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Dealing

The better part of a week ahead of time, editorial employees at the Denver Post were informed that their presence was required at one of two meetings scheduled for April 18 -- but they weren't told why. The mystery at the heart of this invite generated dire speculation, and those expecting grim tidings turned out to be right. At the first session, journalists crowded into a conference room, where editor Greg Moore informed them that the paper's management would be trimming the staff by 25 positions via early-retirement packages and voluntary separation agreements (read: buyouts) based on years of service. The majority of attendees were given deal packets tailored just for them and told they have just over a month to decide whether to stay, leave or hope for the best.

Scenes like this one are all too common these days. Editor & Publisher, a trade publication, calculates that around 2,000 jobs in the news field were lost last year alone. When viewed in this context, the Post cuts aren't notably draconian, and neither is the process by which the paper hopes to achieve them; forced layoffs will happen only if too few workers accept severance. But the announcement was a gut-shot compared to the jubilation at the Rocky Mountain News. The day before the meetings, the Rocky won two Pulitzers for "Final Salute," an epic about a Marine Corps officer who informs family members about loved ones killed in battle. This triumph stands out in part because the story, penned by Jim Sheeler, was unrelated to a cataclysmic local event, as so many Pulitzer designees at regional papers are. Indeed, a paper anywhere could have published "Final Salute," including the Post. And it might have gotten the chance if Sheeler, who wrote excellent long-form obits for the broadsheet several years ago, hadn't been disappeared by Moore shortly after he became editor in 2002. Moore justified the move in these pages by noting that he was "looking harder at our freelance expenditures," and Sheeler wasn't on staff. But had he focused on Sheeler's copy, he might have held on to this obviously gifted wordsmith rather than allowing him to win journalism's biggest award for the paper across the street.

To his credit, Moore, who's a member of the Pulitzer board, sent a magnanimous e-mail to staffers shortly before the list of this year's winners was released. After revealing the Rocky's double victory, he wrote, "Hard as that is to take personally, I do believe they deserved them both."

Moore finds discussing staff reductions even tougher. He tersely describes employee morale as "fine" and uses the same descriptor when talking about the paper in general: "The Post is fine. We're just like all the other newspapers that have had to make cuts. We have to get expenses in line with revenues, and that's all it is. We're still alive and kicking."

The Post is better able to absorb reductions than many papers. In 2001, around the time the Post-Rocky joint operating agreement went through, Dean Singleton, who heads the Post's owner, MediaNews Group, promised to hire a hundred new editorial employees, and while he didn't quite get there, he came close. Singleton says the Post currently has 303 editorial employees, as opposed to 229 when the JOA became official.

It's difficult to make direct comparisons between the Post and the Rocky because John Temple, the latter's editor/ president/publisher, declines to share newsroom-staff figures. Temple does confirm, however, that his newsroom's budget for the current fiscal year is around $25 million, as opposed to $31 million at the Post.

That extra $6 million didn't buy the Post a Pulitzer this year, so where did it go? Rocky insiders argue that the Post has more workers to pay, but when it comes to union members, Tony Mulligan, administrative officer for the Denver Newspaper Guild, says there's virtual parity at the dailies -- meaning that the subtraction of 25 editorial toilers is likely to leave the Post with fewer union-card holders than the Rocky. Of course, not every editorial employee is in a union. For example, many managers and supervisors are excluded, and knowledgeable sources estimate that the Post may have a dozen or more of these big-ticket types than the Rocky. According to Singleton, other costs contributing to the Post's higher budget are "increased pay and health costs for the new people, and paying over scale to bring people in from larger newspapers." Expenses tied to reporting and travel are also up, but not for long. Moore expects there will be belt-tightening in those areas.

The Denver Newspaper Agency, which handles business matters for the Post and the Rocky, is looking to save bucks, too. April 23 marked the first Sunday that a TV-listings booklet wasn't automatically inserted into the weekend Post. Just over 100,000 subscribers asked to keep getting the guide, and because this represents a fairly modest percentage of the overall readership, expect the DNA to kill the booklet for good within a year (never mind the reported 5,200 who called to complain about its absence). Moreover, the DNA laid off eight press cleaners in March and offered voluntary separation agreements (buyouts, remember?) to sixteen people in the pre-press operation; they have until May 6 to accept the package or face the consequences. DNA spokesman Jim Nolan has no comment about press cuts other than to say that "we are continually evaluating operating efficiencies."

As for MediaNews, the firm's rumored to be on the verge of purchasing four California newspapers -- most prominently the San Jose Mercury News -- for approximately $1 billion; in a nice bit of irony, a brief about this prospect ran in the Post's April 19 business section across from an article about the proposed staff decrease. Having signed a confidentiality agreement, Singleton can't talk about that, although he does say he considers newspapers' long-term prospects to be "excellent, and we would like to own more of them." Singleton adds that each link in the MediaNews chain stands alone -- even the Post, which has taken some mighty hits. "Probably the worst decline in advertising anywhere in our company has been in Denver," he says. "Part of that is that things were so good in the good times. But it's getting hurt more in automotive and national advertising than most markets are, and revenues declined from the prior year for the first time in my memory."

Singleton emphasizes that there are no plans for more staff reductions, and he's confident that online returns are growing quickly enough to offset future print declines. Perhaps his certainty will reassure employees the next time they're asked to attend a meeting without being told why -- but probably not.

Detention: Note to students demonstrating against immigration policies: Stay away from Channel 9. On April 13, news director Patti Dennis informed employees by e-mail that about seventy Jeffco middle-schoolers were marching to 9News. "We are not going to cover protesters who show up at a television station with the motive to get media coverage," she stated. "Please ignore them." And the station did.

Dennis doesn't want anyone to think they can earn airplay about their views by landing at her front door. "If people want to protest, they should do it in front of those who set policy," she says. "We might cover something if it had to do with the station, like a programming decision. But to come to a station about an issue that involves legislation, it's pretty obvious what you want." Her sensitivity is even higher when it involves students. In fact, Channel 9 didn't do any advance reporting about an April 19 student walkout that drew a crowd of 2,500 strong to the Capitol "for fear that we would become part of the energy and advertising for it. We collectively felt that by covering it, we would sort of be an advocate for walking out of class, and that's not our role. We're here to talk about what happens, not to instigate it."

Understand that, kids? Get back to school -- now!


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