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I never really had any intention of leaving," says Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Jim Sheeler, who recently resigned from the Rocky Mountain News in order to take a position at the University of Colorado in Boulder. "The Rocky's been a great place for me, and the staff is incredibly friendly." After a barely perceptible pause, he adds, "The staff that's left..."
Talk about a telling aside. Like many metropolitan dailies across the country, the Rocky is steadily shedding employees, and not just long-timers who've accepted buyout packages that provide compensation keyed to their years of service. Increasingly, editorial types of every age and description are choosing to go elsewhere rather than remain in an industry that's either in transition or dying, depending upon one's level of fatalism.
CU has been a major beneficiary of the ongoing exodus, with three Pulitzer champs leaping to the university over the past six months. Last September, Dave Curtin, a onetime Colorado Springs Gazette scribe who took the 1990 feature-writing trophy for "Adam & Megan," a moving tale about two young burn victims, came aboard as assistant director of executive communications; his duties include editing speeches and op-ed pieces by CU chancellor G.P. "Bud" Peterson. Then, on February 19, Glenn Asakawa, who was part of the Rocky photography crew awarded a 2000 Pulitzer for images captured following the shootings at Columbine High School, began a new job as a staff photographer in CU's communications department. And Sheeler's agreed to teach a journalism course focusing on his specialty, storytelling. The gig doesn't begin until the fall, but he bid farewell to the Rocky on Valentine's Day, in part because of another significant item on his agenda. Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives, a book based on "Final Salute," which earned the 2006 feature-writing Pulitzer for its portrait of an officer charged with informing family members that a loved one died in combat, will be published by Penguin Press on May 6, and Sheeler is scheduled to star in a coast-to-coast book tour.
Like his fellow CU toilers, Curtin looks back with fondness on his life in print. "I had a thirty-year Colorado newspaper career," he says. "I took the grand tour of the state and enjoyed every stop." He kicked things off at the Littleton Independent circa 1975 while still a student at Bear Creek High School, and after earning a CU journalism degree, he wrote for a succession of publications: the Boulder Daily Camera, the Greeley Tribune, the Durango Herald, the aforementioned Gazette, and the Denver Post, beginning in 1997. But after nine years at the Post, during which he often covered education-related topics, he began to wonder how much longer his job would be there for him. "I wanted to determine my own destiny," he allows, "and that seemed increasingly unlikely in the newspaper business." So he kept his eyes open for other opportunities and found one at Metropolitan State College, where he served as a spokesman for nine months before sliding into his current slot at CU. Since then, he's stayed in touch with many friends from his reporting days, and he admits that quite a few "have expressed envy that I've gotten out and said they'd like to do the same thing." In other words, they're on the lookout, too.
Like Curtin, Asakawa has a CU sheepskin to his credit, and after receiving it in the late '80s, he snapped for the Daily Camera and the Los Angeles Daily News before joining the Rocky team. He won deserved plaudits for his Columbine photos, but spending so much time delving into the tragedy proved "a very difficult professional experience," he says. "It was so hard, and being part of the community just made it that much harder." In the end, he opted for a change in scenery, switching to the Post in 2000. He talks up his experience there, lavishing praise on his boss, assistant managing editor/photography Tim Rasmussen. But as a family man (he's married, with two school-age kids), he began to worry about his financial prospects if the newspapering downturn continues. "The opportunities here at CU are much more long-term," he believes. "It's nice being able to look five or ten years down the road and realize there's still a lot to be pursuing at the university and higher ed." Indeed, he's even considered seeking a master's degree so that he can teach at the school.
Sheeler's already gone through this process. He'd nearly completed masters requirements at CU in 1990 when he was hired by the Daily Camera, and as the years passed, he kept promising himself he'd finish things up one day. In 2007, he finally did via a thesis that expanded on a March 2007 Rocky story about a campaign to secure the Distinguished Service Cross for Lieutenant Colonel Felix Sparks, a war hero who was nearly ninety years old and in failing health. Sparks died a few months later, and Sheeler, whose singular obituaries form the basis of the 2007 book Obit, did the honors.
Along the way, Sheeler mentioned his interest in teaching to Paul Voakes, the dean of CU's school of journalism and mass communications, who's been in the news over the latest dust-up involving firebrand student Max Karson and the online Campus Press (see blogs.westword.com/latestword for more). "At one point, I said, 'Why don't we hire you as a part-time instructor of one course, a fairly standard reporting course, in the fall of '07 and see how you like it?'" Voakes recalls. After Sheeler took over the class, he'd tell Voakes how much fun he was having whenever they'd bump into each other. Still, Voakes wasn't ready to make an offer quite yet. "I reserved judgment until I saw the student evaluations of his teaching — because, well, you know," he says. "But they were the highest numbers I've seen as a dean. They just knocked my socks off." Shortly thereafter, Sheeler received an inquiry about teaching at another institution. Voakes responded by contacting several university donors, and between their contributions and additional resources, he was able to cobble together enough money to fund a two-year contract.
On the surface, this development practically gushes irony. Sheeler, after all, is the very type of person newspapers need to retain if they're going to survive and thrive in the future — but instead of sticking around at the Rocky, he's heading to CU, where he'll ready students for a profession they may not even recognize by the time they pick up their diplomas. However, he and Voakes see things in much more positive terms. For one thing, students keep enrolling in journalism programs regardless of uncertainties surrounding the profession. According to Voakes, CU caps journalism enrollment at 600 undergraduates, and over the past five years, the number of students in pre-journalism categories has never dipped below 800. And although Voakes concedes that fewer students "show an interest in paying their dues at a community or rural paper and then working their way up to the Post or the Rocky," he says a similar amount "are learning these skills so they can go into entrepreneurial work that's more web-based — and I'm thinking that's not such a bad thing." With this shift in mind, CU is tweaking its curriculum to emphasize the sort of multimedia and cross-platform skills that the 21st century demands.
At the same time, Sheeler believes that the art of storytelling will be as important tomorrow as it is today. "No matter what medium we're reporting in, somebody's got to be there to write the stories," he says, "and I think that's where journalism is going to be headed. You need to give people a reason to really invest their time in a story, and to do that, you have to write it well."
The basic reporting class Sheeler taught last fall, during which he "tried to get everyone away from the inverted pyramid and talked about really crafting true stories," only reinforced this philosophy. As such, he doesn't believe he's abandoning newspapers just because he's split from the Rocky. He's simply supporting them in a different way.
"I'd like to instill a passion for storytelling in fifteen or twenty students at a time," he says. "And even if only a few of them go out there with that same passion to tell stories, journalism will still be all the better for it."