The unsteady Gazette 

Layoffs, economy drag daily through struggles

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Any day now, the news will come from the Old Gray Ghost east of downtown. In another era, many might have described it as "long-awaited" but not anymore.

The Gazette will unveil its fifth publisher of this decade, as parent company Freedom Communications Inc. brings in yet another leader to run what is now the largest seven-days-a-week newspaper in Colorado. (That's because the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News, as long as their joint operating agreement lasts, publish six days each, splitting the weekend.)

Since mid-September, when Scott McKibben became the latest short-term CEO to flee Colorado Springs' daily paper, the Gazette has gone without even an interim publisher. Jon Segal, president of Freedom Newspapers the company's arm that operates its 33 daily and 77 non-daily publications has conducted what he termed a national search, interviewing top candidates in recent weeks.

The past two publishers, McKibben and Bob Burdick (2004-06), came from outside the Freedom family. There has been little public speculation this time, and even current Gazette editor Jeff Thomas was saying two weeks ago, "I haven't devoted any brain cells to the guessing game." Thomas added that it would "probably be remarkable," even if the announcement came around Thanksgiving, to see a new publisher arrive at 30 S. Prospect St. before January.

Like so much else related to the Gazette in recent years, though, it simply isn't that big a deal around the community. In part, that's because the local paper hasn't had a high-profile, civically conscious publisher since the mercurial Chris Anderson ran the show from 1994-98.

But it's also because the Gazette's influence and market penetration aren't close to 1980s and '90s levels, when it was much more dominant in the market and winning a variety of awards, topped by a Pulitzer Prize in 1990. McKibben's 20-month tenure included layoffs throughout the building, as has been the case at most daily papers. Starting shortly after his arrival, more than 30 positions vanished in the newsroom alone over an 18-month span.

Tough times

Daily newspapers everywhere have seen sharp declines in advertising and circulation in recent years. Thomas confirms the Gazette has continued to struggle in 2008, though he insists that "we are still making a profit."

"It's fair to say this has been among the most difficult years we've ever experienced, financially," Thomas says, "but that puts us in the company of just about every other [daily] paper in America. We were glad to put '07 behind us, and this year has been worse. It's been tough to plan out for two months, let alone the whole year."

Thomas says "there are signs that are tantalizing" about a possible turnaround, "but we're still trying to figure out the point where we'll settle to."

A new publisher will find precariousness on various fronts.

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Circulation: Despite continuing to claim 100,000 in circulation, latest audited numbers show only 57,852 customers with seven-day, regular-rate subscriptions (plus single-copy sales), the most common industry standard. The Gazette adds 12,066 at a deeply discounted rate, plus 5,599 given to schools for classroom use, 4,056 in bulk to hotels and businesses, and 14,017 "electronic" subscribers.

Market penetration: As recently as the 1990s, the Gazette and Pueblo Chieftain competed for the nation's best percentage of market households. Today, the Chieftain still ranks high nationally, with a penetration of 70 percent inside the Steel City, 61 percent for all of Pueblo County. But the Gazette has slipped, with only about 27 percent of El Paso County households paying the full amount for home delivery, and just 32 percent counting heavy discounts.

Company-wide desperation: At the Orange County Register, Freedom's largest daily, severe newsroom cuts were just the beginning. The paper decided to "outsource" some copy editing to India. In the Phoenix area, Freedom's East Valley Tribune (with comparable circulation to the Gazette) didn't stop at dumping 40 percent 140 positions from its payroll. It has taken the unprecedented step (effective in January) of cutting back its print product from seven days a week to four, with news appearing online the other three days.

Key departures: It's been across the board, amid hiring freezes and layoffs. A few examples: Longtime editorial cartoonist Chuck Asay retired early, and the paper has since used only syndicated cartoons (some from Asay). Ed Sealover, who built respect covering local government before moving to Denver, left for the Rocky, leaving only a sportswriter from the Gazette in Denver. Sports columnist Milo Bryant moved to San Diego (he still writes a weekly fitness column from there). Other writers and editors have departed or accepted lesser positions.

Pulling back: Next year, state Legislature coverage will be handled by reporters commuting from the Springs, plus wire and Rocky stories. Even the YourHub concept (purchased from the Post), intended to provide more content at the neighborhood level, has shrunk to a two-person staff.

Diminished community presence: For years, the Gazette invested heavily in sponsorships across the local arts scene. But as budgets have tightened, it has reduced or eliminated annual funding commitments to entities and events.

Online: Like many other papers, the Gazette has tried to develop its site, updating news and putting stories online before appearing in print. But as with the rest of the industry, the return on that investment has not been a financial godsend. Months ago, the Gazette reduced its online staff, and technical problems ensued.

Freedom's finances: Since two private equity firms bailed out the company in 2003, Freedom's ability to pay back the estimated $450 million infusion has eroded, and now its corporate debt rating has slipped. Those outside investors influenced the hiring of Freedom's current CEO, Scott Flanders, a corporate attorney with no journalism background. Also, rumors suggest Freedom is exploring selling the Register or combining operations with the Los Angeles Times.

Shrinking operation

McKibben was known in the business as a slash-and-burn, bottom-line guy, and his hiring brought concerns that he was coming here to make hard-line decisions. He lived up to that reputation with the widespread cutbacks.

In late August, McKibben announced his resignation, joining the Los Angeles Times Media Group. He said the opportunity arose and he couldn't refuse; knowledgeable sources tell the Independent that McKibben had been job-hunting for months. In fact, he never lived in town, instead commuting from south Denver.

As for following the lead of Freedom's Phoenix-area paper and perhaps cutting its publication schedule, Thomas replies, "I've gotten no direction that way. I'm not eager to cut out days of publication, but maybe we might address some days of the week different from others."

So, amid so much uncertainty and instability, the Gazette waits to see who will be its next publisher, making the same long-term promises about new directions and more civic involvement that staff and community members have heard before.


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