Dusty Saunders Hits the Trail

The Rocky's veteran broadcasting critic is the latest casualty of the paper's financial troubles.

In his May 31 farewell column, veteran broadcasting critic Dusty Saundersposited that he's written more words for the Rocky Mountain News than anyone else in its 148-year history — and the numbers back him up. He spent an astonishing 53 years as a scribbler or editor at the paper, and even though he's well into his seventies, he was the staff's most prolific prose merchant right up until his retirement announcement. In the average week, he scattered more than 4,000 words across six columns (five for the Spotlight section, plus one in the Monday sports roundup), and he frequently generated breaking news articles and major profiles. As Rocky editor/publisher/president John Temple acknowledges, "Nobody could do what he does. You don't replace Dusty."

Of course, the Rocky hasn't been replacing much of anyone lately. In response to the dire financial circumstances currently faced by daily newspapers, the tabloid has been trimming its editorial staff by attrition, and plenty of editorial employees worried about the future of their profession have been jumping before they could be pushed. At least ten Rocky types split over the course of 2006 and early 2007, and in the past few weeks, several more followed suit. The latest batch includes metro reporter Deb Frazier, named communications director for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources; multimedia producer Tim Skillern, who took a supervisory position at Associated Content, a growing website recently featured in these pages; society columnist Dahlia Weinstein, the announced editor of a new magazine dubbed Shine; and business reporter Janet Forgrieve, now the director of communications for a chain of canine daycare centers operating under the Camp Bow-Wow banner. These days, apparently, writing for a newspaper seems like a less secure job than going to the dogs.

Additionally, the Rocky sought to slice another twenty positions (or about 10 percent of editorial personnel) by way of a buyout offer aimed at employees age 55 and older who'd collected a paycheck from E.W. Scripps, the paper's owner, for at least a decade. In the end, seventeen people took the deal — among them reporters such as Charley Able, Dick Foster and Lou Kilzer, plus Peter Blake, a well-respected mainstay of the opinion pages, Saunders and Robert Denerstein, who served as the Rocky's movie critic for 27 years. While the Rocky fell short of its goal, the exits of Frazier and others means there are no immediate plans for layoffs — a very real danger at the Denver Post, which is trying to cleave its roster by 37 through a buyout package of its own.

As Temple accurately points out, the Rocky employees who accepted the buyout come from all corners of the newsroom, and their absence will necessitate changes in departments paper-wide. Still, Spotlight is taking the most visible hit. Before the buyout offer, four features specialists — Betsy Lehndorff, Erika Gonzalez, Lisa Ryckman and Brian Crecente — were asked to take over vacated metro gigs. Of this quartet, Ryckman, who'd been concentrating on fitness pieces often accompanied by photos of her demonstrating exercises, arranged to divide her time between sections, and Crecente, one of the country's best-known video-game writers, quit to devote his energies to Kotaku.com, a gaming website. Crecente's decision blew a big hole in Spotlight that will only widen with the end of Weinstein's sprawling society coverage, Denerstein's reviews, which typically dominated the signature Friday edition, and columns by Saunders that filled page two of the section Monday through Thursday.

A portion of the Spotlight crew remains — notably, food critic John Lehndorff (husband of Betsy), pop-music writer Mark Brown, classical-music maven Marc Shulgold, and art-and-architecture expert Mary Voelz Chandler. Moreover, former features editor Mike Pearson has been assigned to a writing-only role that should fill some of the gaps. (In the past, Pearson has penned eminently forgettable pop-culture columns and DVD reviews, making this switch a distinctly mixed blessing.) Yet Temple and Joe Rassenfoss, who's been asked to oversee both Spotlight and features — formerly a two-person task — maintain that no decision has been made about whether there will be a regular TV-and-radio column or staff-generated film reviews down the line.

"In a perfect economic world, we wouldn't be having this discussion," Rassenfoss allows via e-mail. "So the paper's only choice, and our job in features, is to keep finding creative and entertaining ways to cover things our readers want to know about."

True enough — but because the most popular movies and TV shows are the same nationwide, the prospect of using reviews from elsewhere is mighty tempting. At Westword, film critic Bill Gallo's position was eliminated last year; today the paper publishes reviews by other writers in the Village Voice Media chain. And since April, two major dailies, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and the Tampa Tribune, either laid off or reassigned their movie critics and are now running wire copy. That's a shame, in Denerstein's view. "The good thing about being a consistent voice is that readers learn if they like it or dislike it," he says. "Whether you agree or disagree can be secondary to the idea that you kind of know that person — know their taste, know their idiosyncrasies. And you can make judgments over time based on how you feel about their work."

The same goes for television — but daily broadcasting writers produce as many, if not more, column inches on reports about local stations and personalities as they do on critiques of network programs or cable fare. Nevertheless, these chores haven't inoculated them against being disappeared. Saunders points to his friend Ed Bark, the Dallas Morning News TV critic for more than a quarter-century, who took a buyout last fall because he feared he'd be laid off if he didn't. Bark subsequently launched a website, www.unclebarky.com, that covers media in Dallas and beyond far more thoroughly and enjoyably than does the Morning News circa 2007.

Bark's example demonstrates the risks of looking at entertainment coverage mainly from the perspective of expense. Pinching pennies while allowing the product to deteriorate can cause even loyal readers to look elsewhere — like, for instance, other Internet sites. Temple, though, thinks the web shows how exciting and useful criticism can be when the number of opinion-providers expands. He lauds the way Amazon presents information about books: a synopsis followed by comments about the tome from readers of every description. "That's a more interesting environment than if you only have professional writers talking about them," he says.

Temple isn't suggesting that this approach makes paid reviewers obsolete; he likes the idea of juxtaposing the views of experienced pros with just plain folks. Denerstein concurs, even though he sees a distinction between these forms of expression. "Hopefully, a critic will have a different type of writing skill than someone who doesn't write all the time," he says. "They're different games. One game is criticism, and the other comes under a different heading. Maybe 'group discussion.'"

According to Denerstein, who's 64, he probably would have worked for another couple of years had the buyout not come along. Similarly, Saunders says he had been planning to call it a career in late 2008, following the Democratic National Convention in Denver and the presidential election. Neither seems resentful that his plans were pushed up, and both note that they plan to occasionally freelance pieces to the paper. Granted, Crecente said the same thing, and his byline hasn't appeared in the paper since he left two months ago. But Saunders expects he'll wind up with some fairly steady obituary duty. "When you've covered the beat as long as I have, there's always somebody dying," he says, laughing.

Despite all the doom and gloom surrounding it, the Rocky still has plenty of life left, particularly on the local-news side. The paper continues to turn out strong enterprise pieces exemplified by a May 30 offering about the distressing graduation rates of Hispanic males who attend Denver Public Schools. Newsroom restructuring intended to break down barriers between the print edition and the website seems promising, too. "The irony is that at the same time we're having to rethink how we're using our resources and resize ourselves based on current economics, we're actually able to be doing more," Temple says. "And we need to be doing more."

The entertainment section may benefit from this line of thinking. Or it could be a victim of it.

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