Earlier this week, we interviewed the Denver Post's sole current metro columnist, Tina Griego, who's accepted a severance deal originally designed to reduce the paper's copy-editing staff by two-thirds and will soon be moving with her family to Virginia. Her replacement? Our interpretation of the guild contract, on view below, is that the Post must either rehire laid-off columnists Mike Littwin and Penny Parker or go without a metro columnist at all until 2013.
In response to a previous interview request, Post editor Greg Moore told us he'll be unable to comment about the severance offers until they're complete. Initially, everything was supposed to be wrapped up by month's end, but we're now hearing it may take until June to do so.
And this week, Moore wrote, "I have not decided what we will do regarding replacing her" when asked about plans for a Griego successor.
Likewise, representatives of the Denver Newspaper Guild have declined to elaborate on the upcoming exits beyond a statement decrying the copy-desk cuts. It reads in part:
We at the Denver Newspaper Guild consider ourselves partners with Denver Post management in the effort to position the newsroom and the company to thrive in the new media environment. However, we disagree in the strongest possible terms with the company's decision to lay off two-thirds of the paper's copy editors. We feel it is a shortsighted cost-cutting measure that will irreparably damage The Denver Post.
However, multiple sources pointed us toward a section of the Post's contract with the guild; it expired on March 10 but continues to govern operations at the paper while negotiations for a new pact are taking place. In a section about "Employee Security," the document outlines rules for "Dismissals to reduce the force, as distinguished from dismissals for just and sufficient cause."
The text notes that "Employees who are dismissed to reduce the force and employees who have elected to bump into another job title will be placed on a rehiring list, based on seniority, and will be rehired on a seniority basis in the old job title if and when a vacancy occurs." Moreover, the contract continues, "All rehire lists shall be maintained for one (1) year from the date of dismissal."
In March, when Littwin and Parker were laid off, Chuck Murphy, the paper's other metro columnist aside from Griego, was transferred to a new role as social media editor and his columnist slot eliminated. At the time, our sources told us this was done because Littwin was contracted as a columnist, and the Post would have had to offer him a similar position due to seniority rather than laying him off if a columnist spot was open. Why? Murphy had only been working as a columnist since earlier this year, whereas Littwin had been on staff since 2009, when he was hired in the wake of the Rocky Mountain News' closure, and seniority rules according to the contract.
If all that's true, the Post would have to offer Griego's job to Littwin, who worked as a metro columnist for years before moving to the editorial pages, or Parker, whose column appeared in the business section, or else employ no metro columnist for a year after their layoffs -- meaning March 2013.
In our conversation with Griego earlier this week, she spoke passionately about the continuing importance of newspaper columnists in the Internet age.
"We're still a large metro daily, and it would be a weakness to have a large metro daily without a columnist," she said -- and argued that more than one would be even better. "We're in tight money times," she acknowledged, "but in the brief period when I was the only city columnist, it was very difficult. We're living in a city, and we have an enormous amount of ground to cover, and I write a very particular thing in a very particular way. So I missed not having somebody who had a harder voice, a more challenging voice."
Given that the Post has regularly employed three metro columnists, and sometimes even more (recall the period featuring Cindy Rodriguez, David Harsanyi, Jim Spencer and Diane Carman?), the idea of zero is hard to fathom. But at this point, it appears to be well within the realm of possibility -- depending, perhaps, upon whether the paper is dead-set against rehiring Littwin or Parker.
Here's a copy of the Post's guild contract. The material about employee security and force reductions is on pages five and six.
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