In retrospect, the saga that's come to be known as the Boulder land grab seems like a surefire hit. After all, the tale involves a prominent married couple — Richard McLean, an ex-judge and former mayor, and Edie Stevens, an attorney and onetime chair of the Boulder Democratic Party — who are using an obscure legal maneuver to take land owned by their neighbors, Susie and Don Kirlin. But back in October 2006, when McLean and Stevens first made their claim, Susie says that neither 9News nor the Boulder Daily Camera responded to her appeals for coverage. "I don't think people really understood the depth of the story and the ramifications of what could happen," she says, "so no one was interested." Likewise, news organizations initially ignored an October 2007 ruling by Boulder District Court Judge James Klein that awarded McLean and Stevens about a third of the Kirlins' lot — a parcel that may be worth $1 million.
How, then, did the Kirlins' predicament became big local news that's beginning to stir national interest? The answer appears to lie in the convergence of old and new media — and how readers can use online newspaper comments to essentially vote for what they feel deserves more coverage. Susie calls it "a real grassroots movement."
The seed was planted by another past Boulder mayor, Bob Greenlee, who writes a column for the Daily Camera. He, too, lives in the Kirlins' vicinity, but Susie says they've never met. Somehow, though, Greenlee heard about the controversy and made it the focus of "Trespassers Have Rights," a November 4 offering that provides an overview of the subject, which revolves around a concept dubbed "adverse possession"; a version of old squatter's-rights laws, the doctrine allows an individual who's used land for more than eighteen years to seize it legally if he can prove he's more attached to it than the actual deed-holder. In this instance, Stevens and McLean argued that their regular travel over paths on the Kirlins' lot during a quarter-century span proves that they deserve the property, and Klein agreed, much to Greenlee's astonishment. "The case clearly established that Stevens and McLean trespassed on their neighbor's property over a long-enough period and were therefore legally entitled to a portion of it. Free. Without paying rent or taxes," he wrote. "What a deal!"
The response from Camera readers to Greenlee's submission was immediate and passionate. Nearly ninety comments collected over the next few days, and a week's worth of letters pages featuring missives about the Kirlin affair racked up similarly impressive totals. Before long, word of the story began migrating to assorted blogs, not to mention talk radio: Dan Caplis and Craig Silverman spotlighted it on their KHOW radio program several times, beginning on November 12. So by the time the Camera finally printed a full-scale news article about the Kirlins — on November 15, eleven days after Greenlee's salvo appeared — the audience was primed and ready. The report quickly collected more than 280 comments, and a steady stream of followups have been just as popular with self-appointed Internet pundits. Witness the 300-plus comments on a November 17 piece built around a one-sentence remark by Stevens ("They lost the case, and they are disgruntled litigants"), which was one of the first public statements she or her husband offered after the story broke. Susie Kirlin would love for Stevens and McLean to defend their actions at greater length. "It'd make it a more interesting story," she says.
Camera editor Kevin Kaufman insists that the avalanche of feedback wasn't solely responsible for the decision to cover a dustup that had induced yawns at the paper over a year earlier. He points out that quite a few Camera articles attract a similar volume of comments, including ones that take on perennially popular topics, like the CU Buffs, or hot-button matters such as smoking in public places. Moreover, he says, Camera staffers had an immediate interest in following up on Greenlee's work and chalks up the delay in tackling it to resource-juggling. Still, Kaufman concedes that the barrage of online remarks did serve as an indicator of reader curiosity. "Certainly there's a lot of interest in the case," he acknowledges. "I wouldn't want to say that necessarily motivated us to do something. But as people see and hear about something, they contact us more and more, and certainly that keeps a spotlight on it."
Today, other news organizations are also logging visits related to their coverage of the Kirlins' dilemma — both Denver dailies and numerous area TV stations, plus the Los Angeles Times, whose overview popped up on December 3, and varied subscribers to United Press International, which synopsized the Times report. In addition, Don has guested on a Seattle radio station, and Susie says they've also been contacted by the New York Times and so many other info purveyors that they've launched a website, www.landgrabber.org, to help coordinate the contacts. For the most part, she's been pleased by the coverage, making note of just one small error: A Camera story inaccurately called Don, who's a commercial pilot, the heir to the world's largest Hallmark-store chain — a bit of misinformation that first surfaced in an old Wired magazine story about his jet-related side business. With Ron Tupa and Rob Witwer, a state senator and representative, respectively, promising future proposals to eliminate adverse-possession abuse and the Kirlins' planned appeal of Klein's ruling, more reportage — and more awareness of the issue — is assured. "I sure wish we'd won the case," Susie says, "but there's always got to be some good that comes out of everything, and this is the good."
And for that, she owes a debt to her Internet friends.
Column shifts: Denver Post readers were prepared to welcome a new columnist following the October departure of veteran Diane Carman. However, few expected to get the two-for-one deal announced on December 6. The paper revealed that David Harsanyi, up until then the only survivor from a four-person roster that once co-starred Carman, Jim Spencer and Cindy Rodriguez, would be moving to the op-ed pages, with reporters Susan Greene and William Porter winning the sweepstakes to fill the metro-columnist gaps. Their columns are slated to debut the week of December 16, with Harsanyi showing up in his new space at around the same time.
Harsanyi didn't request the transfer. "It was Greg's idea," he says, referring to Post editor Greg Moore, "but I was happy to accept it. I think the op-ed page is a more natural fit for me, especially since they're recasting the metro columnists as something more traditional."
Customarily, metro columnists are contrarians, not ideologues, but the position evolved differently at the Post in recent years. Although Spencer and Rodriguez, whom Moore anointed, provided balance in terms of gender and ethnicity, they both wrote from a progressive perspective that mirrored Carman's, turning the columnist slots into something of an echo chamber. Harsanyi, a scribe with conservative/libertarian leanings, was brought aboard in 2004 to add a splash of difference, making him the equivalent of an affirmative-action hire. But rather than looking for a new liberal to counter Harsanyi, Moore placed him in the op-ed arena and tabbed Greene and Porter, who hope to avoid right-left stereotypes.
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"I'm not looking for a soapbox," Greene says. "I really want to continue reporting, but just in a different way." She considers herself to be a progressive on some issues and a civil libertarian on others, with a splash of cynicism thrown in for good measure. Nevertheless, she wants her writing to go where her reporting takes her — and she's eager to venture into areas for which hard-news reporting didn't provide an outlet. "I'm not sure people I talk to all the time in my political-reporter role know that I'm a mom with two little kids," she notes. "And there are things I think about as a mom that I was never able to explore as a journalist before."
For his part, Porter stresses that "I'm not doing this column to flog any ideology.... I told Greg that I wasn't interested in writing about politics and policy, per se, except as how they might be filtered through a person who's the subject of a story." In his view, "Honorable people come from across the political spectrum, and so do idiots."
The trick is telling one from the other.