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Slim, Fast

Mark Andresen

Ad revenue at many U.S. newspapers is sliding downhill faster than Jeremy Bloom at a freestyle skiing competition. For that reason, the Rocky Mountain News recently joined several major dailies from across the country, including the Boston Globe and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in offering buyouts intended to decrease their numbers. In an internal memo dated March 21, Rocky editor/publisher/ president John Temple announced that a "voluntary separation plan" would be presented to fifty employees age 55 and older with a minimum of ten years on the payroll of E.W. Scripps, the tabloid's owner. The goal is to cut twenty jobs, or just under 10 percent of the staff, in advance of a sweeping newsroom reorganization slated to take place by September 1.

There's no guarantee that the Rocky will reach this total. In April 2006, the Denver Post tried to trim 25 editorial gigs via a combination of voluntary-separation agreements and early-retirement packages, but only got thirteen takers. Of course, newspaper economics are even grimmer now than they were then, spurring conjecture that plenty of Rocky workers will take the new deal, which pays a week's salary up to 52 weeks for each six months of employment and features a health-care subsidy. Applications have to be in by April 2; they'll be accepted or rejected around ten days later.

Reporter Gary Gerhardt, who turned 65 on April 3, eagerly embraces the proposal. When he received Temple's e-mail, he was only days away from telling his bosses that he intended to retire from the Rocky, where he's worked since September 1967; hence, he views the package as "a godsend." However, he believes it "won't be easy to take for a lot of people in their late fifties who still have kids in high school or college. They're eligible, but they can't pull the string. They'll need a job for more than a year, and at that age, it's tough for them to leave and get something else."

The same goes for journalists in general if they want to remain in their chosen field. While not every daily is pushing the buyout solution, precious few have brought many new folks aboard of late. Temple emphasizes that the Rocky doesn't have a hiring freeze, pointing out that a part-time designer recently joined the staff. He concedes, though, that some positions haven't been filled, and lots of them opened up during the past year-plus. Among departees listed by a knowledgeable source are reporters Charlie Brennan, Jim Erickson and Sarah Langbein, designer Lori Montoya, and photographers Todd Heisler, Marc Piscotty, Maria Avila, David Barreda and Erik Javier Olvera. Moreover, writer Jim Sheeler is taking a sabbatical to pen a book based on his epic article "Final Salute," for which he won a Pulitzer Prize (as did aforementioned shutterbug Heisler, currently with the New York Times). Given the tremendous demand for Sheeler these days, speculation is rife that he's penned his last prose for the Rocky.

Remaining scribes in the metro section were stretched so thin from the depletion that shortly before unveiling the voluntary separation plan, Temple asked four feature writers -- Betsy Lehndorff, Lisa Ryckman, Erika Gonzalez and Brian Crecente -- to move to news. Feature-writing slots are some of the most coveted at newspapers, so this would seem to be a difficult sell. Nevertheless, three of the four reporters are playing ball.

Lehndorff, an interior design and gardening authority who's married to Rocky restaurant critic John Lehndorff, says she immediately agreed to the shift. "I want to continue to support the paper as a journalist," says Lehndorff, who covered hard news at the Boulder Daily Camera prior to joining the Rocky in 2000. "It's pretty altruistic, but we're grateful for what we've got." For her part, Ryckman has agreed to divide her time. She'll spend three days per week as a news reporter, reprising her role from the era when the JonBenét Ramsey case was the hottest story in the nation, and two days on soft-news specialties she's developed -- among them a readers' weight-loss challenge and fitness layouts built around photos of her in sporty workout togs demonstrating assorted exercises. Meanwhile, Gonzalez, corresponding by e-mail, reveals, "I am in discussions about creating a new beat that would utilize my experience working in the newspaper's business and entertainment departments."

That leaves Crecente, a former Rocky police reporter who several years ago began supplementing his primary assignments with occasional articles about a personal passion, video games. This platform, along with freelance work for Kotaku.com, one of the web's foremost gaming sites, helped him establish a national reputation that was only enhanced when Temple tailored a full-time game-related position for him at the Rocky in early 2006.

An incident that took place several weeks ago epitomizes the regard with which Crecente is held in the video-game community. He learned of a new project in development at Sony, and when he contacted the company for a comment, he was told that if he divulged anything about it, the firm would essentially blackball him in the future. Instead of buckling, Crecente ran the story complete with Sony's promise of retribution, thereby unleashing a torrent of criticism at the firm for its heavy-handed tactics. Sony subsequently caved, retracting the threat and normalizing relations with Crecente.

Why send Crecente back to the news department when he has such cred in a subject area beloved by younger readers, whom newspapers are supposedly desperate to attract? For Temple, it's a matter of priorities. "As we saw people leaving metro and we were unable to replace them, I didn't feel the financial situation would support his beat any longer," he says. Besides, Crecente could go back to his old formula, writing about video games in between crime scenes.

Crecente didn't dismiss this transfer out of hand -- yet he resigned from the Rocky within a few days. "I came to the conclusion that part of my life is sort of gone," he says. "I wanted to focus on gaming coverage, which I think is an important, growing medium." Gawker Media, which owns Kotaku, made that possible with a generous contract. On top of reporting and blogging for Kotaku, Crecente is overseeing five writers scattered across the planet, and he expects to add two more to his roster soon. Furthermore, Gawker execs have been trying to talk him into writing a book for the past year (they already have an agent lined up), and he can finally take them up on the proposition. Oh, yeah: He'll probably freelance some video-game articles for the Rocky, too.

Even so, the Rocky's feature section will take a significant hit due to Crecente's exit and the changing status of Lehndorff, Ryckman and Gonzalez. Temple plans to fill the space by relying more heavily on what he calls "local experts" -- non-journalists who can be cajoled into becoming contributors. In this context, he mentions YourHub.com, an allusion capable of sending a shudder down many a reader's spine. Still, he's confident that such a tack won't harm the feature pages, just as he's sure the Rocky will remain an interesting and useful product even as the staff shrinks. In his words, "There's no biblical writ that says there must be two hundred and X number of people to produce a good, quality newspaper." He adds, "I think there are many positive developments in journalism and media today. And this doesn't change that."

Good thing, since Scripps spokesman Tim Stautberg confirms that "publishers in a majority of our newspapers are offering voluntary separation plans" -- most notably the Memphis Commercial Appeal and the Ventura County Star. An exception is the Daily Camera, the largest paper encompassed by Prairie Mountain Publishing, a management partnership evenly split between Scripps and MediaNews Group, the Post's corporate parent. But Camera publisher Al Manzi doesn't rule out job cuts in the future. "We're just like any other business," he says. "We're always evaluating our staffing levels based on our business environment. Nothing is set in stone."

Such talk makes reporter Gerhardt even happier he'll be paid handsomely to voluntarily separate from the Rocky. "I'm starting to worry about the future of the paper itself -- and I would certainly hate to advise a young person coming into the game today to stay in newspapers," he admits. "These are very spooky times. I'm glad I'm not going to be around, except to watch it from the outside."


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