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The real Steve Pope story 

Between the Lines

You're actually reading this newspaper and this column — probably the old-fashioned way, judging from our latest numbers — so chances are good that you care more than others about the fate of local print media.

Based on that assumption, let's take a closer look at Tuesday's news that Steve Pope is leaving as publisher of the Gazette to take a job somewhere else. Anywhere else, apparently.

From how Pope announced it, and how the daily reported it, he never would have left except for this wonderful opportunity to become chief operating officer of an outfit known as Huckle Media LLC.

That sounds promising enough, until we look closer. Then the picture changes. So does the story of what Pope's departure actually means.

First, where is Huckle Media, anyway? The first stories online said Michigan, and for years the company was headquartered in Traverse City. But by the time Wednesday's Gazette hit the streets, Huckle was described as "publishing a string of community newspapers in Minnesota."

After a few clicks, we find out that Huckle has offices in Faribault, about an hour south of Minneapolis-St. Paul, and one of its main entities in southern Minnesota is the Faribault Daily News.

Haven't heard of Faribault? It's a town of about 22,000 people. And the Daily News' circulation, depending on which source you believe, is either 6,500 or 5,200 (the amount given in a recent job listing), publishing six days a week. So, the 61-year-old Pope is escaping Colorado Springs, in a county with 600,000 residents, for a town similar to Montrose or Cañon City, with a newsroom there that appears to have seven people including three reporters, one of whom doubles as a page designer.

And though nobody seems to know the Gazette's actual circulation (far from its best days of 100,000-plus) anymore, it's surely at least 10 times larger than the Faribault Daily News, and much larger than Huckle's daily papers combined.

The news reports out of Faribault tell us something else: Pope already was moonlighting as chairman of Huckle Media's board, which makes you wonder about how committed he ever was to Colorado Springs since moving here at the start of 2009.

Funny how some things never change. From the day he arrived at the Gazette, Pope tried to make the details sound better than they were. He talked about making the daily's editorials less "strident," which never happened. He started Fresh•Ink, a hyperlocal supplement that he soon claimed was making $1 million a year; it's since been shredded by cutbacks. He also came in the door saying the Gazette already was "a profitable enterprise" despite the recession, yet he leaves now saying his time here was like "swimming up rapids, as opposed to swimming upstream."

These days, the Gazette prints only 20 or 22 pages most Mondays and Tuesdays. Repeated layoffs have decimated the news operation. Longtime local readers shake their heads at how far the paper has fallen in recent years.

As you may recall, in early 2009, the Independent also quickly exposed major inaccuracies in Pope's résumé. He said he helped start an alternative weekly in Houston; the paper's founders say he didn't. He claimed to have been publisher of another alt-weekly in Detroit; he never was. Yet, for all that was wrong in his extensive credentials, he never mentioned that he had joined Huckle's board in 2008, before coming to the Gazette.

In his only sit-down interview with the Indy, Pope laid out his timetable: "My history is to stay in a place six or eight years. My hope is to retire out of here ... in close to 10 years."

Oops, just two-plus years and out.

Pope clearly enjoyed the social part of being Gazette publisher, and mingled freely with the downtown business crowd. But he realized his days were numbered. Ownership changes invariably mean new publishers. Freedom Communications has been trying to sell its entire company, without luck, but now appears close to unloading the Gazette. Most rumors suggest the Denver Post and its parent MediaNews will usurp the local daily, turning this into the OutPost. Other buyers might be interested, but that's uncertain.

No matter what becomes the next chapter in the Gazette's story, Steve Pope knew he wouldn't be part of it. So he's moving on to Faribault.

For those who still want a good daily newspaper in Colorado Springs, that's the best news of all.

routon@csindy.com

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