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Letter from Jeff Thomas re: Rich Tosches column being cut

Allison Foster wrote:

Dear Mr. Thomas,

I have been a resident of Colorado Springs for 30 years. I have

to admit, I rarely read the Gazette. I subscribe to the Denver Post; the Post often has more in-depth coverage of issues in our community than our own local paper. However, Rich Tosches' column made me pick up the Gazette a few times a week or at least visit your website. Now that you've canceled his column, I have no reason to ever waste $.50 or $1.25 again.

Thanks for helping me to save my money,

Allison Foster

(Letter from Jeff Thomas)

Fans of Rich Tosches,

It's been little more than a week since the announcement that Rich Tosches would stop writing his column and would begin writing news stories as a reporter for The Gazette. I sent out a summary of reader responses a day or so after the first announcement, then again later in that week, to those who had written to me after the first summary. This is the third summary, sent to those who have written in the past few days but who have not yet received a response.

So far, about 240 have phoned with their comments, and more than that have sent me an e-mail message. The substance of the most recent responses remains consistent with those sent to me earlier, so what follows is essentially a repeat of the summary I've sent out previously. Here it is:

As you might expect, those who have taken the time to respond to the news are nearly uniformly against the idea. Here's a sampling of what Gazette readers have said or written to me. First, some of the comments that came in by phone:

I've enjoyed Rich for years and he's brought to my attention a lot of issues in this city. I'm sorry you're doing this to him.

You guys are losing a great column. It's the first one our entire family reads when it picks up the paper.

I wondered when the right wing in this town would be able to able to get rid of him [from] your paper, and now I just wanted to let you know I have absolutely no reason to read the Gazette.

[The column is] one of the best things about living in Colorado Springs. I

read and think, "at least there's one smart person in this town."

Columns are what make a newspaper. What makes your paper different from some other paper is that you have this columnist. You're losing something that made people like me hang in there.

Yeah. Are you the nazi that's getting rid of Rich's column?

[There are a] lot of people who read the paper because of him and his column. [There are a] number of people who feel the editorial page is slanted in one direction most of the time. They felt, with Rich's columns, they felt it was a refreshing departure most of the time. It was the one bit of wit one could look forward to.

I have haven't seen any blank spaces in your Lifestyle section that would warrant closing this column down.

If you persist in knuckling under to your big advertisers and removing Rich Tosches from his column, I will not be one of your subscribers any more, as he is the only reason to read your so-called newspaper.

[The columns] is one of the leading things that your paper's had over the last 30 years that I've been a subscriber. He is a real asset to the community, he makes people sit and think and have a good laugh at the same time.

Darn shame you had to remove Rich and his column. I assume you're going to leave the moron who writes your editorial cartoons. Seemed like a fair balance to me, but obviously your newspaper no longer cares about a fair balance.

When he started writing serious columns [in late 2001], I was kind of surprised when that happened, but I realized his serious columns are as good as his humor columns. I'm really going to miss his particular column.

One of the main reason we get the Gazelle is for him. He keeps us entertained and he keeps us smiling, and there's not a lot to smile about around here. His humor is great. He makes all the ridiculous issues in Colorado Springs funny so that you can continue going day to day. We don't want to lose him as a columnist. He's too good.

Mr. Tosches is neither funny nor clever, and shouldn't even be allowed to write for the paper at all. So, the sooner you can phase him out entirely, the better. See if you can find somebody who does have talent and doesn't engage in routine butchery of our citizenry here.

(Jeff Thomas writes:)

And a sampling of the comments that came by e-mail:

Shame on you! Can we blame Focus on the Family?

A few, maybe a lot, know what Rich has meant to this community and how his efforts may have indeed staved off even more oppressive government and Christian Supremacy.

What a loss. I thoroughly enjoyed your column. You are so "brave." I appreciate your bold, eclectic sense of humor. You are a terribly funny guy. And, poignant. A rare combination.

This extremely selfish, right-wing community needs an occasional "left" jab. It also needs a daily reminder that we are put on this Earth to serve others, not to serve ourselves. Rich has been that left jab/reminder for many years now.

[A]n obviously political move by the newspaper. Rich's columns are the only sanity the Gazette offers to counter the ridiculous viewpoints espoused by Chuck Asay and the majority of the opinions expressed on the Editorial pages.

[T]he Gazette owes an explanation to those of its readers who have come to depend on being able to read Rich's column and get a chuckle over areas that many get so stressed out about. We NEED to have someone who can poke fun at things to keep all of us from taking ourselves too seriously.

I guess the Gazette isn't a big enough publication to withstand a dissenting opinion - and maybe you are just caving in to groups like Focus on the Family and the Broadmoor, etc. What creates a great community is, in part, the ability to encompass differing opinions and what creates a good newspaper is some fairness in reporting those differing opinions - allowing some space for those who do not buy the party line.

Let me guess. Did the county commissioners finally complain that he was getting too close to the truth? Did our silly city council let him get under their skin? Heck, SOMEone on your staff needs to tell us what inane truths are going on in those ivory towers. No one else will!

[H]is column was one of a select few things in the paper that my partner and I both looked forward to reading everyday, without fail, almost religously. . . . It takes a special person to make people laugh about budget cuts, moving house, and the generally boring everyday things we are all faced with. Seriously, he could make anyone laugh about the most rediculous of things.

It saddens me to think that one portion of the population has influenced your decision to stop this column in the Gazette. How does free and balanced speech apply to this paper?

I have not always agreed with his positions, or with some of his attempted humor, but he has a happy faculty of getting under the skin of politicians. In doing so, he gets the truth out very nicely, and he is to be commended for it.

If Rich loses his column, than we lose our only honest source of information as to what is happening behind the scenes, in our community. What an incredible loss.

You just took away our reason for reading the Gazelle. We have cancelled our subscription of many many years.

He drives me wild sometimes, but that's the point.

I am a Christian conservative who loves Focus on the Family. But we all are entitled to our opinions, and Mr. Tosches certainly does make me smile when I read his. Even if I REALLY don't agree with him, he still makes me SMILE. His writing style is unique and very fun to read. I can't believe all these people who take him so seriously and can't take a joke. I would hate to meet these people in person, believe me.

What ever are you people thinking about? Rich Tosches has provided the ONLY real news about Colorado Springs, Without his column, I would be uninformed of Uncle Wilber, Dr. Suess and the other horrifications that this city (ha!) shoves down our throats. You, Jeff, should be ashamed. Dammit.

How will these matters be covered in the Gazette if his column is cancelled? I've not noticed a reporter dedicated to city and county government news.

I'm sure there are many, many in our county and "village" government who are, at this very moment, rejoicing at their great good-fortune their nemesis has finally been chained and muzzled! But, that is precisely the reason that we, the common folk of the region, grieve.

My subscription renewal is in the garbage with yesterday's Gazelle.

What a drag ... no more "real" updates several times a week. It's what made your paper special. Why don't you guys ever get that? This is a major loss to your pub. Major loss.

[W]hy buy the Gazette if all you are going to publish are syndicated columnists and fail to take advantage of your position as a LOCAL paper?

Why do you want your paper to be a soppy white-bread milk toast? Is there something wrong with opinions (or only those contrary to your own?) Is there something wrong with personality?

You are taking away the very core of what made the Gazette different and gave it heart. Someone finally got to you, didn't they?

Rich Tosches is a bitter man. And, although he had an occasional "RIGHT ON" column - for the most part - he was just seeking revenge/settling some (unknown) score with area leaders. He wanted to make certain Public Officials look bad. What he actually succeeded in doing was making both himself AND the newspaper he worked for - look petty, unprofessional and,

yes, even unethical.

(Jeff Thomas writes:)

From all of this, some themes emerge:

The end of Rich Tosches' column is a huge loss.

The Gazette was pressured into doing it.

The paper will be too conservative without his voice.

Without Rich's column, news will not get covered. (A corollary to this assertion was occasionally forwarded: The news written by Gazette journalists who are not Rich Tosches is crafted with the intent to please the area's elected officials and its religious insitutions.)

I'll try to take those in order.

The critics are correct: It IS a loss for Gazette readers. No one here is going to pretend it is a happy occasion. Any editor would prefer to be able to offer a columnist to readers, especially one as talented as Rich. The editor and I made this decision fully aware lots of readers would protest, especially given the prominence of the change.

As to the question, "Can we blame Focus on the Family?" the answer is: Yes, if you want to, but you'd be wrong.

I understand that it all looks so terribly obvious. But we're not THAT thin-skinned. We endure the complaints of many institutions and consituencies more or less constantly. The names and circumstances change, but at any one point, someone, somewhere is currently convinced that the media generally, or The Gazette specifically, is doing them wrong. The superintendent of the Air Force Academy, for example, is not a big fan of us these days. He certainly isn't calling us to congratulate us on the stories we're publishing. Or, ask El Paso County Commissioner Tom Huffman how happy he was with the reporting Pam Zubeck did earlier this year on the secret dealings of county government. Or ask Rich Marianos, special agent for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms about how happy he was that The Gazette recently published, against his strong protests, the name of someone who had been detained in connection with the discovery of a suspected bomb. We scooped the press conference that the ATF had scheduled to announce its bust, and Mr. Marianos was mightily distressed Some years back, we published a story about a group of architects who judged that the then-new American Furniture Warehouse building at Fillmore and I-25 was ugly. We got an earful from an angry Jake Jabs, who temporarily pulled some of his advertising. The story ran anyway. We live with this kind of grumbling all the time.

Lest it seem I protest too much, I'll end this portion by saying truly, we give just about zero consideration to whether any person, company, church, advertiser, politician or whoever is pleased or angered by the news we report. If it's true, if it's news and if the facts are presented clearly and in context, then it gets printed, period. If a columnist likewise has his or her facts straight, then he or she is entitled to whatever opinion he or she may have about those facts. In fact, he or she is paid to have an opinion about those facts, paid to be provocative. It wouldn't be a column if it didn't occasionally anger someone. Was Rich everyone's cup of tea? Of course not, and that was to his benefit.

So, then, why?

The short of it is we need Rich to help us cover the news.

The long of it is the hard fact that in 2004, the number of journalists in The Gazette's newsroom will be the smallest in nearly 20 years. The tech-industry bust that began in 2001 has eliminated not only a lot of jobs but also a lot of help-wanted advertising, which is among the largest sources of revenue of any American local daily newspaper. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 threw an already softening advertising economy into a full-blown advertising recession, but did not soften profit expectations.

Result: severe spending restrictions placed upon the newsroom, and several years of declining number of journalists writing and editing the stories and photos in The Gazette. The number will go down again in 2004.

We've reached the point, in my judgment, where we need every capable person available to cover the news, which is, after all, the first job of a newspaper, no matter how brilliant the columnist might be. Goodness knows there are whole swaths of news in this region that we can't cover with the vigor they deserve; current conditions only stretch us thinner. We must cover the news, we've had to reduce the number of reporters at The Gazette for budgetary reasons, we can't hire anyone new for those same reasons, so we need Rich's help to keep the reporting ranks as strong as possible.

Rich will work general assignments, meaning he will cover whatever appears to be a good story. He will have a minor in senior issues and local authors. I think it's safe to say he won't be covering religion. But by working on the Life staff, he will have the widest possible array of potential subjects at his disposal, from the cosmic to the mundane, from the intimate to the sweeping. His stories will appear in the Life section, the front page and probably elsewhere in the paper. It would do even greater harm, in my judgment, to simply increase the percentage of the Life section filled by wire stories; the news produced by the Life staff -- and it is news -- for publication in its own section and for publication in the A section must be as local as possible, just as with all other reporting staffs at the paper. At the end of this message I have included a sample of a Gazette news story written, once upon a time, by Rich. Judge for yourself whether his news stories will be worth reading.

(Note from The Independent: We do not have permission to reprint the above-referenced Gazette article written by Tosches, thus it does not appear at the end of this letter.)

(Jeff Thomas writes:)

The most common lament expressed to me is that The Gazette is losing a desperately needed liberal voice. Rich may be viewed as liberal (or not), but in any case, metro columnists are not put upon this earth to serve as some kind of alternative to the editorial pages.

Suppose, for a moment, that The Gazette's editorial page were liberal. Would Rich still have been our columnist? Yes. Would he have been any less insightful or entertaining? No. He wasn't hired to be a counterbalance. He was hired to be Rich, with no thought whatever to the brand of political philosophy being advocated on the opinion pages.

And that's the way it should be, because there is no connection between the news we publish and the opinion of the corporate ownership of The Gazette that is expressed daily on the opinion pages. The publisher supervises the opinion staff, while the editor and myself supervise the 30-times-larger news staff. (You may come and see for yourself, if you wish; our newsroom and news meetings are open to anyone who cares to arrange a visit, though we reserve the right to exclude competing news organizations we like to preserve our scoops).

Finally, some of the messages I've heard from readers on the phone and by mail include the supposition that without Rich, news will not be covered. One reader put it this way:

"How will these matters be covered in the Gazette if his column is cancelled? I've not noticed a reporter dedicated to city and county government news."

If I may, allow me to introduce Ed Sealover, who covers Colorado Springs municipal government full time, and Perry Swanson, who covers El Paso County Government full time. On the county beat, Perry succeeds Pam Zubeck, a bulldog reporter if one ever lived, who currently is assigned to the onging AFA sexual-assault saga.

Ed has merely averaged more than one story per day, weekends included, for the past 12 months. We're actually trying to figure out ways to slow Ed down. Perry's recent stories include the page-one news that rural bus service will be continued for 2004, the page-one news that a judge has thrown out nearly all charges leveled against last spring's anti-war demonstrators, and the Metro-one news that the state mistakenly sent nearly $1 million intended for El Paso County to Elbert County instead. Clearly, our news staff does cover the news, we need to keep covering the news first and foremost, and Rich will help us do that in 2004.

One measure of a metro columnist's success is the depth of relationship he or she forges with a newspaper's readership. For many, it is a love relationship, and for others, it's closer to hate. Either way, it is a committed relationship, and breaking it is neither fun nor done lightly. The depth and intensity of frustration poured out during the past couple of week is yet more confirmation to me that readers want their local paper to be potent and meaningful, a desire I share. I won't pretend that ending Rich's column makes The Gazette stronger or more meaningful; I will contend, however, that it is necessary to keep our primary function -- covering the news -- as strong as possible given the resources at our disposal.

Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to call or write. With best regards,

--jt

P.S., Ms. Allison,

Please send me ANY example of any other newspaper covering Colorado Springs with more depth than The Gazette. I promise to wave it under the nose of any editor who works for me who would be responsible for making sure we are the most authoritative source of news about Colorado Springs. Thanks.

---------------------

Jeff Thomas

managing editor

The Gazette

Colorado Springs

719/636 0222

jeff@gazette.com

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