By Alan Prendergast
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In the 1996 Cameron Crowe film Jerry Maguire, the title character, portrayed by Tom Cruise, is a high-powered sports agent who begins to feel guilty about the avaricious, unfeeling way he and his colleagues treat the athletes they represent. Then he has an epiphany. "The answer was fewer clients," he says in a voiceover. "Caring for them, caring for ourselves, and the games, too." Jerry puts down these thoughts in a mission statement he titles "The Things We Think and Do Not Say (The Future of Our Business)," and after making a slew of duplicates during a late-night copy-shop visit, he distributes the ruminations at his office — where his bold decision to share his personal views promptly leads to humiliation and professional disgrace.
Of course, things work out pretty well for Jerry in the end: His sole remaining client, Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.), becomes a star on his watch, and Renée Zellweger completes him. But prior to this happy conclusion, he suffers through some mighty uncomfortable episodes, with which Denver Post theater critic John Moore can surely identify. After all, Moore, a fine reporter and a talented wordsmith who's widely beloved by stage buffs, is currently in the middle of his own Jerry Maguire Moment.
In early February, after the Post instituted newsprint trims that lessened the number of regular features Moore contributes to the physical paper (as opposed to the online edition), he wrote a piece dubbed "Straight Talk About Latest Newspaper Space Cuts." In the missive, which can be found at blogs.westword.com/latestword, he asserted that "as of Feb. 1, both the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News had our editorial space slashed by another 20 percent" — a figure that appears to apply more to selected editions of the Post's entertainment section than to the two newspapers as a whole. Shortly thereafter, following a discussion about falling revenues, Moore argued that "we've hastened our own demise by developing such a thorough and convenient online product.
"I've been driving that train in my little corner of the Net to a large extent," he conceded. "And by doing so, I've been helping to kill my own newspaper."
How to reverse this trend? Moore suggested that only the institution of a small fee for full online access would prevent fiscal disaster at the Post and other publications like it. The figure he floated for this service was $8, the amount many of us pay for "two pints of beer."
Moore e-mailed his manifesto to folks who contacted him at the paper to inquire about theater-coverage alterations, and on February 3, he placed it on the Post's theater-centric MySpace page, www.myspace.com/runninglines. Over the next ten days, "Straight Talk" generated eight comments, the majority of which were positive and sympathetic; one reader even offered to stop by PayPal and send over eight bucks tout de suite. On February 13, however, a copy of Moore's observations arrived at Westword — and before the afternoon was out, his secret communiqué was no longer a secret in the Post newsroom.
Upon hearing from yours truly, Moore sought out Post entertainment editor Ed Smith, who added to his embarrassment by revealing that his digits were jumbled. "We had a 20 percent cut to our Sunday A&E section, 16 percent to our Friday weekend entertainment section," Moore notes. "Some sections were not reduced at all." Moore put this new info in an amended version of the MySpace offering, which also softened some of his other verbiage. A sentence about apprehension over online-content fees that originally began "The suits are scared to death..." was changed to "Some are afraid," and a reference to space decreases lost the descriptor "cataclysmic."
In the meantime, Smith referred questions from Westword to Post managing editor Gary Clark, who stuck to general terms in an e-mail reply. "John is incorrect if he said there was a 20 percent cut in either total editorial space, or in editorial space devoted to theater," he stated. Some of the specific totals qualify as "proprietary," he went on. Still, he verified that "all sections and departments were affected by the cuts, but not equally."
As for other aspects of "Straight Talk," Clark declined to weigh in on them because he hadn't seen the essay and "it's not presently available." Indeed, within hours, the piece had disappeared from the theater section's MySpace page. Clark emphasizes that "John was not asked by any editor to take down" the item — a contention its author confirms. In Moore's words, he yanked it because he'd never intended it to be seen by an audience beyond folks wondering about the loss of theater listings — and besides, "my numbers were clearly inaccurate."
In fact, Jim Nolan, spokesman for the Denver Newspaper Agency, which oversees business operations for the Post and the Rocky, says the actual decline in news-hole size at the dailies was approximately 10 percent. Moreover, this diminution doesn't always translate to proportional shrinkage in editorial space thanks to the paper's ability to bank pages for special projects — and design trickery can ease the pain, too. In early February, for instance, the Post began combining the once-separate Denver & the West and Business sections into a single package Tuesday through Friday and lumping both into the A-section on Mondays — a move that saves more column inches than maintaining separate sections would.
Even so, any attentive subscriber has noticed that the Post and the Rocky have lost pages over the past few years, not to mention writers, editors, web specialists and support personnel — and many vacant positions haven't been filled for budgetary reasons. To make matters worse, subscription prices keep edging upward. Nolan stresses that rates fluctuate due to a passel of variables — and he says "the average price of a subscription to the Post and the News is still far below what newspaper subscribers pay in comparable-size cities." But the bottom line remains. In 2005, I paid $147 for home delivery of both newspapers over the course of a year. In 2007, I paid just over $170 — and I'm getting less for it.
The opposite's true of the Post's website, especially in comparison to its paper equivalent. The February 1 remodeling of the entertainment section spelled the end for the usual listings, including those pertaining to theater productions and auditions. On top of that, Moore's weekly Sunday theater column is going biweekly; the Sunday "Critic's Choice" snippet and the "3 More" feature, which gave him room to blurb about other shows opening over the weekend, are out; and half his print review slots may vanish. But online, he's created a rotating slide show highlighting production photos from every live theatrical production in the state at any given time, a popular weekly podcast, and a script-sampling service. "If anybody in the state is doing a new play no one's heard of, people can click and get a ten-page sample of the script," he says. "It gives them an idea if it's something they'd like — because a title alone isn't going to get them to buy a ticket." Plus, Moore is running expanded versions of critiques on the site "since there is unlimited room and print space is finite."
Unfortunately, the quality of this presentation may cause the sort of negative repercussions he discusses in his "Straight Talk" salvo. "The notion goes: Why pay $90 or more a year for a print paper when you can get all of it — and more — online for free?" he wrote. "As much as that breaks my heart, it's a logical argument, and what a Catch-22 for me: Ever since newspapers went online, we've been training people to believe that information-gathering is free, and it's not. We have only ourselves to blame for making access to our website free for as long as we have."
Such opinions are far from unique among journalists, but few dare utter them in public. For many, they are The Things We Think and Do Not Say, and Moore wishes he hadn't. Even though he's received no punishment thus far for expressing himself on these topics — which makes sense given his value to the paper and the community at large — he wishes he'd kept his big yap shut, figuratively speaking.
"I didn't mean to start anything like this," he allows. "I should stick to writing about Shaw and Shakespeare. Lesson learned. Damage...yet to be assessed..."