Letter to the Editor

Rich Barry

Critics of Denver Post owner Dean Singleton see him as a skinflint, but over the past several years his words and deeds regarding the capstone of his newspaper empire belie this tag. He's spent money freely to boost the paper's "We Cover the World" reputation, albeit with just a modest amount of success thus far, and he doesn't seem ready to turn off the simoleon spigot anytime soon, the recent downgrading of his corporate credit rating notwithstanding. And when editor Glenn Guzzo failed to turn the ship as quickly as his boss wished, Singleton reeled in Greg Moore, longtime managing editor of the Boston Globe, who's widely regarded as a rising star on the national press stage. Moore will take the Post's wheel on June 10.

In the remarks he's made since his hiring was announced, Moore has been uncommonly clear-eyed about the Post's attributes, as well as the flaws that prevent it from reaching its potential on far too many days. "I think there are some really good writers here," he said in a recent interview ("Changing of the Guard," May 9). "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."

These comments imply a willingness on Moore's part to do whatever it takes to transform the Post into the publication of Singleton's dreams. And as fans of good journalism, we at Westword want to help. That's why we've pulled together a handful of suggestions that we think would make the Post more readable, more useful, more informative, more enjoyable.

Of course, some of the proposals we came up with may not be entirely practical -- like, for instance, "Put hallucinogens in the coffeepot before editors' meetings to help spark creativity." In addition, there are plenty of good notions that didn't cross our minds, including this plea from a Post insider: "Ask the new editor please not to assign a series on 'What is Colorado?', 'What is the West?', or 'Who is Denver?' Seems as though every time there's a new guy at the top, he decides he has to tell us who and what we are. Spare me."

So, Mr. Moore, please consider the ten nuggets of advice below -- but understand that they only scrape the surface.

1. Give the Post a beauty makeover: Is there an uglier big-city newspaper in these United States than the Denver Post? If there is, we haven't seen it. The paper's design is consistently horrendous, particularly on the front page, which is plagued by too many stories, icons, plugs and Lord knows what else crammed into too little space. As a result, it's often difficult to find intriguing articles on those occasions when someone actually writes one.

For example, take David Olinger's May 12 pieces on tobacco-industry spying, which included, among many other things, references to documents about the smoking habits of Colorado journos. The series was filled with fascinating information of presumably high interest to the Post's readership at large, and it richly deserved a prominent spot on page one. But instead of starting any of the segments there, the art department stuffed an incredibly lame photo-illustration (a cigarette smoldering in a dime-store ashtray) into the cover's left-hand column under the banner "Smoke and Dagger" -- and an attempt to make the heading's first word appear as if it was smoking was so badly botched that it seemed like a printing error. Even worse, Olinger's main story was placed on the second page of a two-page spread; preceding it was an Olinger sidebar jammed into the upper quarter of a page, atop a full-color advertisement for Sofa Mart. Betcha more people bought a recliner than saw this part of Olinger's opus.

This is an extreme example of the Post's design ineptitude, but hardly the only one -- and even when the editorial decisions aren't so obviously wrongheaded, the paper's layout almost always is. What's more, there's no decent reason for this shortcoming. After its joint operating agreement with the Post was blessed by the Justice Department last year, the Rocky Mountain News had only a few months to come up with a Saturday broadsheet, yet the one that emerged is infinitely more eye-pleasing than the product distributed by its competitor, which has had ages to get it right.

Tackling this problem is job one -- because how will anyone know if the Post is worth a damn if they can't stand to look at it?

2. It's a large world, after all: In the wake of September 11, the Post powers sent a slew of reporters to foreign locales -- an action the paper has been crowing about in an obnoxious house ad. (Its claim that the Post is one of America's great newspapers is too much for even Singleton to unreservedly endorse.) Months later, however, the majority of the material these correspondents are churning out remains competent but unremarkable, especially when it comes to terrorism-related subjects. For the most part, the stories have been features that provide background color and context -- the sort of stuff that should be played deeper in the paper, behind more newsworthy items. But since they have Post bylines, these submissions are commonly put in the spotlight, while more substantial stuff, from real content providers like the New York Times and the Washington Post, often winds up in the shade.  

A big exception to this rule was the Post's reporting about the recent school shooting in Germany. For one thing, the writers sent to the scene, including reporter Michael Riley and columnist Diane Carman, rose to the occasion; Carman's pieces were her most incisive in quite some time. But more important, the Post was able to localize the story by bringing to it the perspective gained by having covered the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, thereby infusing the articles with an additional resonance and acuity that its other international coverage has lacked.

The lesson here is that if the Post wants to report about occurrences beyond America's borders -- and such ambition is admirable -- it should stop treating this mission as a way of buying respect and instead figure out how to make the articles as meaningful for Coloradans as possible. One way to do that might be to create permanent foreign bureaus, so that reporters could gain the capability and contacts necessary to uncover truly significant breaking news. But it could be less expensive and just as effective to hire one or two experts with backgrounds in international affairs and strong points of view, who could be flown into hot spots at a moment's notice to provide their unique personal perspective on events as they happen. Granted, such folks are a rare commodity -- but isn't Holger Jensen available?

3. Tidy up: Completely eliminating errors at an operation as huge as the Denver Post would be impossible. But the number of gaffes at the paper lately has reached a level that can't be dismissed -- and the prominence of these blunders has been downright embarrassing.

On the one hand, it's understandable that behind-the-scenes minions would be confused by having to alternate gossip columns by Bill Husted and Dick Kreck: Wouldn't it make more sense to use this pair in different ways than to make them take turns? Still, that doesn't entirely explain why Kreck's headshot recently ran atop a Husted column. And there's no rationalizing flubs like the Post getting Rocky columnist Gene Amole's much-publicized cause of death wrong on page one (he died of multi-system failure, not cancer), and there's no excuse for giving front-page treatment to a plainly suspect article by reporter Trent Seibert about a supposed "adulterer's amendment" a mere month after another Seibert cover story turned out to be largely fictional ("April Fools," April 11).

Are there systemic defects at the Post that allow inaccuracies to multiply? Is oversight so lax, and punishment so slight, that screw-ups are bred like lab mice? Does anyone even care? Dunno -- but it would be interesting to find out.

4. That's not entertainment: Publishers and editors have complained for years that young people don't read newspapers in the numbers they once did, largely because they believe the information contained in dailies is irrelevant to their lives. Likewise, many of these observers have realized that by improving their entertainment sections, they can lure some of the under-35 crowd back to the fold. But "The Scene," the Post's entry in this field, is about as trendy and hip as Martha Stewart at a rave.

Popular-music coverage may be the most glaring weakness: Local artists are seldom covered, and entire genres, from dance music to hip-hop, are regularly ignored. (Things improved for a time thanks to the efforts of indie-music-loving staffer John Moore, but when he was named theater critic, the pop-music section lapsed into lethargy again.) Still, arts coverage of all sorts is tepid, and the predictability that Greg Moore noticed is usually the culprit; oceans of ink are spilled for obvious stories that are reported in obvious ways. There seems to be an allergy to putting forward strong points of view for fear of upsetting people, even though a lively give-and-take between critics and readers is arguably the main reason people are drawn to such writing in the first place. The Post stepped in the right direction when it stole witty, opinionated food writer Kyle Wagner away from Westword, but the move will pay off only if she isn't ordered to tiptoe around -- and plenty of her new colleagues have seemingly grown accustomed to walking on point.  

Thus far, only cosmetic efforts have been made to deal with this situation, such as publishing a bland, highly padded movie pullout on Fridays. But even though the Rocky's entertainment efforts are hardly world-class, they're miles ahead of the Post's.

5. Minty freshness: The same creativity deficiency that afflicts "The Scene" crops up again and again in other parts of the paper: "Denver and the West," "Lifestyles" and so on. Many of the articles have an obligatory air about them -- a we-don't-really-care-about-this-but-we-have-to-cover-it-anyway feel that can't help but be transmitted to readers. Other pieces seem to come straight from public information officers and publicists who've learned how easy it is to manufacture coverage at the Post.

A Westword wag has come up with an exercise designed to break this habit: Rip up all press releases for three days and see if anyone can think of an original story idea.

6. Share wisely: Establishing advantageous media partnerships is standard operating procedure for newspapers these days, so complaining about the relationship between the Post and Channel 9 is a waste of time. But so are most of the Channel 9 tie-ins the Post has published of late. Giving 9News's Paula Woodward a byline on the infamous butt-ball story was the sort of stroke that diminishes both organizations; printing a huge weather spread credited to forecaster Mike Nelson was the equivalent of a full-page advertisement for the station; and continuing to run consumer advocate Mark Koebrich's banal weekly column should make everyone involved blush with shame.

Some cooperation between the Post and Channel 9 could conceivably benefit readers and viewers alike. But right now, news value is taking a back seat to self-promotion.

7. Danger Ranger: Glenn Guzzo's initial attempts to revive the "Rocky Mountain Ranger" -- a venerable Post tradition that calls for a writer to wander the region in search of offbeat stories -- were disastrous. But in novelist Ron Franscell, Guzzo found a strong writer with just the right tone to make the Ranger ride again.

So why hasn't Franscell's work for the Post been more dependably pleasurable? Maybe it's because the "Ranger" part of his handle is being taken too literally: Much of what he turns in has an Old West theme that's been beaten to death in these parts over the years. Perhaps Franscell is being asked to write more often than he should, thereby forcing him to crank out undistinguished articles about, say, a photograph Ansel Adams took in New Mexico, in order to meet his quota. Or possibly he should focus more on topics with contemporary resonance, like the fight over a battlefield near Meeker that inspired one of his finest recent columns. Whatever the case, Franscell is an asset who could be used far more effectively.

8. Voices in the wilderness: "Colorado Voices" is the moniker given to a group of supposedly representative locals who occasionally write columns for the Post's editorial section about issues that interest them. The concept is a worthy one: It's an attempt to democratize the paper even as it breaks down the artificial wall that separates highfalutin pundits from ordinary Joes and Janes.

Too bad it rarely works as intended. The chosen "Voices" are frequently mediocre scribes with little that's insightful to say compared with letter writers, who generally toss out far more provocative opinions that take up a lot less space. At their best, they're pithy -- and since, as Bill O'Reilly notes, pithy is good, giving correspondents' voices precedence over the officially sanctioned ones would be more democratic, not less.

9. Make some enemies: Can you remember the last time the Post printed an article that really, really pissed off Bill Owens, or Wellington Webb, or Diana DeGette, or Wayne Allard, or any political big shot? Neither can we. In its coverage of city hall, the legislature, the governor's mansion and so on, the Post shies away from challenging the most powerful figures in our community. The old maxim about newspapers comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable seems to have gone out of fashion at the paper.

Fortunately, Post business editor Al Lewis takes a different tack. He started kicking Qwest's Joe Nacchio before he was down, and he hasn't let up at any point during the embattled CEO's subsequent descent. That sort of bare-knuckled, pugnacious approach to journalism would go a long way toward revitalizing the Post.  

10. Get hungry: Yeah, we know the Post won the city's newspaper war. But it hasn't won the city's newspaper quality war. Not only isn't it in the same class as the Los Angeles Times or the Chicago Tribune or the Wall Street Journal or even the Boston Globe, but it isn't even the best newspaper in Denver.

So when will Greg Moore know if the Post has made the leap to the next level of newspapers? First the Post has to kick the Rocky's ass, and lots of other asses as well. Until then, it's only talk.

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