Paper Trail

A lot of businesses have dispensed entirely with printed memos, preferring instead to go with the electronic variety. But the Rocky Mountain News is still doing things the old-fashioned way, and we're glad they do -- because a couple of memos intended for News employees that found their way to our door recently make for some of the most interesting reading produced by the paper in quite some time.

First up is an item "from the desk of Bruce Johnson," the News's vice president of circulation; addressed to all "co-workers," the sheet was attached to employee paychecks on March 17. "I am asking for your help in watching our competitor, the Denver Post," Johnson writes. "We have heard many reports in the marketplace about copies of the Post just showing up at homes without being ordered. Additionally, we have had reports of uncut bundles of the Denver Post at schools, hotels, retailers and restaurants. We need your assistance in documenting these occurrences so that we can assess the impact and react as necessary."

Aside from demonstrating why readers should count themselves lucky that Johnson's prose isn't published on a regular basis, what does this mean? Simply put, the memo implies that the Post may be pumping up circulation figures by underhanded means in order to gain ground in its battle to the death with the News -- and Johnson offers his underlings incentive to find proof. He lists eight examples of possible Post subterfuge, including:

"Schools -- your student observes large quantities of Post newspapers not being used by, or delivered to his/her school."

"Retailers -- offering 'complimentary' copies of the Post at their locations -- encouraging you to use their coupons, etc."

"A person continuing to receive the Post after they have requested their subscription to stop."

Then, as added incentive, Johnson reveals that for each completed survey, printed at the bottom of the page, "you will be entered into a drawing for cash and prizes. First place prize is a weekend getaway in Vail, which includes two nights' hotel accommodations, dinner and $200 spending money. The second place prize is $250, and the third place prize is $100." Watch out, Regis Philbin! You've got competition!

When contacted for details, Larry Hart, the News's ABC circulation manager, to whom the surveys are supposed to be sent, referred all questions to Johnson, who didn't return calls -- a lack of response that soon became a continuing theme. A case in point: Post vice president of circulation Judd Alvord said, via his assistant, to phone Post vice president of marketing Tom Botelho to learn more about the Post's circulation approach. But Botelho didn't return calls, either. Guess those open lines of communication both papers like to boast about only go one way.

Another News memorandum that went out March 17 was addressed to "all staff members" from News editor John Temple and managing editor Deb Goeken. The stated topic was "Columbine Debriefing Sessions," but the copy made it clear that what was really being offered was grief counseling for those who feel that they may be traumatized by the impending one-year anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School. The memo, which included a schedule for meetings from March 22 to March 28 and some advice about how to mentally prepare for the big day -- April 20 -- states, "This year's sessions will focus on helping you to better understand your reaction and the community's reaction to the tragedy and the anniversary. We hope they will help give you the strength to continue to excel as journalists on this difficult story." After all, the News sure as hell isn't going to skip it.

A call to Helen Resnick, the expert slated to lead the chats, was not returned (big, fat surprise), but her cohort Dave Dillingham actually phoned. However, it soon became clear that Dillingham thought I was a News employee, even though I had clearly identified myself as being from Westword on the message I left him. In a sudden burst of integrity, I stopped him a few sentences later and told him my background again. Somewhat flustered, he thanked me for my honesty and said he'd ask editor Temple if he could speak to me, adding that he would let me know the next day.

Predictably, I never heard from him again. I'm starting to get a complex.

Meanwhile, the News and Post offices, as well as other newsrooms around the country, are abuzz with rumors that the News is a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for photography because of its Columbine work, while the Post's Columbine work has made it a finalist in the breaking news category. There's no telling if this gossip is solid: Pulitzer judges contacted by Westword either didn't know if it was true or wouldn't say, and one local observer characterized much of the speculation as mere "barroom talk." But if one of the dailies wins and the other one doesn't when the Pulitzers are announced on April 10, those grief counselors had better be ready.  

Thus far, the Post hasn't published anything about a lawsuit filed last month on behalf of Fort Collins's Tom Gerstung, but that's not especially surprising. After all, the suit is aimed directly at the Post, and the accusations contained within it aren't the sort likely to generate favorable publicity. Gerstung, a survivor of throat cancer, argues that he had to leave his job with the paper because of persistent ridicule he received regarding a mechanical device he must use to talk.

Gerstung started working for the Post as a newspaper deliverer in 1995, and shortly thereafter was promoted to the position of sales manager in the Loveland-Fort Collins area. For the next two-plus years, he says he got consistently positive feedback from his superiors: "The people I had to deal with downtown really liked the way my reports were put together. They were always legible and absolutely precise. They knew that when I gave them sales totals and cash-flow totals, they would be extremely accurate."

Then, in late May 1997, Gerstung was diagnosed with a stage-three carcinoma in his throat. The next month, doctors performed a laryngectomy, removing his vocal cords in the process. The surgery was followed by seven weeks of intensive radiation treatment, and after it was completed, Gerstung was given approval to return to his previous position. But he could only speak with the assistance of an electronic voice enhancer described by Mark Rau, the attorney representing Gerstung, as "a kind of microphone people hold up to their throat." Gerstung didn't think this would be a big problem given that his job wasn't built around talking on the telephone; for the most part, he can be understood during phone calls, but it takes a little extra concentration.

However, Gerstung's suit alleges that his synthesized voice so irritated his immediate supervisor that it began to hurt his career. According to Gerstung, his boss gave him demeaning assignments just to get him out of the office, refused to speak with him on the phone, frequently exploded in his presence, and publicly referred to him as "R2D2" and "the robot man," among other insults. "I told him that I didn't think that was appropriate," Gerstung says. "I was doing my best, performed all the duties of my job, and went above and beyond all the time. I asked, 'What have I done not to deserve respect?' And he never had an answer for that."

Fed up, Gerstung quit his job in February 1998 and issued a complaint against the Post with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). When the EEOC failed to take action in a timely manner, attorney Rau sued on his client's behalf.

Rau believes that the Post violated Gerstung's rights under the Americans With Disabilities Act. "Admittedly, it's more difficult to understand someone who's using that voice system, but it's far from impossible," he says. "And his primary contact was with co-workers, not the general public, so that shouldn't have been an issue. Yet he found himself in a hostile work environment that became so oppressive and uncomfortable that he had to quit."

Roxane Perruso, speaking for Holme Roberts & Owen, the law firm representing the Post, declined any comment on Gerstung's charges. As for Gerstung, he's found other work; he's employed at a nearby Wal-Mart. But that doesn't mean he's forgotten his days at the Post.

"It almost seemed like there was a campaign to get rid of me, and they did," he says. "But the way they went about it just wasn't fair."

In her first "On the Town" column, published in the October 15, 1999, News, Penny Parker ("Gossipmongers," December 2, 1999) noted that Dom Testa and Jane London, the morning team on KIMN-FM, aka the Mix, had taken "sucking up" to a new level by sending her a gift a day (balloons, flowers, "bath goodies") as a welcome to her new beat.

But since then, Parker has returned the favor again and again and again.

First Testa and London were the subject of a Parker item on November 2, and after the announcement two days later that Parker would be appearing on their show every Friday, the number of blurbs accelerated. On November 9, she talked about attending Jane's 40th birthday bash; on November 25, she lauded Dom and Jane's efforts to raise money for a food bank; on December 24, she mused about Dom's rewritten version of "Winter Wonderland"; on February 25, she saluted their 200th broadcast; on March 17, she hyped a Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? lookalike contest cooked up by the twosome; on March 19, she reported about the lookalike contest; and on March 23, she dished about the return to Denver of Jo Myers, Dom's former partner.  

Granted, Dom and Jane, who probably couldn't have gotten into the papers by barbecuing Wellington Webb's dog live on the air prior to Penny's arrival, aren't her most-mentioned celebs: Topping their total of nine citations to date are Webb (11) and John Elway (10). But they kick the crap out of plenty of other seemingly more famous folks, including Joe Sakic (4), Wilma Webb (3) and Larry Walker (1), and odds are good they'll keep on doing it. Conflicts of interest be damned: If Dom burps in a funny way, it's Parker's job to tell us all about it.

Some other local luminaries bumped spotlights on March 22: At the very same time that recent Westword profile subject Bob Enyart ("Thank God for Bob!", December 16, 1999) was making fun of PETA ("I love animals. They're delicious") on Politically Incorrect alongside bleached-hair rap loverboy Sisqo and the widely cherished Judd Nelson on ABC, CBS's David Letterman was needling guest Barbara Walters by screening blank-faced cutaways from her interview the week before with John and Patsy Ramsey. Without Colorado, late-night television would cease to exist.

As for the Ramseys, their astonishingly clever rehabilitation campaign appears to be making considerable headway, and not just on Larry King Live, where they held sway on both March 27 and 28. (Hell, even Bill Clinton usually doesn't get two days in a row.) Consider this: Reggie Rivers, who's heard afternoons on KHOW, the radio home of persistent Ramsey-basher Peter Boyles, spent two full days (and parts of others) bashing Governor Bill Owens for casting aspersions against the couple -- and the vast majority of his callers agreed with him that Owens was out of line for doing so. Moreover, the News's Charlie Roos wrote an editorial on March 27 that said practically the same thing. Can you imagine that happening three years ago? Two? One? Me, neither.

Why is this happening now? It's simple, my friends. America loves a comeback.

Not that the Ramseys' critics have suddenly lost their voices. Witness Post columnist Chuck Green, who stated as part of a March 20 John-and-Patsy-should-be-in-shackles screed that he hoped the piece would be his last on the topic until the couple took lie-detector tests. This near-pledge held up for almost a whole week: Green's March 26 effort, "Don't Hold Breath for Boulder," charged that the community should simply order the Ramseys to take such tests rather than dillydallying.

If Green ever writes that he hopes he won't have to shoot the President, expect the man in the oval office to be eating lead before the month is out.

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