Believe it or not 

New Gazette publisher sounds excited about the future but shifty about his past

Steve Pope wants you, and everyone in the Pikes Peak region, to believe in him.

In two months since moving from the Vail area and taking over as the Gazette's fourth publisher in five years, Pope has wasted no time in changing the state's third-largest daily newspaper. He has shrunk the weekday editions to three sections, moved local news to the front (except on Sundays), forced subscribers to pay for the weekly TV schedule, and talked up his commitment to community involvement.

"Our goal in life is to be the best local paper in Colorado," Pope says in a recent interview. "But we have a little ways to go to do that."

Pope is even addressing the Gazette's infamously libertarian editorial page, saying he'll see to it that the paper's philosophical stances will become less "strident."

"Let's be clear about it: We're a profitable enterprise," Pope says. "By other industry standards, we do quite well. We did well last year, and we expect to be more profitable this year. ... Even given all the travails, it's still a pretty good newspaper. But it can be a lot better. The people I talk to want the Gazette to be back as a strong community paper. That's my job."

It all sounds refreshing and promising, which explains why staff morale by various accounts has improved considerably since parent company Freedom Communications Inc. chose Pope to replace Scott McKibben, whose 20-month tenure was marked by the most layoffs and cutbacks in the paper's 137-year history.

Amid a bleak daily-newspaper climate, the 59-year-old Pope has arrived with a take-charge attitude and plenty of experiences upon which to draw. He sounds excited to lead the Gazette. Now he needs the paper's staff, its readers and the Colorado Springs community to trust him enough to follow.

Scratch that

Pope has posted a timeline for his professional career at LinkedIn's online site, plus a shorter profile with the American Press Institute. Also, we examined Pope's credentials as presented to the community by the Gazette's own reporting, with some comments attributed to Freedom executive Jon Segal, in mid-December when Pope's hiring was announced.

A Gazette story on Dec. 17 reported Segal "cited Pope's experience with the Vail Daily and founding an alternative weekly in Houston, along with his extensive involvement in Vail business and charitable groups as reasons he was chosen from a pool of 22 contenders."

On the American Press Institute's site, Pope's bio says, "He helped start an alternative newspaper in the Houston area (Houston Press) and was publisher for the Detroit Metro Times alternative newspaper."

Asked about his background in alternative weekly papers, Pope flatly says, "Alternative papers ... they're an interesting slice of life. I've been publisher of two of them. I know what they're all about."

So what was it like, starting Houston's alternative weekly from scratch?

"I actually didn't start it," Pope admits. "I came into the start-up very early in its existence. It was intense; sometimes you don't know where you'll get your payroll. Backers don't know. ... But we grew it, grew it to where it was relatively healthy and then sold it. ... It's a great paper now. But actually, we were winning a lot of awards when I was there, as well. We had a darned good product."

How long had the Press been operating before Pope arrived in 1993?

"About six to eight months," Pope says. "Not long."

That's not how others describe it. Chris Hearne was the founding publisher and John Wilburn the founding editor of the Houston Press, which actually began publishing in 1989. They were at the helm until '93, when they left for other challenges.

"Steve Pope came in after I left," says Hearne, who adds that he was a minority partner in owning the Press until its sale in late '93. "He was a short transitional figure, just an interim figurehead for my partner. Steve Pope had nothing to do with the start or the first three-plus years of the Houston Press. His role and experience there were minimal at best.

"By the time he got here, we had already won a lot of awards from the Houston Press Club in news, investigative and business writing. We won competing against both dailies [the Houston Chronicle and Houston Post]. We came out of the gate pretty strong from the start in 1989."

After seeing Pope's self-submitted bio online, Hearne is more emphatic.

"I was offended," says Hearne, who moved on to other publishing ventures that included working for Microsoft. "John Wilburn and I take a lot of pride in the Houston Press. We started it strong, and it had a great reputation from day one. But nothing about this guy Pope impressed me. It's wrong to say he had a major role in anything that happened there. For him to take credit for something that not only did he not have anything to do with it, but John and I did that's just wrong."

Hearne also notes that Pope's self-submitted LinkedIn rsum says he was Press publisher "from July 1996 to August 1998," saying, "He has the years wrong by an interestingly wide margin, and I believe he was actually in that spot for less than six months."

Wilburn, who is now editorial director of the Houston Chronicle, says this via e-mail:

"Steve Pope was not a co-founder of the Houston Press. I was the founding editor and Chris Hearne was the founding publisher. ... I left in early 1993. Steve Pope may have been involved after that time, but by my reckoning he missed the start-up window."

Neither Hearne nor Wilburn recalls ever meeting Pope personally.

More discrepancies

From there, Pope went to the Metro Times in Detroit, where he says he was publisher around 1994 and 1995. All of Pope's profiles, and his personal statements, refer to him as the Metro Times publisher.

But a newspaper article from 1994 refers to him as associate publisher. So perhaps he was hired as associate publisher and then promoted?

"I actually did start as associate publisher," Pope says when asked to clarify. "Ron Williams was the founder [editor and publisher], but I was acting publisher the whole time because he was somewhere else."

Actually, the Metro Times' records show Pope was hired in 1994 as general manager and later became associate publisher, but never acting publisher and certainly not permanent publisher. In an e-mail, Williams says he and Pope didn't hit it off well and Pope left in about a year, taking some sales staff with him to a chain of suburban Detroit papers. Pope worked there until becoming publisher of the Vail Daily in 2000.

Another item in Pope's American Press Institute bio hits closer to home. Pope writes that he's served on the boards of various organizations, including the Colorado Springs-based El Pomar Foundation. In the interview for this story, he says he was on El Pomar's "regional board for about four years," which brought him here regularly for meetings.

According to El Pomar's Web site, Pope was a member of one of nine "regional councils," advisory groups of community leaders around the state who make recommendations of potential grants to the foundation's trustees. But those councils are not boards, and they meet at their local level, or by phone, and have only convened once in Colorado Springs as a larger group.

Asked to comment for this story, Freedom's Segal says by e-mail: "Because there were so many candidates and because the Colorado Springs paper is very important to us, the process took a considerable amount of time and included pretty extensive reference checks. I think we made a good decision to offer the job to Steve."

'Back to its roots'

There is no question about Pope's success in Vail, and as general manager for Colorado Mountain News Media, where he oversaw a handful of newspapers from Summit County to Glenwood Springs and a small free paper in Grand Junction.

But unlike McKibben, who always commuted from Centennial, Pope insists he's fully committed now to Colorado Springs.

"I've sold my house [in the Vail area]. It sold quickly. My wife and I are looking for houses here," Pope says, adding that his wife and their 12-year-old son will move here after the school year.

He talks about having become well-acquainted with the area over the years, starting when was a circulation executive at the Denver Post (around 1989 and 1990). He says his daughter went to the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and worked downtown at the Ritz Grill.

Asked if he knew ahead of time that he'd make big changes so fast at the Gazette, Pope says, "Probably not. I did find relatively quickly some key areas that needed to be addressed. Two specifically, but those turned out to be relatively easy. We found a way to use paper more effectively and a better way to present the news. ... So what we've done is move all the local news to the front. We'll run local news as deep as we need to, then fill the rest with state and national news."

Pope feels particularly surprised, he says, at the lack of negative feedback: "We've had under 150 complaints, so it's almost a non-event. That doesn't mean everybody who's unhappy has told us. But of those who have called us, we've been able to save most of them [from canceling the paper]. The interesting thing is, we tell them why, that we're putting the local news up front to be more efficient, and many of them say, 'OK, I got it.'"

He adds that "around 200 people" canceled their subscriptions over having to pay for the weekly TV book, but he says more than 10,000 agreed to pay the extra $1 a month.

The bottom line, Pope says, is that over the next year or so he intends to "see the Gazette gets back to its roots as being one of the best local papers in the country."

"My philosophy is to be actively engaged in the community," Pope says. "If you're not close enough, you don't know enough to make wise editorial judgments."

That brings us to editorials. Pope says he supports a "fair number" of Freedom Communications' libertarian principles, and in particular feels that "communities shouldn't go out and give incentives to companies to come here." But he's fine with tax breaks for businesses, saying, "I believe in low taxes anyway."

"I do think at times we can be strident in how we present our views," Pope says, indicating that he thinks "we can be less strident and still stick to our guns."

(A week after he said that, the Gazette ran a Feb. 19 editorial under the headline "CUT YOUTH SPORTS," asking, "Why can't children occupy their own free time, as they used to?")

As for his own future plans, Pope says, "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. I've got pictures on the wall, we're buying a house here, getting involved with the community.

"That's my track record."



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