Hit Them With Your Best Shot
Although this year's joint operating agreement made the business operations at the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post inseparable, most members of the dailies' editorial departments take pride in their continued independence -- so much so that their battles for stories are often every bit as intense as they were when the newspaper war was literal rather than virtual. Yet even Sergeant Tony Lombard, veteran spokesman for the Denver Police Department, has to laugh about a recent scramble between reporters over rival analysis pieces concerning police shootings. "I can understand the critical nature of things when you're in a competitive situation," Lombard says. "But it's still pretty amusing to us."
The primary combatants in this latest cage match are News scribes Brian Crecente and Sarah Huntley, who wrote the vast majority of a two-day showcase that ran in the Rocky November 24 and 26, and the Post's David Migoya and John Ingold, whose take on the topic appeared on November 11. The proximity of these offerings wasn't coincidental: Journalists on both sides of the ring knew that their adversaries were up to something, and Migoya acknowledges that the Post wanted to publish its version before the News got the same chance. But numerous other matters are in dispute. Crecente and Huntley say they had been working on their roundup for a couple months when they heard from inside sources that Post types had found out about their efforts and hoped to do some thunder-stealing. Moreover, they learned that Migoya had submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act, popularly known as a FOIA, for any and all FOIAs that the News had filed with the police department during a period encompassing Crecente's and Huntley's research.
For his part, Migoya, who was given the rhyming nickname "FOIA Migoya" by Frank Scandale, the Post's onetime assistant managing editor for news, says he FOIA'd the News's FOIAs, as it were, to make sure his angle on the material was different. He sees this tack as a common one in the reporting field and feels it crosses neither journalistic nor ethical lines. "All FOIA requests are public records," he says, "so all I was doing was trying to acquire public records, and I did it very formally. It was all legal and legitimate -- and I didn't get anything anyway. The police department told me, 'We don't keep those things.'" Besides, Migoya adds, Ingold started looking into police shootings in July, meaning that any implication that the Post got the idea of doing likewise from the News is false.
Published evidence provides support for this last claim. As all parties agree, the principal inspiration for a new study of police shootings in Denver (the News did the last big one in 1992) was a July story by the Washington Post that focused on the startling number of police shootings in Prince George's County, Maryland. To put this total into context, the article's authors surveyed the country's 51 biggest police agencies, including Denver's. The results, which covered the years 1990-2000, found Denver to be in the top ten in several unfortunate categories, such as fatal shootings per 100,000 residents, and placed the city second-highest when it came to fatal shootings per 10,000 violent crimes.
Ingold, who is frequently assigned to law-enforcement-related stories, penned a local tie-in to the Washington Post's project on July 16. Afterward, he says, his editors suggested that he develop more information along these lines, and on July 29, he took a step in this direction, writing about the reactions of police officers who've killed individuals in the line of duty. But he was so swamped by his other responsibilities that he was merely "poking along" until early September, when his superiors decided to pair him with Migoya, an investigator who says he's "been doing this kind of thing for twenty years," to speed up the process. Ingold concedes that by then he'd heard the News was interested in police shootings, too, but, he says, "Our story wasn't motivated by that. [Post editor] Glenn Guzzo was big on making sure we stayed on top of the police-shootings issue, and that's why we did it."
The Ingold-Migoya team was to begin reporting in earnest on September 11, but events you may have heard about delayed by several weeks the moment when the reporters first crossed paths with their peers at the News. As it turns out, though, Migoya and Crecente had caught wind of each other previously, and not just because Migoya's wife, Vikki Migoya, is an assistant city editor at the News who sometimes edits Crecente's copy. In order to avoid a conflict of interest, she did not work with Crecente on the police-shooting story, and Migoya says he heard nothing about it from her.
This summer, Migoya and another Post reporter, Eric Hubler, were exploring fire-code violations at Denver schools; a fire in May at East High School prompted their digging. Predictably, Migoya submitted a FOIA to the Denver Fire Department for documents he thought he might need, and the sheer volume of paper he received triggered a buzz in the department that somehow reached Crecente. By his own admission, Crecente then went to Keith Mehrens, assistant fire chief for community services, and asked to see everything Migoya had gotten -- an act Migoya sees as completely different from his FOIAing of the News's FOIAs. "That's a poor reporter's practice," he says.
Whatever the case, Crecente's query wasn't successful, either: As Mehrens notes, "We didn't put everything in a big box that said 'Dave' on it." So Crecente filed a FOIA of his own, and in trying to get what Crecente wanted, Mehrens stumbled across an e-mail written by William Smith, safety engineer for the Denver school district. Dated November 16, 2000, approximately six months before the fire at East, it cited "serious safety violations" at the school, described "unorganized, neglected and uncared-for" conditions and concluded with the question, "How can we get this under control before the building burns to the ground?"
Mehrens immediately understood that the e-mail was important and, despite the fact that he located it at the behest of Crecente, knew it was very much in line with what Migoya had asked to see six weeks earlier. So in an effort to be fair, Mehrens gave copies of the e-mail to both Crecente and Hubler -- Migoya was on vacation -- on the same day in late July. The Post couldn't run its complete story immediately (it eventually appeared on August 5), but because Hubler knew Crecente wouldn't wait, he pounded out a modest-sized piece about the e-mail and rushed it into print on July 27, the same day the News published its own variation.
Crecente, a six-year newspaper veteran who came to the News in February, can't help but wonder if the e-mail incident might explain Migoya's News FOIA. "Maybe he sees it as payback," he says. To that, Migoya, who calls Crecente "a cub reporter" who "got lucky" in regard to the Smith memo, replies, "I won't say payback's a bitch, but if you want to play in the big leagues, you've got to bring the big guns."
The needling doesn't stop there. Migoya says that as a result of other FOIA requests he made regarding police shootings, the Denver Police Department wound up assembling a database that the News accessed for its own story; Huntley, who instigated the News investigation, corroborates this but says that she and Crecente gathered the vast majority of information they used from sources such as the the so-called decision letters issued by the district attorney's office to announce whether it intends to charge officers who've emptied their chambers. And while Migoya doesn't completely dismiss the News's work, he takes delight in the fact that a map published to accompany it on November 24 had numerous errors in it -- a correction published that same day pointed out that its online equivalent was accurate -- and questions the decision to put the names of officers involved in shootings on its Web site but not in the newspaper. "We don't assume that all of our readers are sitting by their computers," he says. In the end, he believes that "our thirty-inch story had a bigger wallop behind it. I can't help it if they were two weeks behind me -- although they were three months in front of me."
In some ways, Migoya is right. The Post's effort, supplemented by a December 3 followup, hit harder than its News counterpart. But both packages were worthy. The Migoya-Ingold article homed in on a single aspect of the police-shootings puzzle -- the lack of punishment meted out to officers in many shootings for which monetary settlements were made. The information was solid, and the reporters coaxed Manager of Safety Ari Zavaras into an awfully telling quote: "I think there's definitely a corollary between settlements and an officer's culpability."
The News, meanwhile, broke up its data into hefty chunks clearly intended to catch the attention of judges at journalism contests -- and its online component, featuring that nifty interactive map, deserves recognition. As for the stories themselves, Crecente says they weren't altered to reflect the public's mood shift toward cops since 9-11, but there's no question that a couple of positive sidebars (regarding Denver's increasing use of non-lethal weapons and a crisis intervention program in Jefferson County) tend to offset the more troubling revelations. Yet Crecente and Huntley came up with intriguing details about, for instance, officers punished for shooting at people whose only weapon was a car, and they reveal a great deal about the Firearm Discharge Review Board, a citizens' commission charged with looking at shootings that one commentator describes as "a toothless beast." This board also is part of the Post's story, and Migoya hints that the News hadn't even heard of the group until they read about it in his paper. Crecente responds to that with his best scoff.
Ingold isn't quite as eager to join the snipe hunt; he praises the News's items for their "presentation" and leaves it at that. Huntley turns the heat down as well. "I believe strongly in competition, but sometimes I think there's a difference in competing on a daily story versus enterprise stories. There are a lot of enterprise stories -- more than there are reporters to do them." Still, she says, "I was pleased to see that even though both papers decided to pursue these stories, we pursued them very independently. And they're important stories.
"The competition is interesting, but I hope the underlying issues won't get lost in it."
Times is tight: The early-retirement offer made by the Denver Post a few months back ("No Scoop for You," August 30) has found more takers, including a trio with very recognizable bylines. Post managing editor Larry Burrough verifies that feature writer Joanne Ditmer, columnist and Capitol bureau chief Fred Brown and veteran police reporter Marilyn Robinson are all scheduled to exit early in the new year. But this isn't Robinson's first stroll down retirement lane, and she may have difficulty reaching its end again. She's currently on "indefinite leave," according to the Post's Ingold, who's been filling in for her on the police beat, but she continues to call in tips from home. "She just keeps working the phones," Ingold says. "She never stops."
The same can't be said for raises at Media-News, parent company of the Post. The hundred or so corporate staffers who occupy the 21st floor of the Denver Post Building have been told that, for now, they won't be receiving any salary boosts -- and MediaNews CEO Dean Singleton emphasizes that he's included in this edict. Such moves are becoming commonplace in journalism these days (New Times, Westword's parent company, has a wage freeze in place), but Singleton says the move is mainly intended to show solidarity with several papers in the MediaNews chain that have taken this step. Singleton insists that there are no current plans to impose similar restrictions on Post employees. But he admits that previously announced plans to add a dozen new editorial employees at the paper may have to be "slowed down some" because of the soft economy: "It's been a pretty tough year, and next year isn't expected to be much better."
Nonetheless, he isn't worried about the Post's plummeting circulation, which by most measures is down by over 100,000 copies per day since this time last year. He notes that advertisers were told around the time the JOA was imposed that the combined figures from the Post and the News would be around 600,000 Monday through Thursday, 650,000 on Friday and Saturday, and 800,000 on Sunday, and that's where they are. Furthermore, he says he won't panic if the levels dip a bit more, because delivery duplication has fallen (now just 8 percent of households get both papers, as opposed to more than 20 percent pre-JOA) and because "the most important number is penetration" -- a kinky-sounding term that concerns the percentage of people the paper reaches in its circulation area. "We have the highest penetration of any top-fifty market in the country," he says. "Our main goal was to lead the industry in major markets in penetration, and we're there."
And it feels so good.
The amount of dough the Post is spending to keep correspondents in or near Afghanistan isn't causing any substantial monetary strain, Singleton says, but that doesn't mean he's ready to set up permanent bureaus overseas: "My sense is that the war on terrorism is going to move around a lot, and I want us to have the flexibility to move with it." Post insiders say that some decision-makers at the paper feel their coverage is on par with that of the New York Times -- an assertion that doesn't seem to have a high reality quotient. Even Singleton won't go that far, noting that "we're not trying to do coverage at the same level as the New York Times, which we've been using a lot of; it's been excellent. They're putting more people on it than we ever will." Yet, he goes on, "I think what we've done is outstanding. Our mission has been to cover things we thought the New York Times or the Associated Press or the Los Angeles Times weren't covering. This is the story of our generation, and we're tailoring it to what we believe will interest Colorado readers."
Clearly, circulation drops haven't affected Singleton's bravado. When asked about a lawsuit filed last month in Denver District Court by representatives of the Utah family that previously owned the Salt Lake Tribune, which is now in the MediaNews portfolio, Singleton says, "It's kind of like having to swat a gnat in the summertime."
If that doesn't kill it, there's always early retirement.
A sporting proposition: In the December 4 Denver Post, TV columnist Joanne Ostrow wrote that Jim Conrad, a sports anchor at Channel 2 for more than two decades, is "retiring" at year's end. But according to inside sources, that word in quotes is a euphemism: The station, which is still losing ground to Channel 31 in the 9 p.m. newscast ratings battle, isn't renewing his contract. Marc Soicher, principal sports anchor at Channel 4, appears to be facing a similar situation. Neither Soicher nor Channel 4 vice president and general manager Marv Rockford offered a comment, but reliable informants report that Soicher was told last week he would not be brought back after his contract expires in 2002. In the meantime, Channel 4 gave an indication that it may be de-emphasizing sports in the future: Its new, half-hour 5 p.m. weekday newscast, which debuted December 3, contains no regular sports segment.
What all of this means is anyone's guess, but it's clear that Denver, which is always touted as a great sports town, currently has the weakest crop of TV sports anchors in recent memory -- maybe ever. Consider: Conrad is a nice fellow, but he's fumbling and dull on the air; Soicher hardly registers; Channel 9's Tony Zarrella comes across as an unctuous homer; Channel 31's David Treadwell hasn't measurably improved since his amateurish debut; and Channel 7's Lionel Bienvenu, a cable veteran, is still searching for the right tone.
You'd think that anything would be an improvement over that. Then again, we're talking about television.
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