "Shall I swing by and punch up your lede, too?"

Sounds like he was experiencing some aggro at that very momentŠ

Once-and-future theater critic Moore seems calmer, but the same can't be said for his sources within the theater community. Those who've e-mailed him of late have received automated replies explaining the scheme, and "when they heard there was going to be a switch, some of them were nervous," he says. This isn't an entirely irrational reaction, since Moore's Sunday theater-notes column has been put on hiatus through March. On the other hand, the flexibility Moore has this month as an editor (a position he's held in the past) allowed him to spend more time honing a large feature due shortly.

That leaves Smith, who seems to be having fun sitting in Ostrow's couch indentation. Nonetheless, he admits that the transition hasn't been a snap. He worked for years as a hard-news reporter at California's Marin Independent Journal ("I covered everybody who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge," he boasts), so writing and reporting aren't foreign to him. But, he says, "sitting down in front of that blank computer screen reminds me how difficult it is every time you do it. And I think that will make me a more empathetic editor than I was before."

The Post didn't inform readers in advance about the beat exchange, and after a week, neither Smith nor Rinaldi had heard from a single subscriber inquiring about it. Still, its success or failure will be measured by a different yardstick. "We'll look at the stories we've written," Rinaldi says. "It's easy to get caught up in the process, but the stories have to be good -- and if they're interesting and of high quality, we'll certainly look at doing it again." He adds that "others in the office have expressed interest. They're just waiting to see how it goes."

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