Post Staffers Are Under Pressure

Lucky thing journalists are trained to work under difficult circumstances. If they weren't, Denver Post reporters would have been practically paralyzed for the past two months.

The anxiety began ratcheting up on April 23, when editor Greg Moore announced that economic shortfalls necessitated the issuance of a buyout package — the second such deal offered over a twelve-month span. This time around, the paper was looking to slice as many as 25 jobs governed by Denver Newspaper Guild-negotiated contracts, and up to a dozen Guild-exempt positions. Moore made it clear that if enough savings weren't generated by voluntary departures, layoffs would be coming shortly thereafter.

As a result, Post toilers have operated under a heavy burden of uncertainty during recent weeks, with no one able to state with confidence which of them would be around for the long (or at least longer) haul, and who was bound for the sidewalk. Tensions rose again on June 9 thanks to a Moore memo announcing that only sixteen people had accepted the buyout, and they increased further after a June 15 e-mail from Jeanette Chavez, the Post's managing editor/administration, listed just fourteen takers; veteran reporter Mike McPhee and columnist Diane Carman, who were part of the earlier tally, changed their minds. In the interim, Moore revealed that five others were leaving the Post via "involuntary separation" (a euphemism on par with "Peacekeeper missile"), including Sunday Perspective editor Todd Engdahl and columnist Jim Spencer, whose auto-reply message on his Post e-mail account now sports the plaintive plea "I need a job." Still, the sum of these departures remained a long way from 37, leaving many younger employees fearful that they'd be making up the difference, since the Guild pact calls for layoffs based on seniority.

The situation took another unexpected turn on June 19, the date of Moore's latest memo. After acknowledging the "pins-and-needles existence" that marked the past week, he declared that "through a combination of monetary cuts and tough personnel reductions, we are now on track to meet our targeted budget number for next year."

To reach this goal, two more Guild-exempt members of the Post team took bullets: assistant city editor Diane Alters and Jeff Roberts (no relation), a computer-assisted-reporting editor. On top of that, Moore wrote, "we have cut the budgets for travel, syndicates and freelance to achieve substantial savings and will be eliminating a number of part-time positions." (At least six part-timers, including well-known reporter Jenny Deam, have been told their services are no longer required.) Because of these measures, he went on, "I believe we're done for now. Other needed savings in the upcoming budget year we hope to get through staff attrition."

That doesn't mean it's back-to-normal time quite yet, though. Moore, who declined to comment for this column because he hadn't been able to speak with employees by press time, is in the midst of a major newsroom reorganization that "will involve new duties for a number of people," he wrote. "We hope to roll it out soon for digestion, reasonable refinements and feedback."

These reactions should help determine how the slimmed-down Post steps into the future. Cynics fear that fifty-and-over employees who were eligible for the buyout but decided against signing up will be pushed from comparatively cushy positions into unpleasant ones (hello, night shift) in the hopes that they'll quit — a move that would save the paper some significant coin. Even if the Post is as sensitive as possible in respect to new assignments, however, some people are apt to be unhappy anyhow. With that in mind, plenty of newsroomers at both the Post and the Rocky Mountain News, which just went through its own buyout drama, are said to be looking at their professional options. Indeed, one of the last projects overseen by Post recruitment boss Carla Kimbrough-Robinson before being let go at the same time as Engdahl and Spencer was (irony alert) a June 1 job-search seminar. The first line of the memo about this event read: "Thinking of making a career transition?"

Columnist Carman had been. "I'm very worried about the industry and the direction it's going, and the atmosphere around newspapers all over the country," she acknowledges. "I thought, if the newspaper business isn't going to be there for all the years I'd like to work and I'm going to have to start another career, why wait?" But in the end, she continues, "I had to go with my heart and not follow my head."

This switch was most likely cheered by her supervisors. Earlier this year, the paper had a whopping four columnists, but the dreadful Cindy Rodriguez decamped for Detroit two months ago, and Spencer became a downsizing victim — meaning that had Carman split, only the usually conservative David Harsanyi would have remained at what's seen, rightly or wrongly, as an editorially liberal publication. Not that Carman is sticking around to maintain ideological balance. "Trouble is," she says, "I love my job."

Oftentimes this gig requires that Carman try to make sense of complex situations. Still, she's at a loss when it comes to the events she and her fellow Posters have just experienced.

"While everybody wants to find a villain in this, I don't really think there is one," she allows. "The villain is what's happening to the newspaper industry, and the economic realities. As much as I'd like to say somebody's really screwed up and we should go after some bad guy, I just can't find one."

Grave concerns: Years before Rocky Mountain News reporter Jim Sheeler won a richly deserved Pulitzer Prize for "Final Salute," a 2005 opus honoring fallen Marines, he developed an unusual specialty: long-form obituaries. Many of his finest efforts have been collected in Obit, a terrific new book from Boulder's Pruett Publishing — and if many of the sections are tear-inducing, Sheeler notes that the pages also contain humor. "It may sound strange to say you'll laugh out loud when you read a book called Obit," he says, "but I've read some of these to people, and they do laugh out loud."

Although many Denverites were first introduced to Sheeler's obits when he freelanced for the Post, he developed his chops at the now-defunct Boulder Planet. "Part of my job was to type in obituaries that came over the fax," he recalls, "and I realized when I was doing that how much we were missing — how much was behind those five or six lines. So I decided that every week I'd write a real story about somebody who'd never been in the paper before." This concept is epitomized by his emotionally devastating tribute to Johnny Richardson, a jazz-loving shoe-shiner who died alone at 74. A reader whose comment is preserved on Obit's jacket offered a telling review of the piece: "Even the President doesn't get an obituary that good."

This phrase neatly captures a major subtext of Sheeler's work — lives of prominent officials or celebrities are no more significant than anyone else's — and he wishes more journalists shared his philosophy. "Especially with the problems newspapers are having now, focusing on local people whose stories have never been told is one of the few things we have left," he says. "It's something that absolutely should be expanded, and something that readers would pick up the paper for. It's not something you can do in a three-inch brief on the web."

Obit will be followed by a splashier tome: a Final Salute book, to be published by Penguin Press around Memorial Day 2008. Additionally, Sheeler is working with a producer who's hoping to attract financing for a documentary about another of his profile subjects, Brett Lundstrom, the first Native American tribe member to die fighting in Iraq. But despite persistent buzz to the contrary, he plans to return to the Rocky after delivering his final draft of Salute in early September.

Meanwhile, Sheeler has three Obit-related events scheduled: a 7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 21, book signing at the Tattered Cover, 2526 East Colfax Avenue; a free reading at the Rocky/Post auditorium, 101 West Colfax Avenue, at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, June 26; and a noon luncheon on Wednesday, June 27, at the Denver Press Club, 1330 Glenarm Place ($20 tickets include lunch reservations). The book clearly means a lot to him, in part because exploring death set him on his life's path. As he puts it, "I couldn't have done Final Salute if I hadn't written obituaries for ten years."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts