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Steve Smith's legacy 

What really happened to Steven A. Smith?

Despite the Colorado Springs daily newspaper's promises that it is accountable to its readers, the news of its executive editor's immediate resignation this week was full of holes.

Smith's immediate departure -- after four years heading up a much-touted experiment he called civic journalism -- was so loaded with PR spin that one has to wonder if the G has gone into the public relations business after all.

Just a month after the newspaper unveiled a startling new redesign and shortened its name to just one letter, Smith was out. His sudden and colorless departure this week capped four years of leadership at the Gazette, a time that witnessed the exodus of dozens of the paper's most experienced and talented newsroom staffers and countless changes in the way news is covered by the Springs' only daily newspaper, amid dropping circulation numbers, in one of the fastest growing counties in the country,

According to the newspaper's managing editor Terri Fleming, who was hastily named as Smith's acting replacement this week, Smith has nothing lined up. Fleming said she had no idea why her former boss is suddenly gone, citing a confidentiality agreement between Smith and publisher Scott Fischer.

And, the new acting editor said, although she will be the newspaper's editorial leader during this transitional period, she had no idea that Smith was on his way out. She has, she said, spoken "in a superficial way" to Smith about his resignation, although she declined specifics.

A new editor is expected to be named 60 to 90 days from now, and Fleming will be among the applicants. So is she sorry to see her old boss go? "Absolutely; he taught me a great deal," Fleming said. "[Smith] brought vitality and energy to the newsroom."

It's an interesting testimonial to a man who, during his tenure, was known for conducting a sweeping experiment that yielded, at best, mixed results. A former executive for the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain, Smith was brought to the G by then-publisher N. Christian Anderson. Together, they embraced the idea of civic journalism, which was designed to reengage and empower its readers. It was sort of a plea and a promise that often translated into 'Tell us what you want to read and we will put it in the paper the next day.'

Anderson left Colorado Springs a year ago, after he was promoted to publisher of the Orange County Register, the flagship newspaper of Freedom Communications, which also owns the G. Through his secretary, Anderson declined comment on Smith's sudden departure.

But during Anderson and Smith's experiment, which finally resulted in the current incarnation, the G, numerous former newsroom staffers say they were encouraged to leave and were replaced with recent college graduates. Other longtime staffers have been shuffled around. Newsroom morale, many reporters have said, has dropped in recent years to an all-time low.

In November the newspaper unleashed its latest brainstorm -- a dramatic new look and another new name. Now just called the G, the paper has declined to print letters from people weighing in on the new look, so it is unclear what readers think. However, this week Fleming said the newspaper's publisher told the newsroom that Smith's departure "has nothing to do with content or redesign."

With Smith gone, Fleming said the newspaper will continue its commitment to what she described as a "bolder approach."

"It's a revitalized newspaper married to a civic approach in which the redesign is its heart and soul," Fleming said.

With all the positive spin and all the claims that the G is reinventing how news is covered, the paper's circulation has continued to drop like a lead balloon.

In November, the Audit Bureau of Circulation reported that the daily newspaper has experienced a six percent drop in circulation from the same time last year. A year ago, the G was selling 99,476 papers a day. In November that number dropped to 93,883, the lowest in well over a decade.

Sunday circulation has dipped from 120,102 at this time last year to 114,830. By comparison, 11 years agoThe Gazette was selling 106,000 papers a day.

So what really happened to Steve Smith? Perhaps, as the paper once falsely claimed of another Colorado newspaper editor, Smith merely wanted to retire to Vernal, Utah, to pursue his hobby, beekeeping.

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