Journalists at the state’s largest newspaper once wondered how much more they’d have to endure. Now they’re finding out.
The building on West Colfax Avenue that houses the Denver Post’s headquarters used to be home to the now-shuttered Rocky Mountain News as well. —Photography by Matt Nager
It's 7:54 in the morning when Jesse Paul swipes his employee badge across a key-card lock outside the Denver Post’s eighth-floor office and swings open the glass door.
“The gunslinger arrives!” reporter Kirk Mitchell hollers to Paul, one of the newspaper’s youngest and most prolific writers. Paul smiles and adjusts the leather satchel hanging off his shoulder. He’s wearing a blue-and-white checkered shirt, which is tucked into black Banana Republic chinos and cinched with a brown thrift-store belt embossed with “COLORADO” on the back. His dark hair is cut short, and his trimmed beard makes him look older than his 24 years, but just barely. He passes a series of newly vacated desks—the aftermath of buyouts and layoffs that eliminated nearly a fifth of the newsroom this summer—before reaching his own messy island piled with months-old newspapers. Nearby, a small notecard reads: “The Time For a Raise is NOW!” Paul sets his bag on the floor next to his chair and takes a quick glance through the dim, nearly empty newsroom.
Before he can settle in, breaking-news editor Sara Hansen looks up from her computer screen and calls Paul over. She’s just a few yards away at a mission-control-like half circle of desks that overlooks a series of screens. Two mammoth televisions beam local and national networks to the newsroom. Another two screens detail the top stories on denverpost.com. At this moment, 3,082 people are on the site.
Hansen lists the day’s most important potential stories. There’s a court hearing in northeast Colorado: The Sedgwick County sheriff was arrested a day earlier, but no one knows the details. “Think it’s worth going out for an advisement hearing?” Hansen asks.
“Well,” Paul says, “the sheriff will be there. There might be a bigger story, but I need to get the arrest affidavit to see how bad this is.” Sedgwick County requires a formal request by fax, Paul tells Hansen. “I’ll write out something and send it over,” he says.
Hansen nods, then says a Colorado Bureau of Investigation report has been released in Park County on a cop shooting from earlier this year. A deputy and the suspect were both killed. All the big local television stations had the report last night, but it needs to be picked up in person. It’s a nearly two-hour drive, one way. “Is it worth the round trip to pull you off?” Hansen asks. Paul says he’ll call KMGH (Channel 7)—the Post’s TV partner—and see if he can get the files from them.
“The Tasmanian Devil can do it,” says Mitchell, one of Paul’s pod mates. “Taz can do anything.”
Paul turns to his computer and sends an email to the spokeswoman from a suburban district attorney’s office about another story. When the email’s kicked back to his inbox, Paul realizes his mistake. He sent the email to the woman’s old Denver Post address. The moment is a reminder of his newspaper’s current situation: Paul’s intended recipient had taken a buyout a couple of months earlier.
Newspapers across the country have been dealing with unprecedented turmoil for most of this century, but Post staffers can be excused for feeling like the past year has been exceptional for the pain they have had to endure. In addition to buyouts and layoffs and a substantial newsroom restructuring, this past March journalists at the Post saw their beloved editor, Gregory L. Moore, abruptly resign amid rumors he refused corporate orders to cut more jobs from an already gutted staff. Moore, who’d reached near-iconic status in his 14 years leading the paper, picked the newsroom to announce he was leaving, rather than the first-floor auditorium where big news—and frequently bad news—was often delivered. Though he’d soon be gone, Moore didn’t want his staff thinking they would be, too.
During his announcement, Moore said he’d recently looked at a staff photo from 2013. It was taken right after the Post won a Pulitzer Prize in breaking news for its coverage of the Aurora theater shooting, the ninth Pulitzer in the paper’s history and the fourth under Moore. “I realized there are more than 50 people in that photo who aren’t here anymore,” Moore told his staff. It was a somber recognition that resonated within the newsroom.
In late April, about a month after Moore left, the Post’s journalists were called to that first-floor auditorium of their building at 101 West Colfax Avenue. The paper’s publisher, a balding newspaper veteran named Mac Tully, told the journalists 26 staffers needed to go. The previous year, 20 staffers had taken buyouts, which eliminated some of the paper’s most senior staff. Now Tully was demanding even more.
Reporters were apoplectic. With another 26 staffers gone, the newsroom would be down to just more than 100 journalists, or roughly one-third of the staff’s size from 10 years earlier. Inside the auditorium, the reporters began doing what they do best: They asked questions. Was it true the Post was on its way to recording $20 million in profits this fiscal year? Was this simply a money grab by the paper’s hedge-fund owner? Would the staff cuts be turned into executive bonuses? Would this be the end of newsroom reductions?
Tully couldn’t, or wouldn’t, answer some of the questions—or at least he couldn’t offer answers that would satisfy this group. “We’ve cut, cut, cut, and we’re not given a long-term plan for where this is heading,” says Joey Bunch, a Post journalist for 14 years. “Where does this end? We’re beaten down. We’ve done everything asked of us. We’ve done more with less. We’ve won Pulitzers. It’s never enough.” By early June, almost 20 percent of the already shrunken staff was gone, including one member of the newspaper’s digital team—a department that had been untouchable in the past. “All of a sudden,” says Rebecca Risch, the paper’s digital director, “things got very real.”
A few days before the buyouts were made official, at least 50 staffers walked out of the newsroom and onto the sidewalk outside the Post’s building. Wearing T-shirts with “#NewsMatters” printed on them—a slogan coined by the NewsGuild, the journalists union—the staffers protested the newspaper’s ownership group, Digital First Media (DFM), and its owner, Alden Global Capital, the New York City hedge fund the Post’s reporters held most responsible for decimating their newsroom. For five years, the Post has been overseen by DFM, the result of a Chapter 11 filing by the paper’s former owner, Denver-based MediaNews Group, which took control of the Post in 1987. With the purchase of MediaNews properties elsewhere and an eventual merger with the Pennsylvania-based Journal Register Company, DFM became the nation’s second-largest newspaper chain by circulation, behind Gannett Company, with 67 daily papers, including nine in Colorado.
As part of the protest, journalists asked that DFM sell the Post to a local buyer, as it had done with the Salt Lake Tribune in April, when Utah’s largest newspaper was bought by Paul Huntsman, the son of Jon Huntsman Sr., a wealthy industrialist/philanthropist. Post journalists held up placards declaring, “Democracy depends on journalism” and “Quality journalism over corporate greed.” On the sidewalk, people took turns at the loudspeaker, among them Kevin Flynn, a former Rocky Mountain News journalist who now serves southwest Denver on the City Council. “This city needs a robust, civic-minded newsroom to dig into the public and private realm and stay on top of this city,” Flynn says now. “We are a growing, changing community, and I don’t want people waking up 10 years from now and saying, ‘This is not the city I wanted.’ The Post is doing the best it can, but the corporate owners need to reinvest in the product and not bleed it.”
Left: Reporter Jesse Paul, who’s 24, at his desk in the Denver Post’s newsroom. Paul files up to 100 stories a month. Right: Lee Ann Colacioppo, the Denver Post’s first female top editor, has begun overhauling the paper’s newsroom.
It's unlikely the #newsmatters protest registered high up at DFM or at Alden, whose president is a thirtysomething former Duke University football kicker who has managed to escape much scrutiny despite eliminating hundreds of newspaper jobs across the country. For years, Heath Freeman has operated in pseudo secrecy, a major achievement considering he’s a despised figure in an industry whose mission is to uncover the truth. Few local journalists would know his face. He has never toured the Post newsroom, despite the fact that DFM is headquartered in the same building. Every current or former Post executive contacted for this story declined to speak on the record about Alden, Freeman, or DFM—a strong indicator as to how much power Freeman wields. Multiple messages left for Freeman, his co-workers, and his family were not answered. Alden’s website’s home page requires a client login, and Post journalists joke it took them a year to find a working phone number. When I asked Tully, the Post’s publisher, if he could put me in touch with Freeman or anyone at Alden, he responded: “Wasn’t able to find out much.” Roughly translated, that meant “no.”
The little that can be gleaned about Freeman comes via blogs produced at Duke University, where he and his two older sisters are active in the school’s Jewish community. Son of the late Brian Freeman—a former union adviser who once was corporate raider Carl Icahn’s go-to investment banker—Heath Freeman earned his undergraduate degree from Duke in 2002 (and was six-for-six in extra points made for the football team). Since then, Freeman’s worked for boutique investment firms and Alden, which he helped found and then develop into one of the country’s leaders in distressed-asset investment. With a portfolio of more than $2 billion, Freeman has made a fortune in what he calls “opportunistic” investing. He donates generously to his alma mater and owns the jersey Duke basketball player Christian Laettner wore when he drained a buzzer-beating two-pointer to defeat the University of Kentucky in the 1992 NCAA Basketball Tournament.
In the past year, Freeman has assumed a much larger role within DFM following the collapse of a deal that would have sold the company to a private equity firm in 2015. His strategy of consolidation and cutting has led to big reductions at several newspapers in California (more than 70 layoffs at the Orange County Register this spring) and at least 150 layoffs across DFM in the summer of 2015. The few people willing to talk on background about Freeman describe him as aggressive and highly intelligent, “flinty-eyed and focused,” and a man who has no real affinity for newspapers. Freeman is said to be the kind of person who makes a demand, listens to the counterpoint, and then reasserts his demand. He applies metrics to every decision, happily challenging the conventional wisdom of newspapering along the way: He has, for example, touted the cost benefits of using freelance writers rather than full-time staff. He’s asked why the Post needs photographers.
“People get the impression our ship is on fire and it’s sinking at the same time,” says reporter Nick Groke, who covers the Broncos for the newspaper. “That’s not because of the people at the Post. It’s because of the number one most-hated dude in the industry, Heath Freeman.”
Alden’s corporate strategy for DFM properties isn’t limited to Denver. In California this spring, the 142-year-old Oakland Tribune was reduced to a weekly insert covering a city of 400,000 people. Earlier this year, six papers in Northern California—including Oakland’s—were consolidated into two newspapers under an umbrella called the Bay Area News Group. The same steps are being undertaken farther south with what’s now known as the Southern California News Group.
At the Denver Post, the copy desk—the last line of editing before stories go to print—has been eliminated; the Monday editorial page has been downsized; and the newspaper may soon be designed and laid out in another state. “There’s absolutely no long-term plan when it comes to Digital First newspapers,” says Ken Doctor, a media analyst who’s reported on DFM and Alden for years. “This is simply a milking strategy of newspaper assets, which will work in the short term but follows a straight line down.”
In March, DFM’s chief executive officer, Steve Rossi, sent out a company-wide letter boasting that revenue performance was at the “top of the industry”—DFM’s profits in 2015 reportedly ran to about $125 million. When some of the company’s journalists asked to meet with Rossi, he declined. (Rossi did not respond to a message seeking comment for this article.) “DFM and Alden will never show their faces,” Bunch says. “You can’t turn a vulture into a songbird.”
Then there are these optics: After the Post’s latest purge (in addition to the full-time journalists, two part-time staffers were laid off), MediaNews purchased more than 10 million shares of the online job-search site Monster Worldwide, a little more than 11 percent of the company, for $31.2 million in cash. (MediaNews is operational in name under the Alden umbrella.) Newsroom morale in Denver slid even further. Says one Post journalist: “It’s like we’re testing the breaking limits of this place.”
I know the feeling. At one time, my world revolved around newspapers. For three years, I was a staffer at the Post. For four years before that, I worked at the Rocky Mountain News. This year is my ninth at 5280, which puts me in the unique position of having worked for three of Denver’s most important print publications this century. I’ve seen some shit.
I was just one of many over the years drawn to the job of being a news reporter who would tell stories, right wrongs, and expose important happenings in the community around us. My colleagues have interviewed presidents and despots; they have exposed crimes among government employees. Some have placed their lives at risk on desert battlefields. During my time in newspapering, I had my life threatened by Arkansas rednecks, cried with the family of an airline pilot who died on 9/11, and spent weeks on end with a young man living with AIDS. I am a better person because of those experiences, and I hope by telling those stories I helped people understand things they might never have considered.
When I arrived in the Post’s old newsroom across Colfax from the Capitol, the place was my escape hatch. I’d spent much of my early 20s working at the Rocky in various roles—from general assignment reporting to covering Denver City Hall—but to me, there was always a feeling everything could quickly come to an end. It wasn’t because of the journalists—the Rocky’s staff personified teamwork—but it was the nature of the business. The digital disruption was hollowing us out, though I don’t know if many of us realized it at the time. We were churning out stories, but there was the sense we were like those World War II soldiers from Japan who were discovered on a deserted island decades after the war—sleepy-eyed and unbelieving the world had passed us by.
When I left the Rocky for the Post in 2004, I told some of my colleagues they should consider bolting too. I didn’t see a leadership plan at the Rocky, and that’s ultimately why I left. The paper closed five years later.
Things were much clearer at the Post—until they weren’t. Though we were seen as the dominant paper in the joint operating agreement that allowed us to split profits with the Rocky, it didn’t mean we were safe from the slump that had decimated newspapers across the country. Print ad revenue at the paper was shrinking; circulation was falling. We were not where we needed to be on the digital front. I remember working on a web project with Risch, who was the paper’s online producer at the time. To get to her office, I had to leave the newspaper’s third-floor newsroom, go down one floor, and wind my way through a series of darkened hallways to her office. She might as well have worked in another county.
Shortly into my time at the paper (I covered statewide enterprise and then sports enterprise), we moved into the new Denver Newspaper Agency building on Colfax. Not long afterward, several people took buyouts and others were laid off. Our workloads increased, and covering important news became more difficult with fewer journalists. Our city editor, Lee Ann Colacioppo, would sometimes stand at her desk in the middle of the newsroom, look around, and wish she had a few more bodies. Now, the thought seems ridiculous; our newsroom still had nearly 300 people. Yet almost every day, we huddled at our clustered desks and traded information. We’d gossip, and we’d encourage one another. But morale in the newsroom was low. Journalism was our passion, but it was getting harder to practice it the way our younger selves
One of the layoffs in 2006 was a friend who’d been at the paper for more than 20 years. He had a severely disabled son. When I learned he lost his job, I went down to the basement parking garage and cried in my car. Looking back, I don’t know if my tears were for him or if I was scared about what might happen to me. Am I next? I wondered. A year later, in April 2007, my colleagues and I were told to make our way to the first-floor auditorium; we were herded down the elevators and through the auditorium doors. Dean Singleton, the CEO of MediaNews Group, was up front. He told us the next several years would be difficult. There were murmurs in the crowd—we knew what was coming next. Nineteen journalists needed to take buyouts, Singleton said. If 19 didn’t come forward soon, the paper would start to lay off staff—again.
Less than 15 minutes after the meeting, I was at my desk in the newsroom, on the phone. I started working at my small-town newspaper when I was 16, attended one of the country’s top journalism schools, and made it a goal to be a newspaper reporter. Now I was telling my wife I was done with the Post. I couldn’t leave through the buyout because I hadn’t been at the paper long enough, so I had to find another way out. A month later, I had an offer from 5280. Westword interviewed me a couple of days after I resigned. “[I]f for some reason Greg [Moore] left, I’d really just be a number to MediaNews,” I said. “I have two young kids, a wife, and a mortgage.”
I used to think I’d abandoned the newspaper industry, and I often felt bad about my decision. After the past year at the Post, sadly, I’m glad I’m gone.
It's a little after 11 a.m. and Paul’s already filed two short online stories—on flooding in a Fremont County wildfire site and on a Colorado Department of Transportation worker who was injured while doing I-70 maintenance in Glenwood Canyon. He checks to see if his Sedgwick County request will be granted soon, makes calls to sources on other stories, and sends out a tweet through his @JesseAPaul feed—the second of 11 he’ll send today.
There’s a line of bookmarks at the top of his web browser, and Paul clicks one. It’s the Google Analytics data behind who’s reading his stories. It’s part of an effort by Post management to get reporters to understand their audiences—and perhaps to prod them into producing more. According to Paul’s metrics, his stories have gotten about
6.8 million page views this year, around three percent of the Post website’s total. Readers are spending an average of one minute and 57 seconds on his work, which isn’t bad. Nearly half of Paul’s readers, the report says, are in the 25- to 44-year-old demographic advertisers covet.
Paul closes the report, rises from his chair, and heads for the Post’s small break room. At one end of the newsroom, near the top editors’ glass-walled offices, reporters are working away at their computers, but toward the entrance—where the Post’s Pulitzers hang on a wall—empty desks start to appear. Bunch, the veteran reporter, leans into Kevin Simpson’s cubicle. “It’s just a sad, sad feeling sometimes,” he tells Simpson, another longtime staffer, who’s pecking away at a story. “I had a dream I was lying on the floor in here, covered with a blanket. I was crying and no one was trying to help me!” Simpson snorts and goes back to work.
A little later, a Post staffer stops to ask me about a future in freelance writing. The reporter is thinking about leaving the paper. While one journalist tells me it’s inspiring seeing the reduced staff come together, another says the newsroom’s demands these days are “almost inhumane” and “crushing.”
Paul is blissfully undaunted. By noon, he’s already filed a third story to denverpost.com and is making calls on others. This is the new ecosystem of newspapering, not just here in Denver, but nationwide. Paul is the embodiment of that change. When I worked at the Post, I might have written fewer than 100 stories in a year—articles that took days, or possibly weeks, to report and write. Paul might file that many pieces in a month, some of them far shorter and less in-depth than much of what would have been produced just a few years ago. Occasionally, Post stories—at least online—are published with just a single source (sometimes a paid spokesperson) or are simply culled directly from a press release, Twitter, or a Facebook post.
That’s not an indictment of Paul or his colleagues; it’s simply an acknowledgement of where newspaper journalism stands today. And perhaps there is no starker example than here in Denver. With the Post’s cuts and the Rocky’s closure, the city has at least 350 fewer newspaper staffers than just seven years ago. The Post once had four reporters who covered health care in the state; now there’s one. Seventeen writers and editors once covered business; now it’s five. Only one reporter covers education. “Readers should care about this because cuts to a newsroom diminish how much they’re able to know about their community,” says Rick Edmonds, the media business analyst for the Poynter Institute, a journalism training center and think tank. “A newspaper is the biggest news-generating workforce in town, so what happens when the City Council doesn’t get covered, or a school board?”
“We can’t do what we used to do,” says Jennifer Brown, who works on the Post’s investigative team and has been at the newspaper for 11 years. “Now we have to crank out stories, which means we’re relying more often on agencies telling us what’s happening and what’s important. Before, it was the journalist who was digging up the information and deciding what was news.”
After starting work more than five hours earlier, Paul finally takes a lunch break at 1:30 p.m. He sits on a stool overlooking Broadway and chews on a Cobb salad as he runs down his past. Delaware native. Colorado College graduate. He interned at a few metro dailies, including the Colorado Springs Gazette and the Post, before he was offered a full-time gig in 2014. It was, he says, the best day of his life.
Paul tries not to think too much about the role DFM and Alden play in his life, but he sounds like a pro athlete, uncertain about his role on the roster: “If they decide to get rid of me, there’s nothing I can do,” he says. “The only thing I should be concerned about is doing good work.”
After lunch, Paul swipes his badge on a side door outside the Post building then walks through a hallway before opening another door that leads past security. There’s a guy in a blazer behind the desk, and he looks up when another man approaches.
“I didn’t get my paper!” the man says, before breaking into a smile. “Nah, I’m just kidding. I’m making a delivery.”
The security guy laughs. He says he has to deal with Post customers all the time.
“I didn’t even know you could still do that,” the deliveryman says. He adds, sarcastically: “There’s still a paper?”
“It’s going away, that’s for sure,” the security guy says.
Paul watches this scene unfold. “It’s not going away anytime soon,” he interrupts the two men. Before either of them can respond, he heads back toward the newsroom.
On the afternoon of June 17, Lee Ann Colacioppo was in her office, looking out her corner window. She’d recently ascended to the Post’s top job on an interim basis, and now her staff was outside, protesting DFM and Alden. Craning her neck to see her team on the sidewalk below, she was overwhelmed—in a good way. “What I saw was an incredible outpouring of love,” she told me one afternoon in July, less than a month after assuming the editor’s chair full time—the first woman to hold the position in the paper’s 124-year history. “Those people are working so hard, they’re in the trenches, and they’re frustrated. I get that. They were saying, ‘News matters,’ and how the heck can anyone argue?”
Colacioppo is 52, with a slim, oval face and reddish-brown hair. On this midsummer day, she’s at the conference table in her office, which has a sweeping view of Civic Center Park. On a shelf above her desk is one of those red plastic buttons that says “Easy.” She gets out of her chair and pushes it. “That was easy,” a voice declares. Colacioppo laughs. Nothing’s been easy lately.
In her 17 years at the Post, Colacioppo has held nearly every meaningful editor’s job and has been in the newsroom through some of the state’s most significant moments. Working at the Post was a dream for Colacioppo, a Denver native who grew up reading the paper and was hired in 1999, a year after her resumé was discovered behind a filing cabinet. Now, she hopes she didn’t rise to the Post’s editorship just in time to write the paper’s obituary. “When I got this job, I called my mom,” Colacioppo says. “The first words out of her mouth were, ‘Are you sure you really want it?’ ”
The question goes to the heart of newspapering today: Does anyone outside the industry care if the local paper goes away? The most recent data from Alliance for Audited Media show continued declines in consumption of the Post’s print product. According to AAM, the Post’s Sunday circulation in the second quarter of 2016 fell nearly nine percent compared to the same period in 2015, to 253,261 copies. Average Monday though Friday circulation dropped almost 13 percent, to 134,537 copies.
Within the newsroom, the Post’s journalists have so far supported Colacioppo’s transition, though they admit it’s done nothing to soothe their concerns about the paper’s future. “Uncertainty defines us,” says Kieran Nicholson, a Post staffer for 30 years. “It’s not going away, no matter who’s in charge. Frankly, that sucks.”
One of the ironies about reporters is that they want sources to go on the record when talking about sensitive topics, but they’re often uncomfortable speaking openly about their own situations. That’s not the case at the Post. The vast majority of the Post’s journalists consider Colacioppo honest and unconcerned about settling scores with staffers who might disagree with her or her bosses. After the newsroom protest, Groke, the sportswriter, took to his Twitter feed to blast the paper’s ownership—in particular, Freeman, whom he called “a small, worthless footnote on an otherwise grand timeline” of Post history.
Groke doesn’t regret making his opinion known. “I thought it had to be done, and I’m glad I did it,” he says now, though the fact he wasn’t called into Colacioppo’s office hasn’t allayed fears within his family. “My mom keeps asking me if I still have my job.”
Righting a paper under siege is a daunting task, especially since newspapers nationwide have yet to discover a business model that works in the digital age. “Every year, I think, ‘God bless us, this was a terrible year,’ ” says Tully, the publisher, “and the next year gets even harder.” Among the recent bright spots for the Post is the fact that, according to audience measurement company comScore, unique visitors to denverpost.com in June were up 43 percent year over year—to 5.4 million—which the newspaper’s executives chalk up to, at least in part, dropping a pay wall, redesigning the website, and beefing up Denver Post TV, the paper’s online video platform. On top of the regular dot-com figures, 732,000 unique visitors checked out the newspaper’s pioneering marijuana-centric news site, the Cannabist, which launched three years ago with a staff of just two people and now gets 13 percent of the Post’s online traffic.
How to monetize those online gains is still the newspaper’s biggest challenge. Digital advertising revenue at newspapers across the country has never matched the heights of print-ad revenue, which has been on a significant slide for decades, beginning with the rapid loss of classified advertising. The New York Times, for example, has been one of the industry’s innovators in terms of digital news delivery, but as Vanity Fair reported recently, the newspaper eliminated 70 jobs in its Paris bureau, and as many as 80 employees took buyouts this past summer. Under the ownership of Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, the Washington Post is successfully reimagining its online product—and is receiving record traffic in the process—but has yet to fully cash in on those advances. At the Denver Post, online ad revenue still has yet to surpass print, and no one’s sure when it will. “We’ve said we’re stacking digital dimes to replace print dollars,” says Tully, who’s been at the newspaper for three years. “What we know, though, is there’s growth [online], and where there’s growth, there’s opportunity. It’s not the same opportunity we’ve had in the past, but any opportunity is good.”
He adds that the Post is profitable—“and that’s a damn good thing”—and the latest round of buyouts and layoffs was a response to projected revenue declines. “To not address the long-term systemic change in the revenue model of the paper is to put the paper on a road to failure,” Tully says. “We can’t afford to make a little less money.”
With fewer resources, one of the first directives under Colacioppo’s leadership was revamping the paper’s traditional editorial departments. The city and business desks have mostly merged and have been replaced by teams called “Now” and “Enterprise.” The general idea is to use Now reporters, including Paul, to cover meat-and-potatoes daily news, while Enterprise works on larger pieces and shorter, more nuanced stories.
While readers are unlikely to register the behind-the-scenes changes in the newsroom, they will certainly notice a shift in the stories the paper covers. Denverpost.com has recently published softer pieces—on the city’s best bars, for example—and the newspaper is relaunching its music-centric Reverb site into a wider cultural guide editors hope will capture a broader readership.
The transition, at least online, has been a bit odd for a traditional newspaper, with tweets on the Post’s breaking-news feed that read: “Relationships: Does he want me or just my body?” and “I’ll drink to that: Roasted Teriyaki Pork Tenderloin with Grapes.” Ironically, the Post’s recent reductions eliminated the entire features department, which employed the newspaper’s restaurant, architecture, art, theater, and film critics—exactly the people who could authoritatively tell readers where to go and what to do in the city. (Some have returned on a freelance basis.)
At the same time Colacioppo’s ramping up coverage of more unconventional newspaper topics, she’s scaling back reportage in traditional areas she says often don’t generate reader interest and take time away from her already-stretched staff. “The realities of our situation are that something has to go, and I don’t think most readers are digging into a story about a City Council work session,” she says. To many in the newsroom, that’s heresy. “Sometimes it feels like we’re working at a widget factory,” one staffer says.
What that means for Denver’s media landscape remains to be seen, but it’s becoming clear the staff cuts at the Post over the years have opened opportunities for other ventures. Denverite, for example, is an ad-free, digital-only media company that launched in June. Run by a former Post editor—and financed through longtime media executives, such as the Wall Street Journal’s former publisher and a Business Insider founder—the staff of 10 can react quickly to breaking news and is investing time and resources into longer reported stories, such as a recent piece on the 16th Street Mall that was part standard reporting, part daily journal, and part advocacy. “A shrinking Denver Post is bad for the city,” says Dave Burdick, Denverite’s editor-in-chief. “But the good thing for us, and for readers, is there’s now room in this media space for new players.”
While Colacioppo puts a happy face on the Post’s reorganization, she acknowledges her newsroom makeover might not work. “We’re trying something new,” she says. “And if this isn’t successful, we’ll try something else.”
Tully says there could be more buyouts or layoffs in the fiscal year that runs through next June, but he doesn’t think the Post will eliminate its print edition anytime soon. Even with the cutbacks, he says, “We’re still the most important news-gathering operation in Colorado.”
It’s not hyperbole, however, to say Colacioppo isn’t sure what her newsroom will look like a month from now. (Case in point: As this issue was going to press, longtime staffer Bunch left the paper for the Colorado Springs Gazette.) Thirty minutes before Colacioppo and I met in her office, she was notified that the Post’s lead Broncos writer was quitting to work for Channel 7. That reporter, Troy Renck, had replaced Mike Klis, another longtime Post staffer who left the paper 15 months earlier for KUSA (Channel 9).
Those weren’t the only departures from the newspaper’s most popular section. Neil Devlin, who covered prep sports for three decades, took a buyout, which is forcing the paper to figure out how it will cover high school athletics. And Woody Paige, a venerable columnist and perhaps the paper’s most recognizable face, penned his last piece in July before decamping to the Gazette. Reached by text shortly after leaving the newspaper, Paige declined to comment on his departure. When asked what it was like filing his last column for the Post, he wrote: “There was no feeling.”
A sticky note on the small cubicle wall at Paul’s desk was left there by another reporter: “On DPO, Jesse Paul is ubiquitous,” a reference to Denver Post online.
By 2 p.m., another reporter has been assigned to the Sedgwick County sheriff story and will be at the hearing later in the day. Channel 7 didn’t come through with the CBI report from the Park County shooting, so another Post reporter drove out to get it. The reporter did an interview then shipped the document electronically to Paul and his editor. Around 3 p.m., Paul and Hansen begin scrolling through the 294 pages.
The pair moves to an abandoned office at the front of the newsroom. The Post’s presentation/design managing editor worked in here before he was laid off last year, and the darkened room’s desk is stacked with computer screens. Next to that is a large conference table. Hansen and Paul divide up the report as the senior editor for news, Larry Ryckman, and another editor, Alison Borden, take seats at the table. It’s an all-hands-on-deck moment for the smaller Post. The four of them pull out yellow highlighters and work together for the next half hour, calling out the best parts. Paul is beginning to write the story’s first paragraphs when Colacioppo walks in to check on things.
“This is our best glimpse of what happened,” Ryckman tells Colacioppo, then he and Paul detail the report, saying it’s a “slam dunk” for the front page, along with the Sedgwick County story. “It’s kind of the death-and-destruction page,” he says, “but that’s the hand we’ve been dealt.”
A little before 6 p.m., Paul ships the story to Borden, who edits it. “This is looking good,” she says. “Just a few things.”
Paul spends another 30 minutes on a revision while Borden stands next to him, leaning on the conference table and offering suggestions. They talk through sentences together, then Paul sends the story back to Borden, who does another edit. Finally, around 7 p.m., the story is moved to Colacioppo, who will give final approval.
“Nice work,” Borden says. “I think you’re OK to go.”
“You can get me on my phone tonight if you need me,” Paul says.
He returns to the abandoned office, unplugs his power cord, and closes his laptop. The conference table is a mess. Paul considers gathering the stacks of paperwork but thinks better of it. “I’ll probably do a follow-up tomorrow,” he says, and decides to leave everything as it is.
Robert Sanchez is 5280’s senior staff writer. Email him at [email protected].