Denver Post covers Aurora theater shootings without official columnist

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Covering the Aurora theater shootings would have been a huge challenge for the Denver Post under any circumstances. But right now, the paper is operating under a strange handicap. For reasons that involve highly technical union rules, the Post doesn't officially have a columnist -- and its attempt to work around the situation with help from ex-columnist Chuck Murphy are currently being undercut by mixed messages on the broadsheet's website. Back in March, as you'll recall, the Post laid off high-profile staffers Mike Littwin and Penny Parker in a cost-cutting move, and transferred columnist Murphy into a behind-the-scenes social-media role after eliminating his position. Sources tell us the latter move was made because the Post's contract with the Denver Newspaper Guild would have required the paper to give Littwin Murphy's old gig if it had continued to exist.

These maneuvers left Tina Griego as the paper's only metro columnist. But then, in mid-May, Griego announced she was leaving the Post to relocate with her family to Virginia. The Post couldn't simply give Murphy her job, however, because Littwin and Parker had more seniority in the position. As such, the Post either had to rehire one of them or go without a columnist, as laid out in this contract clause:

Employees who are dismissed to reduce the force and employees who have elected to bump into another job title will be placed on a rehiring list, based on seniority, and will be rehired on a seniority basis in the old job title if and when a vacancy occurs.

How long must the Post remain columnist-free if managers don't want to pony up for Littwin's or Parker's services? According to the contract, "All rehire lists shall be maintained for one (1) year from the date of dismissal" -- meaning that no new columnist other than these two can be hired until March 2013.

The assault at the Aurora Century 16 during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises threw a serious kink into this plan. Having no columns in the mix on such a massive story was unthinkable. So since the assault, the Post has run a number of pieces under the "Commentary" heading -- some by sports columnist Woody Paige, who has occasionally written news columns over the years, and more by Murphy.

Murphy "is not listed as a columnist as far as I know," Post editor Greg Moore writes via e-mail. "He is writing pieces labeled as commentary, much the way sports writer Terry Frei does from time to time."

But while the print versions of Murphy's pieces don't describe him as a columnist, the ones online do not once but twice -- alongside his photo, which dates back to his columnist days, and under his byline, as seen in this screen capture:

After seeing this image, Moore replied, "That must be an error."

If so, it's one that has not been fixed at this writing. All of which suggests that going nearly a year without a columnist for a major metro daily wound up being harder than bean counters may have thought.

More from our Aurora Theater Shooting archive: "James Holmes Facebook tribute pages: Should person behind largest be sterilized?"

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