By Patricia Calhoun
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By Melanie Asmar
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Last month, staffers at the Denver Post stumbled on a scoop. Brewski namesake and 2004 Republican senatorial candidate Pete Coors had been busted for driving under the influence in late May while motoring home from a wedding reception. Facts were pinned down, and the article was completed on July 13 -- and had the Post followed procedure that's been in place for years, the piece's online release would have been coordinated with distribution of the next morning's newspaper. But times are changing, and Post editor Greg Moore believes his paper needs to change with them. For that reason, he says, "We posted it on the web as soon as we got it confirmed."
Not everyone at the Post agreed with his decision. Moore notes that "some people internally wanted to hold the story until the next day," and he acknowledges that the early posting alerted editorial types at the Rocky Mountain News, the Post's longtime rival, about what they'd missed. "The Rocky got their story up sometime later," he says, and readers who looked at the newsprint editions of the Rocky and the Post on July 14 had no way of knowing who'd actually won the race. Nevertheless, Moore feels, "We got credit for breaking that exclusive story," adding, "My feeling is, if you have an hour when you have the story alone, you have to use that hour wisely."
This view is shared by Mark Cardwell, the Post's new managing editor for digital media and the man Moore has charged with leading what he refers to as the paper's "online revolution." In Cardwell's opinion, it's unrealistic to think that "the Post is only competing against the Rocky Mountain News. People have more than one way to get their news, so the competition is bigger than just another newspaper -- a lot bigger." Thanks to the multiplicity of online news providers, so-called old-media enterprises like the Post "are really in a fight for their lives," says Cardwell, who previously performed digital chores for a couple of huge operations, ABC News and the Associated Press. "But that's what makes it interesting. I'd much rather be in the middle of a fight than on the sidelines."
Such aggressiveness is refreshing given the tone of many newspaper types these days. More people than ever are reading material from the Post and other dailies across the country. But because a growing percentage are doing so online -- where ad revenues are still rather puny -- instead of subscribing to physical products, profits are falling, layoffs are becoming commonplace, and plenty of insiders are spending time complaining about the unfairness of it all instead of trying to figure out how to survive the historic transition now under way.
Moore, however, is determined to be proactive, and to that end, he created an online task force to come up with suggestions about how to proceed. (Among its members were managing editor Gary Clark, Sunday-edition chieftain Kevin Dale, and Howard Saltz, a former Post online exec who was recently appointed vice president for content development in the interactive department at the Post's Dean Singleton-fronted parent company, MediaNews Group.) The report that resulted put heavy emphasis on creating a truly high-tech newsroom, defined as a place where journalists "have the capability and training to transmit text, pictures and video from any location." But it also imagined a culture that "appreciates getting information to readers when it happens, not just when the print cycle rolls around every 24 hours."
The report's authors conceded that there will be "fewer print exclusives" under this methodology, but Moore feels the tradeoff is worth it. In a memo announcing a meeting about web issues that took place the day before l'affaire Coors went public, he wrote, "To win in this new environment, we need a website that is known by consumers of news and information for being on top of developments. That means adopting a publish-on-the-web-first mentality. The idea of holding everything until the next morning is a losing proposition."
In addition to philosophical adjustments, the Post plans concrete action. Cardwell is overseeing a major redesign of the Post website that should be up and running sometime this fall. The site is being developed to accommodate the supersized computer screens that are growing in popularity, and it aims to offer or improve features outlined by the task force: "the capacity to offer news to handhelds, feeds from web cams, searchable calendars and databases, more slide shows, live chats, faster updates and, especially, the capacity for users to individualize their DPO [Denver Post Online] experience." Moore is also charging an early-shift reporter with the task of posting news that took place overnight so that surfers will feel comfortable going straight to the paper's website instead of using a search engine like Google or Yahoo. To this end, Moore brought a new programmer aboard. Doing so in these tight budgetary circumstances wasn't easy; Cardwell says Moore "converted a journalist position to a programmer position" in order to pull it off. His choice was potentially controversial, but Cardwell sees it as "bold -- the kind of thing you need to do today. We can actually do more journalism and better reporting if we have a couple of programmers around here to help us with the other work."
Scribes will need all the time they can get, since Moore envisions a significant shift in the way news will be presented in the Post's print edition. Because Internet-savvy folks and those addicted to cable news already know the basic outline of many items before the Post hits their driveways, "the web will be our breaking-news platform," Moore says, "and the newspaper will be our platform for exclusive reporting and stories that really focus on telling people what happens next."
Beat writers in the sports department have struck this balance for years, Cardwell points out. "If there's a Broncos game, everybody knows the score before the paper comes out -- so sportswriters don't make their lead what the score was. Their lead is a more narrative, colorful description of the game. It's been that way around the country for years, and that's the way it's going to go in news at progressive, forward-thinking newspapers."
Moore hopes this approach won't alienate those traditionalists who remain devoted to newspapers, whether they seem old-fashioned or not. But from a business perspective, the move is a no-brainer. "Our bedrock newspaper reader is probably fifty-something," he maintains, "whereas the people who are reading us on the web are in that coveted 18-to-34-year-old demographic."
If the Post can't hang on to this last group, its future is bleak. No wonder Moore thinks pushing scoops to the web is less risky than the alternative. "One of our staffers said to me, 'This one is pretty simple. Either do it or die,'" Moore recalls. "And I looked at this person and said, 'Yeah, you're right. Do it or die.'"
Age and appeal: Lawsuits are seldom adjudicated quickly. That's certainly true of an age-discrimination charge leveled against Westword. The matter has been winding its way through the legal system for four long years, but may finally have reached its resolution.
As previously reported here, former Westword staff writer Steve Jackson filed suit against this publication in 2002, arguing that he was a victim of age discrimination. His original allegation stated that editor Patricia Calhoun "fired Jackson" in September 2001, when he was 46, after "falsely claiming that his position was being eliminated due to 'company-wide downsizing.'" New Times Media, Westword's parent company at the time, denied any wrongdoing, and in January 2005, U.S. District Court Judge Phillip Figa granted a motion from the company, which contended that Jackson hadn't presented enough evidence for a reasonable jury to find in his favor. Jackson promptly appealed on the grounds that Figa had erred in excluding testimony from one of his key witnesses, former Phoenix New Times editor Patti Epler. The case eventually wound up in the United States Court of Appeals, 10th Circuit, but the outcome was the same. In a 26-page document dated August 1 that affirmed the lower court's conclusions, Judge Terrence L. O'Brienwrote that Epler's testimony was "irrelevant to Jackson's claims."
Jackson did not return a call seeking comment.