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Slim, Fast

Attrition has reduced the Rocky staff's size, but it's not happening quickly enough. A buyout targets another twenty positions.

Ad revenue at many U.S. newspapers is sliding downhill faster than Jeremy Bloom at a freestyle skiing competition. For that reason, the Rocky Mountain News recently joined several major dailies from across the country, including the Boston Globe and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in offering buyouts intended to decrease their numbers. In an internal memo dated March 21, Rocky editor/publisher/ president John Temple announced that a "voluntary separation plan" would be presented to fifty employees age 55 and older with a minimum of ten years on the payroll of E.W. Scripps, the tabloid's owner. The goal is to cut twenty jobs, or just under 10 percent of the staff, in advance of a sweeping newsroom reorganization slated to take place by September 1.

There's no guarantee that the Rocky will reach this total. In April 2006, the Denver Post tried to trim 25 editorial gigs via a combination of voluntary-separation agreements and early-retirement packages, but only got thirteen takers. Of course, newspaper economics are even grimmer now than they were then, spurring conjecture that plenty of Rocky workers will take the new deal, which pays a week's salary up to 52 weeks for each six months of employment and features a health-care subsidy. Applications have to be in by April 2; they'll be accepted or rejected around ten days later.

Reporter Gary Gerhardt, who turned 65 on April 3, eagerly embraces the proposal. When he received Temple's e-mail, he was only days away from telling his bosses that he intended to retire from the Rocky, where he's worked since September 1967; hence, he views the package as "a godsend." However, he believes it "won't be easy to take for a lot of people in their late fifties who still have kids in high school or college. They're eligible, but they can't pull the string. They'll need a job for more than a year, and at that age, it's tough for them to leave and get something else."

The same goes for journalists in general if they want to remain in their chosen field. While not every daily is pushing the buyout solution, precious few have brought many new folks aboard of late. Temple emphasizes that the Rocky doesn't have a hiring freeze, pointing out that a part-time designer recently joined the staff. He concedes, though, that some positions haven't been filled, and lots of them opened up during the past year-plus. Among departees listed by a knowledgeable source are reporters Charlie Brennan, Jim Erickson and Sarah Langbein, designer Lori Montoya, and photographers Todd Heisler, Marc Piscotty, Maria Avila, David Barreda and Erik Javier Olvera. Moreover, writer Jim Sheeler is taking a sabbatical to pen a book based on his epic article "Final Salute," for which he won a Pulitzer Prize (as did aforementioned shutterbug Heisler, currently with the New York Times). Given the tremendous demand for Sheeler these days, speculation is rife that he's penned his last prose for the Rocky.

Remaining scribes in the metro section were stretched so thin from the depletion that shortly before unveiling the voluntary separation plan, Temple asked four feature writers -- Betsy Lehndorff, Lisa Ryckman, Erika Gonzalez and Brian Crecente -- to move to news. Feature-writing slots are some of the most coveted at newspapers, so this would seem to be a difficult sell. Nevertheless, three of the four reporters are playing ball.

Lehndorff, an interior design and gardening authority who's married to Rocky restaurant critic John Lehndorff, says she immediately agreed to the shift. "I want to continue to support the paper as a journalist," says Lehndorff, who covered hard news at the Boulder Daily Camera prior to joining the Rocky in 2000. "It's pretty altruistic, but we're grateful for what we've got." For her part, Ryckman has agreed to divide her time. She'll spend three days per week as a news reporter, reprising her role from the era when the JonBenét Ramsey case was the hottest story in the nation, and two days on soft-news specialties she's developed -- among them a readers' weight-loss challenge and fitness layouts built around photos of her in sporty workout togs demonstrating assorted exercises. Meanwhile, Gonzalez, corresponding by e-mail, reveals, "I am in discussions about creating a new beat that would utilize my experience working in the newspaper's business and entertainment departments."

That leaves Crecente, a former Rocky police reporter who several years ago began supplementing his primary assignments with occasional articles about a personal passion, video games. This platform, along with freelance work for Kotaku.com, one of the web's foremost gaming sites, helped him establish a national reputation that was only enhanced when Temple tailored a full-time game-related position for him at the Rocky in early 2006.

An incident that took place several weeks ago epitomizes the regard with which Crecente is held in the video-game community. He learned of a new project in development at Sony, and when he contacted the company for a comment, he was told that if he divulged anything about it, the firm would essentially blackball him in the future. Instead of buckling, Crecente ran the story complete with Sony's promise of retribution, thereby unleashing a torrent of criticism at the firm for its heavy-handed tactics. Sony subsequently caved, retracting the threat and normalizing relations with Crecente.

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