Mike Littwin on his Denver Post ouster and new Colorado Independent challenge
In March 2012, Mike Littwin, widely acknowledged as the best known and most popular newspaper columnist in the city, was ignominiously bounced from his gig at the Denver Post in a cost-cutting tactic.
Since then, Littwin sightings have been rare. But at long last, he's back, reemerging as one of the main draws at the relaunched Colorado Independent website. Below, hear what he has to say about his departure from the Post, his Independent move and the future of newspapering.
Littwin, who'd served as a prominent columnist at the Rocky Mountain News until the tabloid's 2009 closure, didn't say much publicly after being disappeared at the Post, which also bid farewell to business-section columnist Penny Parker and YourHub's Dacia Johnson, and ended Chuck Murphy's metro column in order to shift him to a new position.
Littwin is still using the photo that ran with his Post columns as his Twitter icon.
Sources told us the latter move was made due to union rules that would have required Murphy, the most recent columnist hire, to be laid off instead of Littwin. And things got even more complicated when the Post's sole remaining columnist, Tina Griego, took a severance deal and moved with her family to Virginia. Under the aforementioned union contract, the Post either had to rehire Littwin or Parker or do without a columnist until March 2013 -- and the paper chose the latter course.
"They never really tried to hire me back," Littwin confirms. "We had some discussions, but most of them were basically about health care and making sure I was covered while I wasn't writing. That's the world of newspapers: You think of all the difficulties of people losing their jobs, but it really comes down to something as simple as, 'Do I have health care?' and how scary it is to be out in the world without it. But we got that straightened out, fortunately."
Regarding his sacking, "they came to me and said they were in deep, unexpected financial trouble and they had to get $500,000 off the books," he recalls. "I wish I could say that just getting rid of me would have saved them $500,000. If so, I'd be off on some nice island at this point. But it shows the financial straits they were in then, and I think they remain in."
Littwin with Michael Scherer at the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama.
To save the half-million, Littwin notes, "they got rid of me, they got rid of Penny, and they got Woody" -- that's sports columnist and ESPN personality Woody Paige -- "to give back some money." (We contacted Paige at the time after hearing such reports; he never responded.) "And they got a couple of other people to give back money, too.
"It's sort of ironic that for the people who were in the union, they couldn't ask them to give back money -- so instead of asking them to give back money, they just got rid of them, laid them off." He adds, "It was really hard to take at the time. It was difficult."
No wonder, since, as Littwin points out, "I've been in the business for forty years" -- his first job, at age 21, was covering the ABA's Virginia Squires when the team featured Julius "Dr. J" Erving -- "and a columnist for thirty."
Looked at in its totality, Littwin believes "I've had one of the luckiest careers anybody could ever image, with all the stuff I've gotten to do. But when you're tossed out and you're sixty years old, you've still got to figure out what to do."
Continue for more of our interview with Mike Littwin. Because he wanted to stay in Denver, out-of-town options held no appeal for him. He wrote one column for 5280 magazine, "but that didn't feel right for some reason," and fielded offers from organizations outside journalism before deciding he wasn't interested in making the leap. "I just could never be on anybody's team, other than a newspaper's or a website's team. There's nothing wrong with that, I guess, but to me, it feels wrong. My job has always been to be irreverent, and sure, I'm a liberal guy -- but all the liberals know that I'll take them on, too, if I think they're wrong. And if you're on one side or the other, you can't do that."
A 2011 shot of Littwin with conservative legislator Shawn Mitchell.
As a result, Littwin kept looking for local journalism opportunities, and after exploring "a few things that didn't happen," he was contacted by the Colorado Independent, a site founded in 2006 and looking for a way to move into the future behind its new overseer, ex-Post columnist Susan Greene.
"It used to be part of this sort of liberal blogosphere," he acknowledges, "but Susan said they wanted to be a journalism website, and if I joined up, I could be Mike Littwin, whoever that is."
In other words, he could gore anyone who deserved it -- something in which he takes delight.
"My favorite times at the Rocky were when the voice of the Rocky was center-right," he recalls. "I know we had a bunch of liberal columnists, but I was really the liberal columnist, and that was a great position for me to be in."
The tradition will continue at the Independent. In his first column, a post-mortem on the recall-election losses of gun-control supporters John Morse and Angela Giron, "I hit the NRA, but I also hit the Democrats. That's who I am, and I love the opportunity to be that."
But while much his new job is similar to his previous one, there are plenty of differences. During his time in print journalism, the newspapers that employed him were in charge of getting his name out -- "but at the Independent, I have to promote what I'm doing in the hopes my readers will find me and want to stick with me, and stick with the Independent, and find it's worth their time."
The main tool Littwin's using in an effort to accomplish this goal is Twitter, which he once said would disappear in six months -- "most worst prediction ever," he boasts. Since the early days of the service, "I've actually come to like it. It's perfect for me -- do a quick hit and link to something someone smart has written."
He'll also be writing columns every Tuesday and Friday, with occasional extras if the news warrants, plus blog posts -- one a day, he hopes.
The Independent needs the content. The site has five full-time writers at this point, "and we're doing that blowfish thing -- we're making ourselves look bigger than we are." On top of contributions from the staff, there are plans for regular contributions from a raft of helpers. According to Littwin, "we've gone all Huffington Post and gotten a lot of people to write for us for free -- but unlike the Huffington Post, it's because we don't have any money, not because we're trying to exploit anybody. We're the good guys, not the bad guys.
"The day after I got laid off, the Huffington Post offered me a column," Littwin remembers. "They talked about how important my work was and how it needed to be out there and how my voice needed to be heard -- but, oh, 'we can't pay you anything.' And I said, 'Thanks, but I'm a professional writer. I don't write for free.'
"Fortunately," he continues, "our contributors make their living doing something else and we're tapping into their expertise. They're people whose names you'll recognize, and they're going to help us provide a good product every day. It won't be the Denver Post, but it'll hopefully be a place to come for interesting stories and some interesting analysis."
To keep doing so over the long haul, the Independent must have resources -- and while Littwin knows the site needs donations, and encourages folks of all political stripes to pitch in, he's kept himself willfully ignorant about who's paying for the relaunch. "I said to them, 'I don't want to be involved with any funders. I don't even want to know who they are, because I don't want to have to think about not offending them.' I want to be free to offend whoever."
He's reveling in the opportunity to do so once again, but he remains cautious about the future.
"We're in a new world," he says, "and I really fear for daily journalism. I see how thin the Denver Post is, and it worries me. Whatever happened with me, I don't want to see it not succeed. Newspapers are in my blood, and however I finish my career, I'm still a newspaper person. It's what I've always been and what I always want to be."
With that in mind, "I just have to be Paul Revere and say, 'Mike is coming. Mike is coming back at the Colorado Independent, so give it a whirl.' Over the past year, I've met literally thousands of people who've told me how much they miss me. Well, here I am. Please come and read what we're writing."
More from our Media archive circa May 2012: "Post: Rehire Mike Littwin or Penny Parker or be columnist-free 'til 2013?"