"My goal," says Stephen Keating, who takes over as business editor of the Denver Post on November 3, "would be that when people pick up the paper every day, they have to see what's in the business section."
If he manages this trick, Keating should package his formula and sell it to newspapers across the country, because he'd make a fortune. Business news can affect the average person much more directly than, say, the accounts of random violence that often wind up on page one, yet many readers are allergic to it. Demographically attractive capitalists naturally drift toward such coverage, as do entrepreneurial wannabes and investors who actually follow the market instead of blindly pouring their loot into 401(k) plans and hoping for the best. However, others tend to view the financial section as the equivalent of a math lesson; they'd rather spend their time in sports (comparable to recess) or the comics (like hanging out in the bathroom with the class clown).
Keating, a onetime Post reporter who's returning to the paper after a three-year absence, is a strong choice to help change this reputation, and he'll have the able assistance of his predecessor, Al Lewis, who gave up the business-editor title to become a full-time columnist. Still, Lewis's three years at the helm illustrate how large a task has been set before the prodigal son. Lewis is an enjoyably opinionated scribe, but his lively, bare-knuckled approach hasn't always carried over to the section as a whole. For each impressive edition, such as those anchored by reporter Kris Hudson's dogged coverage of Qwest's occasional ups and frequent downs, there have been efforts that are rote, dull or so nondescript that plenty of subscribers may not have given them a second glance.
Take the October 22 section. The main story concerned a $22.1 million grant to Colorado State University for the construction of a biodefense lab -- an interesting and timely topic that deserved prominent placement. But while reporter Jennifer Beauprez was able to get the grabby phrase "vaccines for anthrax, tuberculosis, smallpox and other bioterrorism agents" into her first paragraph, none of these words found their way into the sleepy headline and deck: "CSU Hopes Lab Leads to Biotech Hub: Public-Private Efforts Eyed." Even snoozier was the headline on a Kristi Arellano story that appeared above the fold: "2 Retail Centers Mulled in N. Colo." (There might be less active verbs than "mulled," but not very damn many.) As for art, the section front featured a couple of decent photos and a pair of exceedingly similar maps. The result was a generic look for a generic section padded with business briefs, wire stories and page after page of stock listings.
The business pullout from the same day's Rocky Mountain News was no earthshaker, but it put some of the Post's weaknesses into context. The headlines regularly made the stories appear more attractive than they might have seemed otherwise; for instance, a report about a Lockheed Martin defense contract ran under the oversized banner "Lockheed Jackpot." Moreover, the use of graphics, info boxes and the like provided diverse and energetic visuals, and the amount of locally generated material was impressive. The Rocky offered fourteen articles with local bylines; the Post managed six, if a short credited to "the Denver Post staff" is counted.
Such comparisons don't address the quality of the Post's content, which editor Greg Moore believes is much improved since he arrived in Denver last year. Back then, the plainspoken, pull-no-punches boss was upset that the Post was receiving routine beatings from national competitors. "I think our readers expect us to tell them important news about [local] companies and not be quoting the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times," he groused ("The Joy of Sections," August 8, 2002). Today he says his reporters have made sizable strides in this area; he describes the staff as "really good. They work hard and know their subject matter."
Of course, subscribers won't fully appreciate the talents of these individuals unless they read what is written. To get them to do so, Moore says, "we need better display for the stories -- to work with graphics and not be so dependent on the five-stories-and-a-photo layout. We have a graphics person and a designer who pay attention to those things, but we need to refocus that effort in a much more concentrated way so we can have greater coordination between designers, reporters and story editors."
Moore also worries about those sections that lack a blockbuster, or at least a compelling spotlight item. "The news regarding the big industries, like United and Qwest, gets big play, and it should. But on other days, some smaller stories get pretty big play, too, and I want to change that." He insists that he's "not against writing stories about folks who invent seat belts for dogs" -- a reference to reporter Vicky Lio's overview of a Boulder company's pup-protection product that opened on the July 17 business section's front page. "But I think there's a way to rethink the section so that won't be the centerpiece. We're a little inconsistent."
Maybe so, but the business department is much steadier than it was when Lewis arrived at the Post in early 2000. Prior to that, he was a reporter at the Rocky, but he says, "I was pretty burned out. They wanted me to write three stories a day, and I wasn't getting the time to do the things I really loved to do: investigate and do project work. I just didn't see a future over there." Then he received a call from Don Knox, the Post's business editor at the time. "Don's a very entrepreneurial guy," Lewis points out, "and he didn't have it in him to be business editor again; he'd done that at the Rocky. So he told me, 'How would you like to be business editor? Come over as an assistant for a year, and then you'll get the job.'" But something went wrong with the scheme. Knox left six months earlier than he'd originally anticipated, and when Lewis took the reins, he says, "I basically inherited a bank of empty desks."
That's an exaggeration, but not by much. In 2000, high-tech business publications, then among the hottest properties in journalism, were desperate to staff up, and many did so by raiding the biz departments at dailies. Typical was the now-defunct Interactive Week, a Ziff-Davis mag whose readership had quadrupled since its 1994 founding. In a matter of months, Interactive Week lured away five Rocky business employees by offering higher salaries and the opportunity to work from their homes ("Show Them the Money," November 16, 2000). Numerous Post types left under similar circumstances, and Lewis understood why: "People didn't see a lot of stability here. And they thought, 'I can make $85,000 a year working at home in my underwear.'"
Getting folks to work for less dough in a clothing-mandatory office was tough. "You just couldn't hire people," Lewis says. "They'd laugh at you. You'd call and tell them, 'I've got an opening for a business reporter at the Denver Post,' and they wouldn't even return your calls." So Lewis improvised. Instead of engaging folks with five or ten years' experience, as is common at the Post, he reached out to a couple of interns, Andy Vuong and the aforementioned Kristi Arellano, then a junior at the University of Denver, as well as to Kelly Pate Dwyer, who'd served as a temporary reporter under Knox. He also brought along Louis Aguilar, with whom he'd worked at the Colorado Springs Gazette, and convinced Hudson, a colleague during his Rocky days, to cross the street because "he was kicking my ass." During his first six months as editor, Lewis "hired or promoted two-thirds of the people here," and, in his opinion, "I got lucky. Most of the people turned out to be really great, and I got a lot of diversity on top of it -- a staff that was roughly 50 percent female and 25 percent minority."
Lewis also started writing columns, and although they were regular highlights of the section, they provided ammo for the likes of former Qwest head Joe Nacchio, a frequent Lewis target. As Lewis wrote in an October 10 column, Nacchio griped about the "negative tonality" of the Post's reporting during a 2001 meeting with him and Hudson -- but the conversation went further than that. "One of his arguments was, 'You say you're objective when you're business editor, but you're writing this crap,'" Lewis recalls.
In the end, Lewis is confident the Post met any and all objectivity standards, and assorted investigations into Qwest's activities bolster his argument. But Moore felt Lewis the writer was limited by the need to strike this balance. "He was drawing a box around himself as a columnist," he says. "A lot of the subject matter was national stuff; he wasn't really writing about local things, because he was trying to steer clear of conflicts. And I thought it would be better to let him do the full windup and just let it go." Lewis ultimately agreed. He stopped searching for a full-time business columnist and took the job himself.
This decision opened the door for Keating, who worked as a Post business reporter from 1994 to 2000. During that span, he became known as a writer who didn't stop at the surface of a story, a quality that served him well when he chronicled some of Colorado's cable cowboys in Cutthroat: High Stakes and Killer Moves on the Electronic Frontier, a book published in 1999. As its title implies, the tome was no puff piece, but it didn't scare off Liberty Media's Peter Barton, a longtime associate of TCI kingpin John Malone. Barton, who died of cancer in 2002 at age 51, hired Keating as executive director of the Privacy Foundation, a non-profit organization affiliated with DU that, among other things, tracks the development of technology that may be monitoring your activities at this very moment. (Last week, DU professor John Soma was named to replace Keating at the foundation.)
Thanks to the Barton connection, Keating got to know some of the people he once reported on in a new context. He doesn't want anyone to think the Post will go easy on movers and shakers he once moved and shook with if they get into trouble, because it won't. But because these encounters allowed him to "have conversations and build relationships with people in a more relaxed setting than you're able to do as a journalist, because everyone's worried that you're going to quote them," he suspects they'll contribute to deeper and more complete coverage. Likewise, he trusts that his duties as a Privacy Foundation spokesman, which led to interviews for the likes of USA Today and even a guest spot on The O'Reilly Factor, have helped him better understand the necessity of conveying sometimes complicated information in accessible ways. "The reason why the Wall Street Journal has such a broad readership is because they make the complex understandable," he says, "and that's something I try to do as a reporter and would hope to do as an editor."
He's less willing to spell out changes in the offing until he's gotten to analyze things from the inside, but Lewis has a few ideas about what's needed. "Some people have probably been on their beats a little too long," he says, "and some beats are either under-covered or over-covered. We really need to restructure. Not everyone is going to be happy with the way it comes out, but it needs to be done." There's also the matter of space. The Rocky makes more room for business, and one way of closing the gap would be for the Post to cut back on stock listings, whose usefulness in an era when most investors get updates online is open to question. Early evidence suggests that cuts wouldn't prompt an uproar. To start a Sunday real estate page, Lewis cut out a quarter of the company listings and girded himself for an onslaught of griping. He wound up receiving a grand total of three complaints from people wondering where specific updates had gone. After he directed that those companies be relisted, the problem was solved.
The challenge of getting business-phobic readers over their preconceptions won't be met so simply, but Keating would like to make progress in that direction. "To me, business is like the circulatory system of the community," he says. "People who want to check out the community's economic health do that by looking at the business section."
Words get in the way: According to William Shakespeare (or, as Mickey Rooney once referred to him, "Billy Shake"), brevity is the soul of wit. If so, Chris Lopez, a former Denver Post city editor, is making the world a wittier place.
Lopez presently serves as the managing editor for the Contra Costa Times, a newspaper headquartered in California's Bay Area that's owned by MediaNews Group, the Dean Singleton-led company that also holds title to the Post. He came to the attention of Grade the News, a journalism project affiliated with Stanford University, after issuing a memo in August that promised "a $50 bonus to reporters for front page stories shorter than 8 column inches -- about 300 words."
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John McManus, writing for Grade the News, paraphrased a Contra Costa Times staffer who "saw the memo as evidence of declining news standards at the paper." If such a story was deemed important enough to possibly bump an update about the occupation of Iraq or something equally serious to the inside pages, he wondered, "shouldn't it be fully reported, rather than briefed?" Meanwhile, an anonymous editor at the Oakland Tribune, another Singleton paper, was more concerned with saving money. "Why pay $50 when you can just cut the story?" he asked.
By the way, for those keeping score at home, this item falls over sixty words short of the 300-word limit. I'll take mine in cash, thanks.
Wet 'n' wild: In this space last week, I noted that attorney/Kobe commentator Craig Silverman seemed to be getting an inordinate charge out of discussing details of the case such as semen and yellow panties on the local and national airwaves. "Somebody hose this guy off," I concluded. Shortly after the edition hit the streets, a good-humored Silverman phoned, declaring that he was "fresh from the shower." He added that his interest in Bryant developments is strictly "legal, not carnal."
Now I'm the one who needs a shower.