Can Anschutz take our daily back to the future? 

Between the Lines

Deciding to write about the Gazette this week — that's a no-brainer, after the news of Philip Anschutz buying Colorado Springs' daily newspaper.

The tougher part is where to begin, since the publication has been around in some form for 140 years. Let's start with the one moment that, for the roomful of journalists who went through it together, was instantly unforgettable.

In late February 1986, those of us working at the paper then known as the Gazette-Telegraph gathered for a special staff meeting. D.R. "Bob" Segal, president of parent company Freedom Communications, had flown in from California to confirm what we already knew, that Freedom was buying the Colorado Springs Sun to shut it down, ending our city's spirited newspaper war.

We had won that war after building a large, talented and inspired staff. If we could justify an expense, we got the green light. But with a monopoly, we feared what would happen next. Freedom might cut staff and expenses to make as much money as possible. Why not?

Segal stunned us all that day. He said Freedom would invest even more in the paper here, ending his speech with an aggressive challenge: "We want to make this the best newspaper of its size in America."

You can't imagine how exciting, and empowering, that message was. The staff responded by taking the Gazette-Telegraph to new heights, with a publisher, E. Roy Smith, who rarely visited the newsroom. Like Freedom's best publishers, his strategy was to hire good people and get out of their way, while focusing more on the business side of the operation. The editor and managing editor for most of that decade, Tom Mullen and Jon Stepleton, respectively, set high standards and also stayed mostly in the background, except when support was needed.

Successful ingredients

In that atmosphere, top-notch journalists thrived. They also did memorable work, whether it was living among the homeless to do an award-winning series, uncovering rules infractions at Colorado College that led to changing hockey coaches, or pursuing countless other investigative and enterprise efforts.

In those days, if you needed a week or a month to research and put together a story, you could make the case and get it. If the football schedule meant flying to San Diego, then Tucson, then Houston, that was OK. When the Olympics were in Seoul, Barcelona or Albertville, France, we went.

Just in sports, the staff would churn out at least 20 local bylines for any given Saturday paper, then 25 to 30 more for Sunday, with an emphasis on high schools as well as Air Force and Denver pro sports. Also, the G-T helped lead the campaign for a new arena, and we spearheaded the crusade to bring the Sky Sox here.

One of the newsroom leaders was Scott Smith, a superb sports writer and editor then, now lifestyle editor and columnist at The Pueblo Chieftain. Asked for his thoughts, he said, "It still amazes me now that, after we won the newspaper war, Freedom came in and added bodies to the room. Unprecedented. And we responded. We became more professional, in every way, in every department.

"We all worked our tails off, but it was because we were proud of the paper and enjoyed giving the readers a great product. And we made money for the chain."

The paper was winning awards, but the staff also was proud of something else.

"How good were we? We had 85 percent household penetration," he says of the statistic that ranked near the top nationally. "Our Sunday numbers I believe flirted with 140,000, and that's when the county was half the size it is now." (And those circulation figures, now with online audience included, have fallen substantially.)

In the midst of that period came the zenith. Writer Dave Curtin, editor Carl Skiff and photographer Tom Kimmell spent six months working on the story of Adam and Megan Walter, two children badly hurt and disfigured in a propane-gas explosion inside their home near Ellicott. That story, published as a special section on Jan. 8, 1989, won Curtin the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.

Beyond the glory

You'll notice, we haven't mentioned the editorials. They were stubbornly libertarian through those years, but not the paper's true personality. The news, sports and features were so strong, with such depth and perspective, the opinion pages were usually an afterthought. (More recently, with the paper so thin and shallow, the strident and heavy-handed editorials have stood out more, turning off many readers and polarizing the community.)

Those blissful "glory days" continued a while longer, but after Smith retired as publisher in 1994, the paper (and Freedom) soon began to change. It still looked flashy, but many of the veterans weren't as appreciated. Great people left, and younger, less gifted folks replaced them. Gimmicks like "civic journalism" fizzled. Changing the name to the Gazette in 1997, and dropping Telegraph, had no significant impact. There were high moments, but the everyday quality wasn't as consistent, and many key people didn't stay long before moving on.

It all fell apart during the past decade amid the tumble of mid-sized dailies everywhere, Freedom's financial collapse and the alarming drainage of lost historical perspective. Today, that newsroom's survivors from the 1980s have dwindled to only a brave few.

But wait. Now comes Anschutz, with his bottomless pockets. More space, more staff, more journalism. And no more Freedom.

Can the new regime create another era of greatness? The challenge now is different. For generations, daily papers were essential, but not so much anymore. People in their 40s and older, who care about community, still understand how vital it is to have a strong local paper. Younger adults have different priorities and sources for information. They don't care as much about a newspaper being the watchdog over government, education and other institutions. Daily readers don't open the paper as eagerly, wondering what the Gazette will say today.

Something else: The news/features/sports staff, despite some recent additions, still can't be more than half the size it was during the best of times.

Can Anschutz reverse the years of long, slow, painful decline? It's a godsend to have the injections of people and resources, which are promised to be substantial. But the difference will come in the ideas, the stories, the digging, the enterprise work and historical knowledge.

That's how it can turn around. That's how the Gazette can be great again.

Ralph Routon (routon@csindy.com) worked as an editor and columnist at the Gazette from 1977 to 2001.

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