Masters Class

When the Denver dailies tackle the same story at just about the same time, readers who still doubt the papers' editorial independence years after their business operations were linked by a joint operating agreement may suspect that they've been in cahoots. Instead, they're competing as energetically as ever -- and the latest coverage of the Timothy Lee Masters case demonstrates that the publication finishing first isn't always the winner.

The Masters matter brims with drama and intrigue. The onetime Fort Collins resident was convicted in 1999 of murdering a woman twelve years earlier, when he was just fifteen -- yet he wasn't directly linked to the slaying by DNA or any other physical clues. The evidence was entirely circumstantial, including a series of drawings that prosecutors saw as de facto confessions. Today, however, several former Fort Collins police detectives publicly agree with Masters, who has persistently declared his innocence.

There's little mystery about how the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post learned of the detectives' conclusions; Masters' advocates have clearly been seeking attention for their cause. Moreover, due to the small size of the journalistic community in these parts, representatives at each paper undoubtedly knew their opposite numbers were investigating the tale. As a result, each put their reporting on the fast track -- and the Rocky's version, headlined "Was This Justice Real?", hit print first, reaching the public on July 13. Penned by Kevin Vaughan, one of the paper's top narrative scribes (he was responsible for "The Crossing," a 33-part series at the heart of this March 2007 Message column), the offering is straight-forward, workmanlike and notably compelling.

What about the Post's effort, which dominated its July 15 front page? The headline -- "Sketchy Evidence Raises Doubt" -- is worse, but everything else about it is better. Staffer Miles Moffeit, whose co-written story about sexual abuse on military bases got him in dutch with the Air Force (see this December 2004 edition of the Message for details), presents the material with richness and righteous passion that echoes through every line. The result is the finest Post Sunday cover story in recent memory, and if that sounds like faint praise -- the broadsheet's signature issue has been underwhelming of late -- it proves that the paper can excel when the powers that be put the necessary resources behind a project. For proof, eyeball the paper's online video about Masters, which serves as a fine companion to Moffeit's prose.

The Post came in second in the Masters' competition -- but in this instance, slow and steady won the race. -- Michael Roberts

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