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Swing Shift

Mark Andresen

Since the mid-'90s, morale at the Denver Post has been an up-and-down affair. And after a run of sunniness, the mood may be clouding over again.

The latest flood of grumbling was prompted by the reassignment of several veteran reporters to suburban beats -- decisions that mystify numerous observers inside the paper and out. But editorial types are finding plenty of other things to gripe about as well, including dissatisfaction over the way higher-ups at the Post are covering -- or failing to cover -- local news. One person puts it bluntly: "The Rocky is kicking our ass."

Such tail-whuppings were commonplace under Dennis Britton. During his three-year reign as editor, "El Britto Grande," who departed in 1999, spawned a cotton gin's worth of puff pieces, a "Dennis Britton Go Home Page" on the Internet, and a staff-wide depression of the sort that's commonly associated with mass suicide.

But following the arrival of current editor Glenn Guzzo, the outlook brightened considerably. For one thing, the Post's reporting of the Columbine High School massacre earned a Pulitzer Prize that placed the broadsheet in the national journalism spotlight for the first time in ages. (Some observers see the honor as tainted, because managing editor Jeanette Chavez was on the jury that made the Post a Pulitzer finalist. But Chavez told the now-defunct Brill's Content that she followed contest rules against touting her paper's coverage.) For another, the Post emerged as first among equals in the joint operating agreement that merged its business operations with those of the Rocky Mountain News. The News doesn't appear to be on the brink of financial collapse, but it lost more than $15 million last year, while the Post reportedly edged into the black.

Nonetheless, this undisclosed profit wasn't nearly large enough to allow Post owner Dean Singleton to hire one hundred new editorial employees, which he had announced he would do over the next few years after the JOA scheme was made public. On the contrary, the paper began slimming down with the help of an early-retirement option designed to seduce longtimers with sizable salaries. Among those who headed into the sunset were Janet Bingham, an education writer; Ginny McKibben, the point person in Arapahoe County; and George Lane, an Adams County specialist. (Bingham departed last August, McKibben split in late 2001 and Lane is expected to exit at the end of March.) Other departures added to the strain: Stacie Oulton, who'd been toiling in Jefferson County, left last fall to become Lakewood's public-information officer, and Susan Besze Wallace recently went on maternity leave. And attempts to fill gaps created new ones. A case in point: When Monte Whaley took Bingham's place in education territory, his previous bureau, Boulder, was left unmanned.

These vacancies might have been more obvious were it not for the Post's concentration on world news in the wake of September 11. The paper has maintained a presence abroad since shortly after the collapse of the World Trade Center (at present, Steve Lipsher is reporting from terrorist hot spots), and while Singleton, in a previous interview, declined to specify how much this was costing, the figure presently zipping along the Post grapevine is $300,000.

Whether that estimate is accurate or not, the Post's international commitment hasn't been cheap. It's not surprising, then, that such a hefty portion of editorial space has been devoted to dispatches about the war on terrorism, be they self-generated or picked up from wire services. But because of this focus, numerous reporters complain that they're having difficulty getting hometown stories into print -- and their frustration is tripled when they see such items in the News. Consider the tale of Nolan Thornton, a five-year-old with cerebral palsy whose wheelchair and a computer that allowed him to communicate were stolen. A Post source says a representative at his paper was contacted about Nolan's plight but passed on the story, only to see it turn up in the January 19 Rocky, not to mention practically every TV newscast in town.

Granted, the view that the News is spanking the Post on local news isn't universally shared. "The Rocky certainly was ahead of us on the latest Columbine developments," Guzzo acknowledges via e-mail. But, he adds, "both papers get a jump on the other from time to time. Overall, I think the Post's coverage of local news compares very favorably. That's certainly so, in my view, on a good many important local stories of the past year -- Xcel, energy charges, Qwest, terrorism-related stories, police shootings, education, legislative coverage, forest fires, Dan Issel's troubles..."

Actually, the Post had to play catch-up in regard to Issel, with the News beating its rival into print by a day, despite the fact that the Post's broadcast partner, Channel 9, broke the story ("He Got Blame," December 20, 2001). But such embarrassments don't fully explain the sweeping nature of the beat reassignments. Some of the moves seem roughly parallel: Sheba Wheeler, previously situated in Denver, will now be reporting from Aurora; Karen Rouse, most recently rooted in Douglas County, is going to Arapahoe County; and Jim Hughes, who usually writes about state and regional matters, has been sent to Boulder County in what's called a temporary mission. The Hughes move is the only change designated that way, but Guzzo points out that, given the fluid nature of the news business, there's not much that can be regarded as permanent.

Other switches are tougher to read, yet they can hardly be regarded as promotions. Mike McPhee, the federal-courts reporter, is heading to Adams County, with Susan Greene, released post-September 11 from her responsibilities on the national desk, taking his place. (Informants reveal that McPhee was called in during his vacation to receive the good news.) J. Sebastian Sinisi, a general-assignment reporter based in Denver, is going to Douglas County. Kieran Nicholson, who worked his way up from the circulation department to the Jefferson County bureau, has been ordered to cover the night police beat -- a real gut-shot. And Ann Schrader, the paper's science and/or medical writer since time immemorial -- as well as a steward for the Denver Newspaper Guild, which represents editorial workers at the Post -- is being shipped to Jefferson County. To Patrick O'Driscoll, a former Post reporter who now works for USA Today, handing Schrader a ticket to Jeffco is "the equivalent of taking a rocket scientist and assigning her to work the counter at Radio Shack."

None of these folks were willing to chat about their plights, but their peers are talking up a storm, albeit anonymously -- and although some of their theories about the Post's motives center on the desire to increase and improve local coverage, other speculations take on a considerably darker hue. Many wonder if squeaky wheels were singled out for punishment or if age was a factor: McPhee, Schrader and Sinisi are all over fifty and presumably are bringing home bulkier checks than some greenhorn fresh out of journalism school would. There's also conjecture that the man who pulled the strings on the operation was managing editor Larry Burrough, who just happened to leave for vacation the day after the hammer came down. Displeasure with Burrough, on the job since 2000, is growing among reporters, with complaints generally centering on his frequent absences and inaccessibility. One Postie goes so far as to call him "worse than Dennis Britton," an insult that, by Post standards, is on par with "skankier than Dennis Rodman."

Burrough failed to reply to an e-mail note seeking comment. As for Guzzo, he doesn't feel that any of these hypotheses "stand up to scrutiny" and describes the process in much more pragmatic terms. The first batch of departures "created immediate coverage needs in fast-growing areas where we have many readers," he writes. "We are in the process of recruiting to fill vacancies on the local-news staff. But these coverage needs could not be solved soon enough through hiring to fill vacancies. So we filled the needs by reassigning existing staff." He expects "several" new hires to be made within the next six months or so, and at least one of the individuals will probably be bound for the suburbs. Guzzo dismisses any hint of retribution in this musical-chairs match: "Every one of the people being reassigned has talent, and talent enough to be our primary reporter in these counties."

Most of these moves have already been made, with the rest likely to come after the Olympics. Like the News, the Post has approximately twenty bodies in Salt Lake City -- the assumption being that Utah is as close as the Games will ever get to Colorado, which spurned the chance to host the festivities in 1976. If you think a luge race hundreds of miles away constitutes local news, you're probably feeling like Bill Clinton in a hot tub full of McDonald's French fries and bimbos covered with ketchup. If you don't, tough luck.

It's technically possible for the reassigned journalists to fight their fates. The contract between the Post and the Denver Newspaper Guild states that "the publisher's right to make normal transfers is not restricted, but such transfers are not to be made for the purpose of whim or harassment," and similar language appears with regard to night assignments. To date, however, no grievances have been filed -- and considering the current sorry state of the newspaper job market, it's unlikely that any will be.

Any journalist with a job is supposed to be a happy journalist right now. But if that's true, why is there so little joy in Postville?

Designated driver: If Denver journalists were asked to vote for the local scribe most qualified to report about 9/11 fallout from overseas, Rocky Mountain News international editor Holger Jensen would surely win. But while the majority of his columns on related topics in the months after the strikes were well reasoned and informative, all of them were written in Denver until January 30, when he filed his first story from abroad -- out of Israel's West Bank.

Why the delay in his travels? A clue appeared in the June 7, 2001, News, which reported that two days earlier, Jensen had been arrested by Golden police for driving under the influence. He was subsequently charged with DUI, a first offense, which was pleaded down to a DWAI -- driving while ability impaired. But the legal encumbrances that followed kept him rooted in Colorado through the remainder of 2001.

None of this made Jensen especially happy, as he emphasized in a letter publicly filed in Jefferson County court records. After noting that his driver's license was suspended by the Department of Motor Vehicles for the period between August 17 and November 18, Jensen wrote, "As foreign editor at the Rocky Mountain News, I have been under strong pressure from my bosses to travel since the events of Sept. 11, but that has been impossible because of DUI classes, court and DMV hearings and my lack of a driver's license. I would not be able to rent a car in the countries I must travel to, which would make it not only impossible to do my job but downright dangerous in places like Pakistan or Uzbekistan. One sometimes needs a quick means of escape from anti-American mobs." Such dangers are real: On February 11, photographer George Kochaniec Jr., who's accompanying Jensen, was injured in Palestinian territory. He'll recover.

In an e-mail to Westword last week, Jensen questioned the news value of revealing the reasons he's only now reporting from far-flung locales, even though the question has been a major topic of conversation in journalism circles since last summer. But he also acknowledged that "a three-month license suspension, three months of Level II education and 24 hours of community service" were largely responsible for holding up his departure. Jensen added that he's put the DWAI behind him, and he expects to take more trips to regions in the news after returning from the Middle East.

If my editor had ordered me to go there, I'd be at a bar right now. Make mine a triple.