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Getting the news from California 

Last week in this space, we enumerated the illustrious past of the daily newspaper's new editorial page editor, Washington, D.C.-beltway crank Sean Paige. This week, let's take a look at how The Gazette is pretending that some of its writers, who work in other states, are actually on staff and crafting their prose from the home office at 30 S. Prospect.

In a widely criticized move earlier this year, The Gazette's owner, Freedom Communications, based in Orange County, Calif., launched an exercise in what it calls "joint content." Essentially, the suits upstairs decided that film reviewing, travel and food were pretty much the same wherever you go. So why on earth should staffers at three different papers specialize in those beats?

Why not have just one film reviewer, one travel editor and one food editor write for their three largest publications, the Freedom flagship Orange County Register, The Gazette and the Mesa, Ariz. East Valley Tribune?

In Colorado Springs, that meant longtime Gazette film critic Warren Epstein was booted from his review job, and has been reassigned to entertainment features. Travel editor Linda DuVal was similarly bumped from her berth, to another part of the Gazette media mall.

Only Gazette food editor Teresa Farney ended up on top. She is now the official gastronomical guru for all three Freedom papers, and her bylines in those other cities misleadingly suggest that she is simultaneously working out of kitchens in Colorado, California and Arizona.

Similarly, Colorado Springs' "new" travel editor, Gary Warner, has actually worked for the Orange County Register for 15 years, his continued home base. And while the Gazette's "new" film reviewer, Craig Outhier has a byline that identifies him as a Gazette staffer, he actually lives in Arizona, where he works for the East Valley Tribune.

Sounds confusing? Perhaps that's how it's meant to be.

"Basically it was a decision at the corporate level," said Warner. "It's not something we were solicited about; it was a business decision and one I'm not going to Monday morning quarterback."

Here in Colorado Springs, Epstein was reportedly crushed by the news of his out-of-town replacement -- which was delivered without warning -- and that he wasn't the one chosen to be the film reviewer for all three Freedom papers.

After all, for five years, the daily cultivated Epstein's celebrity as a film reviewer; one unforgettable publicity stunt just this year was Epstein's hyped Oscar prediction battle with a monkey (the monkey won).

Last week, Epstein told the Independent, "I'll just say that it wasn't my choice, and I'll leave it at that." While he was disappointed he wasn't picked for the tri-state review job, there are times, Epstein admits, that he's pretty thrilled about not having to write a review, like when Disney's Country Bear Jamboree movie was recently released.

"I also want to say how grateful I am to have done it for five years," Epstein said, recalling the thrill he felt while reviewing one of his first films, Shine.

"I was teary-eyed watching it, but also thinking, 'My God, I get to do this for a living!"

Terry Moore, who is Freedom's "head of interactive content," did not return calls from her California headquarters for comment. But in a story detailing the agreement that appeared in the June issue of American Journalism Review, Ken Brusic, who is the chain's "senior vice president for content and business transformation," said the new arrangement has "elevated the game" at all three papers.

"We've found the focus is much sharper now that there are three groups of eyes reading ... I think the staffs will benefit a great deal."

Translation: Consolidating jobs makes Freedom money.

But at what cost to the readers? Notably, last month, Epstein was awarded a second-place award from the Colorado Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for his film reviews in 2001. He won another prize for a story about the 2001 film Hedwig and the Angry Inch, whose director is from Colorado Springs (anyone see a pattern here?).

In a bit of super-irony, in that same SPJ contest, Gazette entertainment writer Bill Reed picked up a first-place award for his coverage of Clear Channel Communication's takeover of the local radio airwaves. Specifically, Reed documented how Texas-based Clear Channel, with 1,225 radio stations in the U.S. -- including three in Colorado Springs and five in Pueblo -- has engaged in misleading tactics to convince audiences that the stations provide local coverage.

Sound familiar? We'll keep you posted on whether Freedom's effrontery extends to entering Outhier's out-of-state film reviews, or Warner's travel pieces -- or any other "joint content" tri-state news efforts, for that matter -- in next year's Best of Colorado journalism competitions.

-- degette@csindy.com

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