Despite reassurances, questions continue to be raised about the financial health of the Denver Post following the bankruptcy of the Journal Register Company, sister firm of MediaNews Group, the Post's owner. But Post city editor Kevin Vaughan insists that sinking-ship fears had nothing to do with his surprising decision to leave the paper to become a staff writer for I-News, a scrappy journalism nonprofit.
His explanation? "As I'm approaching my 49th birthday, I decided to do something kind of crazy."
Last December, when he was named city editor, we noted that Vaughan came to the Post after the February 2009 shuttering of the Rocky Mountain News, where he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for "The Crossing," a massive series about a 1961 schoolbus-train accident that took twenty lives.
Vaughan was among a slew of high-profile Rocky staffers to make the leap to the Post at that time, including Mike Littwin, Penny Parker, Tina Griego, Dave Krieger and Bill Johnson. Less than four years later, this quintet is gone, and Vaughan will be, too, as of October 12, leaving Lynn Bartels and Vince Carroll as the best-known survivors. Even so, Vaughan notes that several other Rocky vets who were hired at the Post after the first wave (such as sportswriter Jeff Legwold and photo pro Dean Krakel) are still on staff, "and that makes me happy."
After his arrival at the Post, Vaughan was frequently assigned to cover the biggest stories of the day -- like, for instance, the shocking fall of ex-Arapahoe County Sheriff Pat Sullivan. His move behind the scenes meant far fewer bylines, but while he admits to having missed long-form journalism, he says these feelings weren't his primary motivation for moving to I-News, run by another onetime Rocky journalist, Laura Frank.
"I just sort of had an itch to challenge myself in a new way," he says. "I wasn't really looking for a job. I wasn't really considering doing anything like that until Laura and I started to talk recently -- and it just felt in my gut like something I wanted to do. I've been really intrigued to see what some of these non-profit journalism groups, like MinnPost and Voice of San Diego, have been doing. I found that intriguing, and having worked with Laura at the Rocky, I have a tremendous amount of respect for her and what she's put together over there during a relatively short period of time."
Frank's project, as we noted in a September 2010 I-News profile, is dedicated to filling the perceived investigative-journalism gap that's developed as traditional news organizations have struggled with shrinking revenue and resources. With the addition of Vaughan, the staff will number five journalists, the others being Frank and a trio of fellow Rocky alums: Jim Trotter, Burt Hubbard and Joe Mahoney.
Housed at Rocky Mountain PBS, I-News partners with a slew of news organizations, including the Post and TV stations such as 9News. The network generates cash via assorted training efforts such as a high-school journalism camp, among other things. But the majority of its funds come from donors such as the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, the McCormick Foundation and many more.
According to Frank, I-News is doing well from a fundraising perspective, creating a solid financial base from which to operate and expand. Yet Vaughan stresses that signing up was still "a really hard decision. I've been at a daily newspaper newsroom almost every day for 26 years, and the Denver Post has been great to me -- and working there has, in some ways, been a dream come true. We got the Post at my house when I was a kid, and I was even a Denver Post paperboy. I still feel incredibly fortunate that [editor] Greg Moore and [news director] Kevin Dale wanted me at the Denver Post...and telling them I had made the decision was very hard."
As for Moore, his comment about Vaughan's departure, sent via e-mail, is succinct and to the point. "We will miss Kevin and wish him well," he writes. Moore adds that he hopes to "promote from within as soon as possible" to fill the position officially known as senior director of news.
What will Vaughan be doing at I-News?
"He'll be a reporter mainly focused on issues of health," says Frank. "He's done quite a bit of reporting in that area, and we're trying to get at stories that aren't being otherwise covered -- and health issues are one of the big, complex, often data-based kinds of stories that require a lot of expertise and take a lot of time. And those are the kind of stories that I-News covers best."
Because of I-News's affiliation with the Post, there's every possibility that Vaughan's forthcoming efforts could wind up gracing the pages of his former employer. He'd like nothing better -- and if anyone suggests to him that he's really leaving the Post because he thinks the operation is near collapse, he's got a ready response.
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"I expect to be reading the Denver Post for the rest of my life," he says. "There's no question the entire industry has faced tremendous challenges over the past decade. We know that in Denver as well as anywhere in the country, since we lost a newspaper three and a half years ago. But I have great confidence in the Denver Post."
More from our Media archive: "I-News: Can Laura Frank's journalism project slow the disappearance of investigative reporting?"