Rich Tosches has every right to be depressed. Last fall, his nine-year run as the Colorado Springs Gazette's most popular and controversial columnist came to an abrupt halt, motivating him to jump to the Rocky Mountain News in January. Too bad the Rocky position didn't work out, either, and he opted to pull the plug on February 3, around four weeks into his tenure. That's a couple of significant wounds in a short period of time, but Tosches isn't sitting around nursing them.
"I don't feel bad about anything that's happened," he says from his Colorado Springs home. "I think things are going to start being fun again."
Not that he's thrilled about how everything went down. He has particularly harsh words for Gazette publisher Tom Mullen, whom he holds largely responsible for what he sees as the deterioration of a once admirable newspaper. "It's almost stunning that he hasn't been fired," Tosches maintains. "He's dismantling the place, and I didn't want to watch anymore. It got too painful to work there."
Mullen, for his part, chooses not to respond to the most personal of Tosches's charges. "I don't normally comment on the opinions of one of our staff writers or former staff writers," he says. Nonetheless, he disputes the characterization of the Gazette as a paper on the slide, noting that "we still have, by far, the biggest and most powerful media audience in El Paso County."
A healthy portion of that readership loved Tosches's work, and so did his peers; the Colorado Press Association once named him the state's journalist of the year. Nonetheless, he had no shortage of adversaries. He considers himself to be a humor columnist -- a vocation he began practicing regularly during his eight years at the Los Angeles Times, where he toiled prior to 1993, when he joined the Gazette staff. Rather than limiting himself to innocuous giggles à la Dave Barry, however, Tosches often needled Colorado Springs institutions and newsmakers from a perspective that was considerably to the left of center. He mocked the Broadmoor resort for what he saw as its gluttonous thirst during a widespread drought, and he made a habit of ridiculing James Dobson and Focus on the Family, the powerful, Springs-based religious and cultural organization. "They'd have book burnings and then get angry because I made fun of them," Tosches says. He adds that "Dobson came to the paper on more than one occasion. Focus put enormous pressure on the paper because of me."
Although Tosches thinks ideology may have played a role in the stripping of his column, Jeff Thomas, the Gazette's managing editor, states categorically that it did not. "Rich wrote something on the order of 1,300 columns for us during his tenure," Thomas says, "and if he were as controversial as some people want to assume, we would have pulled his column after thirteen, not 1,300. If we're going to have thin skin, well, nine years is an awfully long time to be thin-skinned."
Whatever the case, Tosches was notified in September that his column was getting the ax, and he would be reassigned to the features section. He subsequently told the Colorado Springs Independent, the area's alternative weekly, that his specific beats would be seniors and local authors like himself; he's the writer of a 2002 fly-fishing tome with the saucy title Zipping My Fly: Moments in the Life of an American Sportsman. In his Independent interview, Tosches downplayed his frustration over the move. "I don't get disappointed anymore," he insisted. "Things come and they go. I have a job, and I like my job. When this is done to some people, they get all excited and dart out in the middle of traffic. I'm not going to dart into traffic."
Gazette readers presumably resisted the urge to do likewise, but they didn't hide their displeasure. Thomas informed the Independent that he received over 240 phone calls complaining about the death of Tosches's column, supplemented by e-mails aplenty. He included a sampling of these missives, complete with his responses, in a hefty document viewable online at www.csindy.com/csindy/current/webextra.html. One complainant wrote, "I wondered when the right wing in this town would be able to get rid of him [from] your paper, and now I just wanted to let you know I have absolutely no reason to read the Gazette." And a grammatically challenged but pithy reader hit Thomas with the question, "Are you the Nazi that's getting rid of Rich's column?"
He's no Third Reicher, but Thomas did pull the trigger in this instance. He says the primary reason was a lack of bodies at the Gazette, whose owner, Freedom Communications, has been feeling the financial pinch in recent years. (In 2003, Freedom was put up for sale, and Dean Singleton's MediaNews Group made a substantial bid for the chain. In the end, the kin of R.C. Hoiles, the company's founder, retained it.) Thomas steers clear of specifying how many editorial-department employees have been lost through attrition over the past several years, saying only that "our newsroom staffing levels are smaller now than they've been in a good number of years." Nonetheless, numerous Gazette readers have noticed that local matters of great interest, such as repercussions from the scandal at the Air Force Academy, are sometimes dealt with via wire stories -- a clear indication of a significant manpower shortage.
"You reach the tipping point where, if you don't have the critical mass of solid day-in, day-out journalism going into your paper, you can't afford a metro columnist, and I felt we were simply at that point," Thomas elaborates. "The time had come to put people in reporting positions where I could, and Rich, who's as talented a reporter as you'll find anywhere, could write stories that could go anywhere in the newspaper. I won't pretend that it wasn't a painful decision, but the resources available to us persuaded me that it was the right decision."
Thomas stresses that he was under no pressure from publisher Mullen to target his metro columnist, but Tosches isn't so sure. "[Mullen] said to someone, 'I don't know how anyone thinks he's funny. He hasn't written anything that's funny since I've been here,'" Tosches recalls. He characterizes Mullen as a slash-and-burn specialist whose tactics have not only crushed Gazette morale ("If you want to interview some really unhappy people, the newsroom is the place to go"), but driven away readers. According to him, "You don't hear very good things about the Gazette on the street. [Mullen] thinks he's improved the newspaper because it's got a better bottom line, but its circulation is going down the toilet."
The numbers certainly have been higher in the past. The Gazette's current circulation of just over 95,000 on weekdays and nearly 112,000 on Sundays is down by approximately 3,000 and 6,000 copies, respectively, over the past four years -- and by more than that in comparison with totals from the late '80s, when Colorado Springs' population of almost 400,000 was at least one-fourth smaller. Mullen attributes this situation to the post-9/11 recession, which resulted in the loss of thousands of jobs in El Paso County, as well as the deployment of over 10,000 local members of the military, most stationed at Fort Carson. "We aren't happy with these trends," he says, "but we expect to see them reversed when the economy begins to cooperate."
As for Tosches, he had no interest in sticking around to see if the publisher was right. "Working for Tom Mullen became an embarrassment," he says. "At some point, you need to have a little dignity." So he started hunting for employment alternatives, and settled on the Rocky, whose editor/publisher/president, John Temple, is a fan of his work: "Rich is a very talented writer, and we think very highly of him," he says. Unfortunately, the logistics of living in the Springs with a wife and two children, ages eleven and fourteen, and working in Denver proved too complicated.
"I wanted to do as much as I could from home, but they wanted me to be a 'presence in the newsroom' -- that's how they termed it," Tosches allows. "And, quite frankly, my kids want me to be a presence in their lives, and when you look at it that way, it was pretty easy to figure out. It's not really [the Rocky's] fault. Newspapers are newspapers. You can't be real flexible and fit in at a newspaper."
At least Tosches has some attractive options. He's received feelers from a radio station and a television outlet in the Springs, an offer to freelance for the Rocky and pen columns for the Independent, a meeting this week with Post editor Greg Moore, and promising leads at numerous national magazines. In the past, his work has appeared in publications as disparate as Sports Illustrated and Modern Maturity, where "if you write about people who limp, they like it." Plus, Penguin-Putnam, the publishing house that put out Zipping My Fly, wants him to get going on another book. As such, he's hopeful that he can remain solvent without having to work at one job he hates or another that requires a commute from hell.
"Whatever the future brings will be largely up to me," he says. And after the last several months, that sounds mighty fine to him.
Alumni report: In the view of former Denver Post columnist Chuck Green, Rich Tosches was "the best columnist in the state." Management at the Post once made the same argument about Green, but this opinion changed over time due to a rash of errors and a surfeit of unintentional wackiness. In May 2002, shortly after Post editor Glenn Guzzo learned that he would be replaced by the aforementioned Greg Moore, Green quit or was forced out, depending on what version of events you believe. That same month, Rocky Mountain News international editor Holger Jensen walked away from his chores under equally confusing circumstances ("Three the Hard Way," May 16, 2002).
Less than two years later, Green, Guzzo and Jensen are living very different lives, but they have one thing in common: All three seem happier without their prestigious jobs than they were with them.
After working out a financial settlement with the Post (he was assisted by legal eagle Dan Caplis), Green, his wife, Susan, and his ninety-something mother-in-law moved to Pueblo, which he refers to affectionately as "Scottsdale North." Yet he still had the itch to write a column, and in less than a year, he's cobbled together a mini-syndication network of over a dozen Colorado newspapers, including the Pueblo Chieftain and the Denver Herald-Dispatch, that subscribe to his twice-weekly missives. Using his math, he says he's got "a total cumulative circulation of 195,260" -- a figure that trails just behind the Post and the News in terms of reach, giving him "probably the third-highest circulation in the state." Green reveals that the only paper to have dropped his column was the Fort Morgan Times, a sister publication of the Post. He doubts that's a coincidence.
"I'm not doing it for the money," he goes on. "If I was doing it for the money, I'd be starving. It's just something to do a few hours a week. I'm not very good at carpentry, but this is something I've done all my life."
Green's current method is a return to the one he employed at the Post, circa the mid-'90s. Back then, "I wrote a personal opinion column," he emphasizes. "Then, for reasons that I still don't understand, they tried to change what the column was. They tried to tell me what subjects to write about and how to write about them. I think they were looking for a feature story with my picture next to it. But now I'm back to writing what I think an opinion column should be. I'm not finding someone whose opinion I agree with and quoting them. I'm expressing my opinion."
Eyeballing things personally isn't required. In recent months, he's taken the long-distance approach to topics such as the Kobe Bryant trial, the CU sex scandal and the Iowa caucuses. Even if Chieftain headlined this last effort "You May Send Me to Baghdad But Keep Me From Des Moines," the sentiment is debatable. In truth, Green is enjoying column writing again, because he can take on Baghdad and Des Moines from the comfort of his Pueblo home.
Guzzo's put even more distance between himself and Denver, relocating to Jacksonville, Florida, last April. Since leaving the Post, he's worked a few gigs as a consultant and made himself available as an expert witness in respect to several media-oriented legal matters. He's also received a number of feelers about editing positions, but none felt quite right to him. "If I end up back in the newsroom, it'll either be as a top editor of a paper of some ambition or as a journalist working on great stories," he says. "I don't need to have the top job or a prestige title. I just need to feel that I'm making a difference."
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To that end, Guzzo has gotten heavily involved with the Committee for Concerned Journalists, an organization co-founded by William Kovach, a New York Times vet and former curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University. Under this umbrella, Guzzo's helped stage journalism workshops at a number of U.S. newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, and even traveled to Venezuela, where he advised scribes who face fearsome obstacles in attempting to report about the autocratic regime of the country's president, Hugo Chavez. In late 2003, Guzzo discloses, "the government issued what was essentially a media enemies' list, naming the newspapers, TV stations and, by name, the commentators who are adversarial to the national army."
On a much lighter note, Guzzo has been indulging in a lifetime passion: Strat-O-Matic. It's a baseball-simulation game that "differs from what's commonly referred to as fantasy baseball, because you're using cards or computer images of real players based on the statistics they've compiled," he explains. "You can play using statistics from the most recently completed season or seasons from the past, dating back to 1920." From 1991 to 1999, Guzzo put out a publication called STRAT FAN, and today he contributes to assorted Strat-O-Matic websites and is under contract to write a book about the pastime. He's got a deal to write a journalism text as well. Guess which one he's more apt to relish assembling.
Like Guzzo, Jensen understands how nice it is to shift gears. At the Rocky, he routinely analyzed events in the Middle East and other far-flung parts of the world, and while he continues to offer "some foreign-affairs commentary for European papers off and on," he says, he's spent more time covering hunting and fishing, his longtime hobbies. He serves as fishing- report coordinator and edits big-game brochures for the Colorado Division of Wildlife on a contract basis, contributes to Colorado Outdoors, a division publication, and freelances for the likes of Rocky Mountain Game & Fish and Fishing & Hunting News. In conversation, he can come across as gruff and guarded, but when he's asked how he feels about wildlife writing, his mood brightens. "It's infinitely enjoyable," he enthuses.
Evidently, people who've left the Post and the News have all the fun.