Out With the Old

Mike Gorman

Newspaper lore is filled with tales of grizzled reporters whose wealth of experience and seen-it-all demeanor endear them to readers and colleagues alike. But such anecdotes will likely be in short supply at the Boulder Daily Camera if a new buyout proposal targeting employees over fifty -- without regard to time of employment -- is successful. The primary criteria appear to be gray hair and an ability to get a senior discount at Denny's.

Although the offer, made in late May, smacks of age discrimination, it's perfectly legal as long as staffers who reject it aren't punished for non-participation. However, the proposition, which offers one week's paycheck for every six months on the job, maxing out at half an individual's annual salary, has raised eyebrows at the paper, a non-union shop that, according to a former employee speaking anonymously, hasn't always embraced its elders.

Camera editor and publisher Colleen Conant refutes such whispers, as well as any implication that she wants to get rid of all her paper's vets. "Heavens, no," she says. "There are a lot of people on that list I hope won't take the offer, because they're wonderful employees. But a buyout offer is something that we see as a fairly equitable and voluntary way to achieve a financial goal. The newspaper revenue picture is soft locally, and because we're part of a publicly held company, we have a responsibility to help out."

Indeed, the Camera is a link in the Cincinnati-based E.W. Scripps chain, which owns 21 dailies, most notably the Rocky Mountain News. And as a May 10 Scripps press release makes clear, the news isn't all good in its newspaper division. Revenues tumbled 3.6 percent over twelve months, led by a slide in classified-advertising returns, which dropped 8.4 percent. And Tim Stautberg, Scripps's vice president of communications and investor relations, doesn't expect an immediate upturn. "The help-wanted classified business is down double digits in nearly every market, and some larger metro areas are reporting declines of 30 and 40 percent," he says. "People just aren't hiring like they used to."

Despite this situation, Stautberg says not to expect a similar offer at the Rocky: "We've made a commitment to add resources should the economic times warrant it," he says.

Meanwhile, rumors that the Camera is on the block continue to swirl. Stautberg denies that there are current plans to unload it, and Conant reveals that when she asked Scripps CEO Ken Lowe about a possible sale, he responded in the negative. But what if the Camera fails to reach its savings objectives via the buyout? That's a definite possibility because, a full week after its announcement, none of the 36 toilers eligible had taken the deal. Could layoffs be on the horizon? Conant believes that another, potentially sweeter plan might be the next step -- "and after that, I don't know." As for the rationale behind focusing on older workers, she says, "We looked at different ways of approaching the problem, and after some discussions with corporate H.R. folks, they thought this would be a reasonable way to start."

Wonder how many of them are over fifty?

Radio for (one last) change: Boulder's KWAB, dubbed "Radio for Change," was an ambitious experiment. Started in 1999 by Working Assets, a San Francisco outfit that regularly donates a percentage of revenues from its telephone, credit-card and Internet services to progressive causes, the 1,000-watt station attempted to counter conservative talk radio with left-leaning programming that bridged the gap between commercial and public broadcasting. But the outlet generated more controversy than profits ("Radio for [Lots of] Change," May 25, 2000). It's no surprise, then, that on May 30, general manager Chuck Lontine announced that the station had been sold to Colorado Public Radio and pulled the plug.

For CPR, which paid $1.1 million for the signal at 1490 AM, KWAB was a must-have. The public-radio network's new two-tier system (classical music on one channel, news on another) was predicated in part on the acquisition of KUNC, a Greeley FM -- and when that transaction fell through, it was forced to rely on comparatively weak KVOD-AM/1340 to broadcast news to the metro area. Oodles of complaints about reception followed, with many of the gripes originating from Boulder -- which, as CPR spokesman Sean Nethery says, makes KWAB an ideal solution. Better yet, KWAB received FCC permission in April to replace its '40s-era antenna with a new stick that will drastically improve fidelity when CPR takes to the air on July 1.

This development may be bad for Boulder's KGNU, a public station that's far less corporate than CPR. But Lontine, who takes great pride in KWAB's accomplishments, thinks the operations can coexist peacefully. "We could have sold to an ethnic broadcaster or a religious broadcaster," he says. "But none of those scenarios helped us protect the audience we'd built for 1490. From a content standpoint, there was really no other place to go than CPR."

Working Assets president Michael Kieschnick adds that the CPR sale will help the company recoup its investment. Although Working Assets paid only $575,000 for KWAB, Kieschnick says much of that amount is owed "as debt to the previous owner" and notes that "we incurred losses during every month of our operation" above and beyond the $150,000 the outlet contributed to local nonprofits. Working Assets hasn't completely given up on radio: The company hopes to find new venues for a show featuring host Laura Flanders as part of what Kieschnick calls "our anti-Bush organizing programs." But, he goes on, "we learned that we have not yet found the secret to operating a radio station in a sustainable manner."

Chalk one up for the Woodman: On May 28, following the Colorado Avalanche's victory over the New Jersey Devils in game one of the Stanley Cup finals, Denver Post sports columnist Woody Paige wrote a piece called "Suing Me Not Worth the Effort," in which he crowed about the rejection days earlier of a lawsuit filed against him by former Devils owner John McMullen.

Post loyalists may well have been baffled by this offering, because neither Paige nor anyone else at his paper had previously written anything about the existence of this June 2000 litigation; the only area publication to print anything on the topic was this one ("Payback," February 8). Moreover, Paige's column implied that McMullen, who sold the Devils last year to a broadcasting concern headed by New York Yankees über-boss George Steinbrenner, sued because Paige referred to him as a "swamp-swill salesman," which wasn't the case.

In truth, the suit zeroed in on Paige's allegation in an April 26, 2000, item that McMullen had left "considerable unpaid debts" in his wake when, in 1982, he moved the Colorado Rockies hockey franchise to New Jersey. Likewise, Paige failed to cite a January 17 column in which he'd written that "after researching the Post's archives for the source of my memory, I have found no proof that McMullen did not pay off the Rockies' debts," and apologized for his "mistake."

Why the omissions? Paige says he was more interested in highlighting the irony of the dismissal's timing than in recapping the specifics of the suit. "It was probably perceived as being self-serving enough without going into all that," he says. "I was just trying to be funny."

But had he chosen to lay out the details, Paige continues, he would have been able to show that there was something behind his "considerable unpaid debts" reference in the first place. For instance, both former Rockies coach Don Cherry and broadcaster Norm Jones filed depositions pointing out that they had never received thousands of dollars they'd earned prior to the team's departure. Paige concedes that the person responsible for making good on these payments might have been Peter Gilbert, who sold the Rockies to McMullen, but he still believes the depositions confirm the general accuracy of his initial allegation. As such, he's feeling mighty good about his ability to fend off litigants in the future.

"Go ahead," Paige says. "Sue me. Get in line."

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