Show Them the Money
Jay Vollmar

Show Them the Money

Reporter Aldo Svaldi is currently a sought-after commodity -- but it wasn't always this way.

A graduate of the University of Missouri, Svaldi began his journalism career proper in a challenging locale: He interned at a publication in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, experiencing a genuine baptism by fire as a fledgling war correspondent. But when he returned to the States in 1991, the economy was in a recession from which scribes weren't exempt. "I must have sent something like forty resumés out and was just constantly being turned down," Svaldi recalls. "There were lots of hiring freezes." Nonetheless, he kept at it, and after six months he was christened as research director at the Denver Business Journal. Over the next seven years at the Journal, where he eventually moved up to a business-writing position, he found himself becoming increasingly popular; opportunities to go elsewhere abounded, and in March he hooked up with Energy Insight, an online publication in Boulder associated with Financial Times. His reasons for making the switch weren't complicated. As he points out, "The benefits were good and the pay was very generous. Counting a signing bonus, it was about 50 percent higher than what I was making."

Svaldi's story has been repeated again and again over the past year or so, in the Denver area and beyond. Online outfits and new media-oriented business magazines have expanded at a supersonic pace. To fill the positions created by this growth, these operations are routinely going after employees at more traditional publications, with packages characterized by big-bucks salaries and, on occasion, stock options. As a result, reporters who never expected to make much more than a living wage are finding themselves doing far better -- and the rapidity of their departures has created no end of headaches for editors whose sections are being cherry-picked.

The region hit hardest by this phenomenon may be California's Bay Area, which is among the nation's high-tech meccas; a March article in the American Journalism Review pointed out that the San Jose Mercury News lost eleven staffers to Internet ventures in 1999 alone. But the Denver dailies have also been feeling the pinch. "I've been here since July 26, and I've already hired five people -- and I still have one more opening to fill," says Denver Post business editor Al Lewis. Meanwhile, Rocky Mountain News business editor Rob Reuteman has experienced a similar slew of defections, including Lewis, who'd worked under Reuteman at the Rocky, and Kris Hudson, who moved to the Post several weeks ago. But even more onetime News hands can be found at Interactive Week, a thriving Ziff Davis mag (its readership has quadrupled since its 1994 debut) that lured them with remuneration that's said to be in the $80,000-per-annum range and permission to do their jobs from home. Business writer Rebecca Cantwell, who'd been with the paper for thirteen years, was the first to go, and in recent months she's been joined by business types Richard Williamson and Dana Coffield, as well as Bill Scanlon and Dan Luzadder, who had previously concentrated on other areas of reporting. In short, Interactive Week's Denver presence has the News written all over it.

Of the aforementioned group, Scanlon didn't return calls, and Luzadder referred all questions to Cantwell, who, like Coffield, responded only with a brief e-mail describing her reasons for making the switch. "When Interactive Week contacted me late last year," the cyber-Cantwell notes, "I decided to move to the nation's leading business publication about the Internet, seeing the change as a way to continue my professional growth and write for a national audience about what I believe is among the most important stories in the world -- without having to leave my native Colorado." Coffield seconds that emotion: "When Interactive Week came calling, it was hard not to consider the dramatic lifestyle changes moving to the magazine made possible. I received a really substantial salary increase, and I work from home."

To hold on to reporters, dailies must come up with enticements of their own, but they have plenty of limitations. For instance, union agreements make it difficult to offer a business journalist more dough than someone with comparable experience in another specialty area, even if the former is in much higher demand (although Lewis thinks both papers may soon be using so-called merit pay to keep business writers happy). As a result, the stay-don't-go pitches generally emphasize the volatility of the Internet as opposed to the safety of newspapers -- the subject of a November 9 San Francisco Chronicle piece headlined "Journalists Like Security of Old Media After Being Burned at Dot-Coms." Lewis cites Denver Sidewalk, a Web-only enterprise that attracted daily vets, including Post food expert Bill St. John and News music critic Mark Brown, by virtue of its connection with the Microsoft empire. Yet it collapsed in 1999 after just a couple of years. "Working at a newspaper is almost a recession-proof job," he goes on. "The Post will be here no matter what happens to the economy -- and if the economy goes south, we'll have people to write about it. I don't know if you can say the same about some of these broadband businesses or Internet publications."

"Operations that may have less stability pay a premium to recruit proven talent," chimes in Post editor Glenn Guzzo. "Those who have chosen the electronic route, especially, have done so at some risk."

Writers seem to realize as much: The caution exhibited by the ex-Newsies now at Interactive Week suggests that they don't want to make any enemies because they may someday need to return to the Rocky and humbly ask for a second chance. But some observers think more journalists than ever before are focusing on business because they think their decision will eventually lead to a windfall. The News's Reuteman isn't sure about that, but he concedes, "I don't know that someone would necessarily admit that to me." Still, he reveals that he's "had half-joking conversations with people at the metro desk who've said, 'Jeez, it's so obvious to me that business is the place to be hired away from that I want to go to work in your department.'"

There's also the perception that business writing is a more pleasant gig than many others on a daily. Lewis believes that a good many "reporters just starting their careers are thinking, 'I can spend my nights chasing cops and running through sleazy neighborhoods, or I can work nine to five, meet with the greatest minds in the business community, and call up the smartest CEOs in the world and have them call me back.'" Yet the possibility of a fiscal bonanza probably holds even more appeal. "Quite frankly, anybody who's a business reporter in this town, no matter what they're making, can make two to three times that amount working out of their houses if that's what they choose to do," he says.

But for how long? The tale of Aldo Svaldi is cautionary, albeit just mildly so. A month after he came on board, Energy Insight, which boasted a readership Svaldi estimates at just 7,000, launched three subscription-based "modules" in an effort to boost sagging revenues, but only about a dozen companies signed up to receive the telecom module, for which he wrote. The endeavor subsequently began scaling back (a managing editor's position opened up but was left unfilled), and rumors began circulating that Financial Times wanted to sell the division that encompassed Energy Insight. This gossip turned out to be accurate.

But Svaldi wasn't made to suffer another prolonged stretch of unemployment -- not in today's sizzling business-journalism environment. In the midst of uncertainty over the outlook for Energy Insight, he received a call from a headhunter, and before he knew it, he had four prospects from which to choose. "I didn't really even have to look," he says. He ultimately decided to return to the inky world of newspapers, signing up with the Post, in part because he liked the idea of reaching a larger audience. "I definitely feel more connected to the community," he says about the new position, which he started on November 6. But the moolah was nice, too: The Post agreed to count his years at the weekly Denver Business Journal as if he'd been at a daily, thereby bumping him up the union pay scale.

"When I was in journalism school, there were very few people interested in business," Svaldi adds, "but it's worked out great for me."

What a difference ten years make.

The name game: As the item above makes clear, the commanding officers at the News should be accustomed to employees abandoning their ship, but that doesn't seem to be true. Stories continue to circulate about editor John Temple going thermonuclear whenever his minions choose to go elsewhere, and insiders say his reactions are amplified if the destination is the Post. Yet he's also capable of quieter acts of retribution.

Consider the matter of Tina Griego, who's written some of the best long-form pieces that have appeared in the News during the past several years. (She's also married to Westword columnist Harrison Fletcher.) Early this month, Griego accepted an offer at the Post to become a columnist -- she'll be supplementing, rather than supplanting, Diane Carman and Chuck Green -- and when she broke the word to Temple, he held himself in check. Granted, he neglected to present her with a sheet cake, and he didn't allow her to clean out her desk or say goodbye to co-workers; when her chat with him was over, she was directed to the exit. But throughout the conversation itself, Griego says, "he was extremely gracious."

He became less so later. Specifically, Griego's final effort for the News -- "Feudin' and Fightin'," a sprawling look at north Denver Democrats published on November 5 -- ran without her byline. Instead, it was credited generically to "News Staff."

Typically, Temple failed to respond to a request to comment on this topic. (What must I do to get a call back, Mr. Temple? Plead? Beg? Apply for a job as a business reporter?) For her part, Griego herself is, to use her phrase, extremely gracious. "It was a really difficult decision to leave," she allows. "And since they've treated me very well at the Rocky Mountain News, that made it all the more difficult. I couldn't say, 'I hate this place,' or, 'You've just run me into the ground,' because that was never the case. I can understand that they were hurt, and I was thankful that they didn't pull the story. A lot of people spent a lot of time talking to me about it, and I would have hated to see that happen."

Griego says the impending joint operating agreement that will link the Post and the News even as it eliminates the Rocky's Sunday issue -- her primary platform since coming to the paper in January 1998 -- played practically no role in her choice. Rather, she was mainly motivated by the arrival at the Post of managing editor for news Larry Burrough, whose mistake-riddled internal e-mail about mistakes at the paper was quoted in this space last week. (The errors haven't stopped, either. A November 10 notice about a memorial service for the late Eugenia Rawls pointed out not one, but two, gaffes in her obituary the previous day. Oh yeah: Rawls's husband, Donald Seawell, used to publish the Post.) Burrough gave Griego her start in journalism at the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald Examiner, and when he visited Denver to interview at the paper prior to the JOA announcement, Griego told him she'd love to work for him again. "It was simply the right job for the right editor at the right time," she says.

At this point, many of the details about Griego's column -- such as what days it will be printed and in which section -- are unresolved; all she knows is that she won't debut until after the first of the year. But she stresses that the column will be local, with special attention being paid to what she refers to as "communities that maybe are not being covered as much as they should, including the Hispanic community" -- a goal that ties into the Post's oft-expressed desire to increase diversity in the paper itself and behind the scenes. (As Griego says, "I am Hispanic.") Just as important, her writing will be founded on reporting, not rumination.

Does that mean she's supposed to be the anti-Chuck Green? Griego refuses to take the bait -- which no doubt bodes well for her future.

They come and they go: As recently reported here ("Lighting a Fire," November 2), Alice DJs Greg Thunder and Bo Reynolds got into an on-air fight while debating a move from their afternoon time slot to the morning-drive shift previously occupied by Jamie White and Danny Bonaduce. At the time, station general manager Joe Schwartz swore that this was a spontaneous eruption, not a bid for publicity -- and he made the same claim about the plan to have listeners' votes resolve the controversy, with the results to be announced on Election Day, November 7. But that didn't prevent the duo from engaging in colorful sloganeering, with Reynolds's motto being "Vote Bo for Status Quo!" and Thunder countering with "Screw Bo, Move the Show!" Nor was the final tally a shocker: The pro-move faction emerged victorious, allowing Schwartz to send Greg and Bo to mornings just as he'd wanted to do all along.

Then again, at least there was a winner -- unlike another election that comes to mind.

Meanwhile, at Go-Go, a periodical spotlighted seven days back ("Zine But Not Heard," November 9), publisher Gary Haney, who transformed the publication from a porn rag to an entertainment biweekly last year, has left the building. In making the November 13 announcement, editor Chris Magyar was vague about the departure, saying only that Haney "left us on his own terms, and on good terms, because we'd gotten to the point where he couldn't take the magazine any further. He recognized that, and that's why he decided to step down." Haney's replacement is Sean Weaver, the editor of Metro State's student newspaper, the Metropolitan.

On the surface, this would seem to indicate that Go-Go will now speed toward extinction like so many other advertiser-supported mags in Denver before it, but Magyar is optimistic. "The financial situation will remain the same," he says. "And as far as the product itself, I don't foresee any major changes for a good deal of time."

Or at least until the next issue.

Our station's better than your station: On November 10, the Post gave jumbo play to a Columbia Journalism Review report that reflected poorly on Channel 4's newscasts: "KCNC Gets 'D' in Survey" sported a large-font headline and placement on the first page of the Denver and the West section. Might that have something to do with Channel 4's affiliation with the News, which didn't report about the study at all, and not the Post? If Post partner Channel 9 had earned failing grades rather than the "B" conferred by the Review, would it have received the same treatment?

Mark your ballot "yes" for question one and "no" for question two -- and be careful not to accidentally choose Pat Buchanan.


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