Changing of the Guard
A reminder, folks: The Denver Post came out ahead in last year's joint operating agreement. Unlike the Rocky Mountain News, whose status as a failing newspaper was ratified by the U.S. Justice Department, the Post reportedly turned a profit over the past decade -- and thanks to the JOA, it received sole custody of the city's Sunday newspaper franchise, which is a bit like being given the keys to the Denver Mint. Couple that with a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the shootings at Columbine High School, and you've got a deck seriously stacked in the Post's favor.
Nonetheless, the Post has managed to lose more than its share of hands lately, suffering public humiliation over a series of high-profile gaffes and finishing a poor second to the feisty, suddenly energized News in two of the state's most important journalism competitions, the Colorado Press Association contest and the Colorado AP Editors and Reporters, or CAPER, awards. Indeed, the Post is flabby and dull more often than not -- a fact that its owner, Dean Singleton, all but admitted last week by canning Glenn Guzzo, the editor who guided the paper through the JOA, and inking Greg Moore, most recently managing editor of the Boston Globe.
In conversation, these editors are as different as different can be. Guzzo is low-key and cautious, meticulously clearing each sentence of any mines before letting it out of his mouth. Moore, for his part, comes across as confident enough to simply let his opinions fly on just about any topic -- even the quality of the Post.
"I think there are some really good writers here," he says. "I think our sports coverage is energetic and comprehensive and quite good, and there are places where our photography is strong. But overall, I want us to have a bolder presentation, be less predictable and formulaic. We want to elevate the writing and the quality of ideas; we want to be much more aggressive on local coverage and more dominant in the region."
Moore's hiring has gotten plenty of attention, in large part because he's black -- which shouldn't be a big deal but is, thanks to the predominantly pale hue of Colorado's media power structure. On the day he took the job, Moore instantly became the most prominent African-American in the history of Colorado journalism. Opening this door is "a point of pride," Singleton says, but he emphasizes that race "played absolutely no role whatsoever in my decision to want him in Denver. What's important to me is that he's a born leader who knows how to evaluate talent and knows how to lead it."
Dan Kennedy, longtime media columnist for the Boston Phoenix, a weekly alternative newspaper, underlines this point. "It's not surprising that a lot of people have dwelled on Greg Moore being black, but he's also an editor, and a damned good one. Although being an African-American is important to who he is, it's strictly incidental to the fact that he's a very good editor."
Moore's qualifications appear to be quite strong. Born in Cleveland, he is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University who joined the staff of the Dayton Journal Herald in 1976 before jumping to the Cleveland Plain Dealer four years later. After shifting from reporting to editing, he signed up as assistant metro editor with the Globe in 1986. At the time he was named managing editor at the paper, in 1994, he was a regional director of the National Association of Black Journalists. But Matthew Storin, then the Globe's editor, told the NABJ Journal that he would benefit from doing the right thing every bit as much as Moore would: "This is a high-profile job we've given him, and when I announced it, I presumed that some people might wonder if he got the promotion because he's a person of color. I said, 'Sure, in a way he did. If you had someone that good and you could also add to the diversity of your senior staff, you'd be crazy not to promote him.' People understand what I mean, because they know he's that good."
The worst moment of Moore's stint as the Globe's managing editor took place in 1998, when columnist Patricia Smith, whom Moore edited, resigned after it was discovered that a number of her subjects were wholly fabricated. (Smith was one of two Globe scribes to leave the paper under such a cloud. Mike Barnicle, a columnist not edited by Moore, was the other.) Moore couldn't duck the connection with Smith; his name is in the first sentence of a tell-all she wrote for Essence in September 1999. But his career wasn't hurt too badly by this embarrassment because, according to a knowledgeable source, the failure was seen as systemic. Prior to Storin's arrival at the Globe, the source says, columnists received shockingly little oversight, and while Storin improved the process somewhat, dumping a day-to-day editing job in the lap of a managing editor swamped with other responsibilities meant only a small increase in supervision.
Even so, Storin, who left the Globe last year and was recently named associate vice president for news and information at the University of Notre Dame, doesn't entirely absolve Moore of culpability. "Greg would be the first to admit that he had a supervisory role he did not fulfill quite to the degree that he or I would have wanted, in retrospect. But he met his responsibilities when it came time to deal directly with Patricia, and also in terms of recovery. He's very optimistic, very upbeat, and that helped us recover much more quickly."
What lessons did Moore take away from the experience? "I learned not to assume that people understand their craft," he says. "You've got to constantly talk about standards and ethics with people, even veteran people. And I learned that when tough things need to be done and they involve serious ethical violations, there really shouldn't be any second chances."
When Storin stepped down from the Globe, Moore was a candidate to become head man, but he was passed over in favor of Martin Baron, previously executive editor of the Miami Herald. At the time, Moore told the Boston Phoenix that he wanted to run his own shop someday and might possibly have to leave the Globe to do so. After he split, the Globe printed a May 4 article in which Baron declared himself "deeply saddened" by Moore's loss but said that people at the Post were "very lucky" he'd be coming their way.
Storin agrees. "He's got tremendous personal charm and presence," he says. "He's a hard worker, he's got lots of energy, and he throws himself into the job. He'll sometimes work seventy- and eighty-hour weeks. He also spends a lot of time out on the floor talking to reporters, and he's a very good listener."
"Greg is savvy about politics, but also very sensitive about things like pop culture," adds Scott Powers, a former arts editor with the Globe who's now deputy entertainment editor at the Chicago Tribune. "He's up to speed on the latest in hip-hop and a lot of other kinds of music; I once sat next to him at a Garth Brooks concert. And he's very aware of what's on television, which is fairly unusual for a newspaper editor, unless you're talking about CNN. He's gregarious, extremely intelligent and a lot of fun."
These characteristics will come in handy, since Moore is taking over a staff that's alternately wary and shell-shocked. Morale, which was at subterranean levels circa the late-'90s reign of the much-reviled Dennis Britton, rose following the Pulitzer win and the JOA victory, but it began dipping again shortly thereafter, and the brusque reassignment of several veteran reporters earlier this year didn't help matters much ("Swing Shift," February 14).
The revolving door at the Post's helm is a concern as well. During the May 2 newsroom meeting at which Guzzo's ouster was announced, an attendee complained that Guzzo was the fourth editor to leave in just ten years. Singleton quibbled with this math, claiming that while Gil Spencer, Britton and Guzzo qualified as editors, Neil Westergaard, who oversaw the paper in the mid-'90s and presently runs the Denver Business Journal, didn't: He was given a tryout he didn't pass. However, such hair-splitting doesn't alter the reality of the situation or how it might affect Moore.
"I do think there may be a little bit of a wait-and-see attitude with some people, based on what we're able to accomplish and how quickly we're able to accomplish it," he grants. "And when we do accomplish things, I think it will hearten them, and they'll see that I intend to be here for a while. When you've been in a situation like that, you kind of wonder if there's going to be any stability. But I want to do my best to allay those worries rather quickly."
Moore isn't worried about Singleton, whose determination to "do what's necessary to have a paper of quality and regional importance," as Moore puts it, went a long way toward luring him to Colorado. But this image of Singleton isn't universally shared. On the surface, editing the Post should be among the best gigs in journalism. Naysayers, though, equate the position with being head coach of the Oakland Raiders: No matter how good it seems, you still have to work with Al Davis.
Given such opinions, it's no surprise that Guzzo, who's been with the Post since late 1999, is mainly viewed with sympathy by the slew of Post types quizzed for this column. He certainly wasn't universally beloved, and he never struck his underlings as a visionary. One describes him as "the stodgy, reliable teacher you had in high school; you learned something from him, but you may not have been excited about going to his class." Even so, a sizable percentage found him to be likable, fair and accessible. Among his first acts as editor was to have one wall of his office replaced with glass so he wouldn't be hidden away from his employees.
In the end, most of his former subordinates fault him mainly for ceding too much authority to managing editor Larry Burrough, who has quickly become the most disliked decision-maker at the Post. At the May 2 meeting, Singleton had the chance to give Burrough a vote of confidence but dodged the opportunity, saying such matters would be resolved by the incoming editor. For this reason, staffers think Burrough will be the next Post casualty -- possibly wishful thinking, possibly not.
Burrough's former leader, Guzzo, has been heaped with ignominy since word of his exit broke. Whereas the Rocky's article about Guzzo's fate spoke of his resignation, the equivalent Post piece bluntly headlined that he would "be replaced." (Guzzo says he wasn't bothered by this seeming disparity, noting, "I don't know that there's much of a distinction.") Likewise, the News quoted Guzzo as saying his future plans were up in the air because everything had happened so suddenly -- a contrast with the Post report, which included a Singleton quote that he'd been looking to replace Guzzo "for a while."
That's an understatement. Singleton told Guzzo he was out on April 22, ten days before making things public, but he says he began his search for a new editor in February 2001 and first started talking to Moore last summer.
So has Guzzo unknowingly been a lame duck for the better part of a year, if not longer? Singleton finesses the question rather than answering it directly. "I went very slowly in my process, partly because I wanted to make sure that if I made a move, it would be the right move, but also because I wanted to give it some time to see if Glenn and I could connect. If he and I could have grown together, it would have been good for the Post, but we just didn't."
Chemistry wasn't a problem when it came to Moore, Singleton allows. "Greg wasn't looking for a job, but he told me he was intrigued enough to listen, and after some more phone conversations, I asked him to subscribe to both Denver newspapers for a matter of weeks and write critiques primarily of the Post, and to give me a written proposal as to what he would do if he was editor of the Post." Moore's analysis "wasn't brutal, but it was very frank, and had I taken his name off of it and put my name on it and sent it to the newsroom, the newsroom would have been sure I had written it. We just agree on a lot of things. I didn't have to tell him what I believe needs to be done at the Post; they were in his critique."
Guzzo, who says he knows and likes Moore, doesn't take umbrage at criticisms of the Post. He leavens talk of his accomplishments, including six recent national awards won by the paper and what he sees as a new sense of mutual respect in the editorial department, with an acknowledgment that "there are a hundred ways for the Denver Post to be better than it is. And we're all impatient about progress on those things."
Maybe not as impatient as Singleton, who practically accused Guzzo of dragging his feet during the May 2 newsroom gathering. He said different people driving to Las Vegas might choose different roads and different speeds, but since he owns the car, he gets to pick the route and decide how fast to drive.
In recent months, the Post has been running house ads proclaiming it "one of America's great newspapers" -- Singleton's ultimate destination. But trumpeting such a declaration about yourself doesn't make it true, and when asked if the Post truly deserves this designation, Singleton hedges. "I think we are one of America's better regional newspapers, but we're a long way from being the best," he says. He offered an even more straightforward statement during the May 6 meeting to introduce Moore to the staff, telling his minions that he wants the Post to be a great American newspaper "yesterday."
This pace suits Moore fine, but he doesn't want anyone to think that he's already got his mind made up about how to proceed. "I'm really in a listening and learning mode. I want to hear from the staff, understand what their expectations and desires for the paper are and how they can help us get to the next level. I'm an activist editor. I'm active outside the newsroom, I'm active internally -- and together, I think we can make this a newsroom where everyone can thrive."
At least one Post wordsmith who was present for the May 6 get-together found Moore's pitch to be mighty impressive: Several rah-rah comments garnered applause, and his willingness to answer personal questions was warmly received as well. For instance, he talked openly about the sacrifices his wife, broadcasting executive Nina Henderson Moore, is making by relocating to Denver. But while he allowed some humor to seep into his greeting, he made it clear he has high standards that he expects to be met: In lauding reported columns, he said any columnist who submits a piece beginning with the phrase "I was thinking about..." shouldn't bother turning it in. I wonder who he could be referring to.
As for the Post's traditional rivalry with the Rocky, Moore says it will continue without regard to the JOA. "I see them as just as much of a competitor as they ever were. They have 215, 220 people over there dedicated to covering the city, and how we do against them is the most immediate way for us to measure ourselves -- not define ourselves, but measure ourselves. I take the Rocky as a serious competitor trying to beat us to the stories that matter, and we need to make sure that we have the stories that matter."
Reaching the upper echelons of American journalism is another affair entirely, but Moore thinks the Post can do it. "Back in Boston, newspapers like the Post come up in conversation when stories break in their back yard and they have an opportunity to show what they can do. A story like Columbine should win a Pulitzer, and it did. That means the paper rose to the occasion, and not all of them do. So most people I've talked to think this is a quality newspaper -- and it's only going to get better."
To Russia, with love: As if Dean Singleton doesn't have enough on his plate, consider that his extracurricular activities include serving as an envoy of sorts for President George W. Bush.
Singleton, a Texan by birth who's a friend and supporter of Bush's, says his current assignment has its roots in a meeting late last year at the President's Crawford, Texas, ranch between W. and Russian frontman Vladimir Putin. At that time, Putin asked for U.S. help in analyzing Russia's radio, television and newspaper infrastructure.
"They wanted us to guide them to making their press economically viable, which by and large it isn't today," Singleton maintains. "The press is largely propped up by government subsidies, and President Putin acknowledges that's not a good situation long-term for a real democracy."
To attack this issue, the Newspaper Association of America, under the leadership of Singleton -- who was elected the organization's chairman last month -- teamed up with the National Association of Broadcasters to devise a strategy under the supervision of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
"We began our due diligence in January, and I spent a week in Moscow in March," Singleton says. "We met with the cabinet minister in charge of communications. And a group of volunteers from newspaper, TV and radio will go back later this month when President Bush is there, and we'll have a dialogue about how to go to the next phase. We've identified the problems, and now we're putting together a plan to identify the solutions -- to decide how we help them transform a press that is free in one sense but is not standing on its own economically."
To Singleton, this mission is as fascinating as it is unexpected. "I remember as a child having to climb under desks for bomb alerts because we thought the Russians were going to drop nuclear bombs on us. And here we were at the Kremlin talking to a Russian cabinet minister. It sends chills down your spine to think about."
Today, Denver. Tomorrow, the world.
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