Q&A with Denver Post editor Greg Moore
During the period of time between the December announcement that the Rocky Mountain News had been put up for sale and the February press conference revealing that the Rocky would close the next day, Denver Post editor Greg Moore kept a low public profile, and appropriately so. Since the Post became Denver's only major daily newspaper, he's stepped forward a couple of times, via a front-page pledge co-authored with Post publisher and MediaNews Group chairman Dean Singleton and a subsequent page-one item about feature additions requested by former Rocky readers. But he offered his most detailed comments to date about the events of the past several months, as well as the Post's present and future, in an extensive, and candid, April 2 interview that can be read in its entirety after the jump.
Moore talks about his suspicion that the Rocky would close rather than be sold; the process of planning for that eventuality; interviews with former Rocky staffers, and his disappointment that he couldn't bring more of them aboard; his views about the value of columns, and his desire to "corner the market" on established print voices in the community; the welcome given to the eleven Rocky vets who landed at the Post; his sense that the Post is already a better paper because of recent changes; and areas that could use improvement. He also tackles questions about assorted sections of the paper -- news, sports, arts and entertainment and business -- and muses on the state of the industry and the possibility that he might have a career after journalism.
Right now, however, he's not planning on going anywhere.
Westword (Michael Roberts): Did you have an advance word about the announcement that the Rocky Mountain News was being put up for sale last December? Or did you find out when the rest of us did?
Greg Moore: No, I didn't know anything about it.
WW: What was your reaction when you heard about the sale? I know I, and a lot of people, saw it as a prelude to a closure.
GM: I kind of felt like this was, if not the worst, then one of the worst times to try to sell a newspaper. So I wasn't very hopeful. I kind of felt the way a lot of other people felt - that this was a prelude to a potential closing.
WW: At what point did you start making plans for a post-Rocky world?
GM: There had been some discussions internally, and actually, externally. Dean Singleton had said in a couple of public forums that he felt Denver's future as a two-newspaper town was not long for this world. We had been thinking about that for a while as a potential possibility. That wasn't something we started thinking about it in December. We'd been thinking about it for a while.
WW: What kinds of things were you doing in association with that? Were you having meetings internally to discuss it?
GM: Not a year ago or anything like that. But we probably started thinking about what might really happen as the rumors got a little hotter. Probably in December. And certainly after the announcement, we started planning in earnest for a Saturday paper, and having discussions about our ability to publish seven days a week, especially since we were publishing a bulldog - an early edition of the Sunday paper. One of the first things we were able to do was get agreement from Dean Singleton and the DNA that we could stop publishing the bulldog. We stopped doing that sometime in January or early February in preparation for turning our attention to Saturday and publishing a Saturday paper for the first time in seven or eight years.
WW: Over the past seven or eight years, the Saturday paper has been the Rocky's signature edition. But across the country, the Saturday paper is often pretty slim. Was one of the challenges for you the understanding that not only would you be putting out a Saturday paper, but that it couldn't be one of the smaller papers of the week? It had to have some heft?
GM: We knew that because of the vagaries of this particular market. The Saturday paper actually had a lot of advertising in it. It was different from what you might see in some other markets, which, as you say, are fairly thin. When the Rocky was doing it, the Saturday paper was pretty robust. They treated it like their version of a Sunday paper. We didn't ever envision doing that, but we knew it had to have heft to accommodate the contractual advertising arrangements. So we knew it was going to be a big paper.
WW: When did conversations begin about what Rocky staff members you might like to add if the Rocky did indeed close?
GM: Probably sometime in mid-December, sometime in January, I started thinking about that. And then I talked to John [Temple, editor, publisher and president of the Rocky] as time went on, and asked him for permission to speak to some of his staffers. And he granted that, because as we got into January and February, it seemed more likely that a buyer would not be found, and I didn't want to be in a position of having to wait until a final announcement was made to be able to talk to those people. Because the anxiety of it had prompted them to go out and cast some lines to find some future work. So I got permission from John to approach some of his people sometime in January and February, and I began interviewing a number of them. Because while I'd read their work, I had not met many of them.
WW: What was that experience like? Were you impressed by the caliber of the talent?
GM: Very much so, very much so. I was impressed by the work they did that I'd read, but I was even more impressed when I talked with a number of them. One of the things that really, really impressed me is that even when I was talking to a particular person at the Rocky, at some point during that 25-minute discussion, they'd say, "I really appreciate you talking to me - but here are five colleagues that I really think you should talk to if they're not on your list." That was very impressive to me - that sort of camaraderie and selflessness. It impressed me.
WW: At what point did you have a sense about how many folks you'd be able to bring about - what kind of resources you'd have available?
GM: When was the Rocky's last day?
WW: If I recall correctly, it was February 26. [Not quite right. The closure announcement was made on February 26. The final issue came out the following day.]
GM: I probably had a realistic sense of how many people I might be able to bring aboard in early February. I had a much more ambitious list, and then the realities, the financial realities of what it would take to make all of that happen, sort of hit, and I realized I had to be as strategic as possible in figuring out who I wanted. Because I knew the number wouldn't be nearly as large as I had hoped.
WW: Around that period of time, a number of Post staffers were laid off, and back then, I likened that move to an NFL team clearing cap space. Was that more or less what happened? Did you have to say goodbye to a number of people from the Post in order to bring aboard the number of Rocky people you did?
GM: Some of that is right. In Gary's situation, and I've said this to Gary and others, that was a complete restructuring. MediaNews Group has streamlined the top management, and a number of our bigger papers just don't have the traditional number two anymore. So I knew that was a real possibility, and it finally became a budget certainty. But in other cases, yeah, I was having to eliminate some existing costs in order to absorb some of those folks. Our financial situation is no different from what you see in other newspapers in this industry. Nobody is really adding costs in terms of personnel and reporters and stuff. They're just restructuring how they operate and where they have their resources, and it was no different for us.
WW: When it came to choosing the Rocky staffers, was name value part of the consideration? Or were you simply trying to hire the best people you could?
GM: It was a combination. We wanted personalities that we believed Rocky readers really connected with on an emotional, visceral kind of level. By definition, that would involve a lot of columnists - people who had their faces in the paper. We thought that was important. And I tried as best we could to take people who I thought had some unique skills that would fill a gap here. I wasn't looking to duplicate what we have here. I was looking to augment, and I'm very happy with what we were able to do. I wish we could have done more. There were a lot of really good people down there, I talked to a lot of really good people. But if you could only hire eleven, I think we did well.
WW: During one of our first interviews after you came to the Post, you talked about wanting to reduce the number of columnists. The quote you gave me at the time was that putting too much of a focus on opinion gave papers "a decided lack of urgency," and you called that "a recipe for not having a compelling product."
GM: So now you think you're Tim Russert? (Laughs.)
WW: Has your point of view about that evolved over the years?
GM: Not really. Let me tell you what I was talking about. I think if you remember back in 2002, one of the things that happened is, you had a number of reporters who, on Sunday or even on some other days, were writing columns. And I wanted those reporters really looking for news and not taking the time it took to write their Sunday columns. I didn't even understand why they were doing it. And so the overall impression for me when I was reading and critiquing the paper even before I got here was that a lot of people seemed to be engaged in opinion writing. Kris Hudson was doing that, Jennifer Beauprez was doing that in business. So when I was talking about that, about the prevailing sense that there was a lot of opinion in the paper, that's what I was talking about. You had the suburban reporters had their faces over what looked like columns in Metro, and I really wanted their engines harnessed to go out and break news. That's really what I was talking about. I've never had any antipathy toward columnists. The Boston Globe, where I was last, we had a number of columnists, and used them in a lot of inventive ways. So that wasn't what I was talking about. It was just the overall, pervasive feeling that a lot of reporters were also engaged in writing columns, and I didn't think that was the best use of their time and talent.
WW: Prior to the addition of the Rocky columnists, your columnists had been Bill Porter and Susan Greene, and I recall statements made at the time about how you were trying to get beyond ideology in columns...
GM: I don't think I ever made a comment like that, but go ahead.
WW: Then set me straight. My perception, at least, was that you didn't want to have columnists that were identifiably left or right, but were instead observers of the city whose particular political slant might not be obvious.
GM: Well, what happened was, when Diane Carman decided, in a surprising fashion to me, to leave and do something else, I realized I had an opportunity to do something different. I've always been an admirer of Herb Caen and people like that, who chronicled the alleyways and byways of the city, and I wanted to give that a shot. I thought we had a really good chance to do that, because the slate was clean. And I still think that was a good thing to pursue. But it wasn't a huge sort of epiphany that I needed to dramatically change the kind of columnists that have existed for many, many years prior to my arrival. It wasn't that. But quite frankly, Diane Carman was a singular talent. She had been here for a long time, and she really understood the community, and she was extremely connected not just with the political community, but with the philanthropic community. And she wrote with a tremendous edge. Quite frankly, I miss that, and we've been able to recapture some of that bringing on Tina [Griego] and [Mike] Littwin in particular.
WW: The two folks you just mentioned, as well as [former Rocky columnist] Bill Johnson, are all perceived to be on more of the liberal side of things. Is that any concern for you? Or is the appeal for you more in their personalities and writing styles?
GM: The appeal for me is what they bring to the paper. Tina Griego goes places that many readers do not go to in the metro area. She tells stories that otherwise would not be told. You have Littwin, who has this incisive, sharp wit. He's willing to take on powerful interests, and he does it in a way that I think is compelling for many, many of our readers. And Bill Johnson is a good storyteller who's interested in a lot of things outside of the political sphere. And, of course, we have Susan Greene, who I think brings a great deal of humanity and passion. And I always thought this was important once I realized that the Rocky would no longer be with us: We wanted to corner the market on the established voices in this community. And we have.
WW: The page two column is labeled "Morning Brew," and on days when the folks we've just been talking about aren't writing, you've had people from other parts of the paper writing, like [theater critic] John Moore and [food writer] Tucker Shaw. Tell me you how envision that space.
GM: I envision that as a place to get the conversation started. You turn to that page and you're confronted with a take on an issue. I thought the Tucker Shaw piece about the busy and the un-busy - we're all experiencing that. It was just a way to get the conversation going, and I'm hoping that people read it and it becomes part of the proverbial watercooler discussion. Like, "Did you see that? What do you think about that?" That's how I've envisioned it, and when the primary people who contribute to that space are away, I'd like to give other people the opportunity to be a conversation starter in the community. And so far, I'm happy.
WW: Is it a bonus for you that you may be introducing these writers to people who might not ordinarily read a theater review or a food review?
GM: Yeah, it is. I think it's a really good way to let people get acquainted with the immense talent that John Moore is, or the incredible, witty talent that Tucker Shaw is. And hopefully if they enjoyed Tucker's piece last Saturday, they might say, "I don't usually read the Food section, or his Food Court column every Wednesday. Maybe I need to start, because I like the way he thinks."
WW: One of the things you mentioned at the press conference the day the Rocky's closure was announced is that you didn't want your current staff to feel that they were being given short shrift because of the Rocky additions. Was there any tension as a result of that? Or did things go more smoothly than you might have feared?
GM: Things went extremely smooth. I think the people here really understood what we were doing. I tried to explain it as best I could, but I think people understood it. There was a point where we were doing some of the ads, promoting some of the people we'd brought over, that I got a couple of e-mails from current staffers saying, "What about the other people who are already here?" And I thought that was a valid point. But that was a small point, and a reminder to me about what I'd said - that in bringing over the small number, the small number of Rocky people, it was in no way implying that the talent we have here was not good or anything else. We just wanted to be aggressive and try to bring into the fold some 200,000 people who had been devoted Rocky readers. And I think we've done that so far. There are early indications of that. And I think those were all smart moves.
WW: As you know probably better than anyone, there's been a real competitive atmosphere been the Post and the Rocky even after the joint-operating agreement went into effect. Has there been an establishment of camaraderie between people from both papers, in part because of the tough times the newspaper industry is going through right now?
GM: Yes. People understand that for us to remain healthy and viable in this marketplace, we need to hold onto the combined readership and the combined circulation - at least as much of it as possible - that existed when the Rocky was in the marketplace. They understand that, and whatever the strategy is that we think will accomplish that, they're fully onboard. I think for the eleven people from the Rocky who came upstairs, having fought with us for decades, it was a bit of a culture shock, and I think they were a little concerned about how they would be perceived. And I think if you talk to them, they will tell you that the people up here have been embracing, they've been helpful. They're part of our family now. I think it was the Wednesday after most of them came onboard, after the Rocky closed, we had a party, and I think it was a great icebreaker. It's gone extremely smooth.
WW: Tell me about the balance you've tried to strike between giving Rocky readers some of the things they liked about that paper without diluting the qualities that have always made the Post what it is.
GM: The whole strategy has been "plus-one." We haven't taken away anything that we think distinguished and made valuable the experience that Post readers have had with our paper. What we've done is added and enhanced by adding comics, by adding little things sometimes. I had a few readers call up and say, "When I go to the lottery page and look at the lottery numbers, you don't tell us how many people won, or how many people got three out of five numbers." It was a very simple thing to add, and we added it. So we've done some things that would be imperceptible to longtime Post readers, because they weren't looking for that, per se, anyway. But for the Rocky readers who were looking for those small, affirmative steps in their direction, it's paid huge dividends for us. So I don't think we took anything away from loyal Post readers. We enhanced the paper by adding some of the things that Rocky readers said they missed about the Rocky. And there haven't been that many things. It's probably a half-dozen.
WW: It's only been a little over a month since the Post has been the only major metro daily in Denver. Has the paper already improved in that short period of time?
WW: In what areas have there been the most improvement?
GM: I think we're better edited, more tightly edited. We have more energy. I think that's just a philosophical thing. But we're writing tighter, more direct sort of leads. We're an easier read. We've actually gotten better at planning. Having lost so many of our colleagues in the management area in the last month or two, we've all had to take on additional responsibilities, and in order to make it all work, we've got to become better planners, and we have become better planners. As a result, I think the paper is less frenetic in terms of how we put it together every day, and we're able to think four or five days, or a week, or even two weeks out. And that's made for a better paper.
WW: What are the areas that you see as most in need of improvement?
GM: I don't know about "need," but I'll tell you what the drivers are. We want to do more investigative, watchdog-type reporting. I think we really now, more than ever, have to examine nexuses of power in an aggressive way and do good, solid, fair watchdog journalism. I think it's really, really important, and it's the thing that's going to make us stand out, doing that kind of investigative reporting. Not projects - not long two-, three-, four- or five-month projects. But that daily questioning, inquisitive sort of journalism is hugely important for us. And then we really want to find ways to continue to grow our online audience. We really want to be able to do that, and try to do the best we can to distinguish between what goes into our digital efforts and what goes into print. And we want the experience, the reader experience, to not feel like homework, but we want it to be engaging and challenging and interesting, and not overly time consuming. I think we're accomplishing those things, and we're going to continue to push.
WW: You've dovetailed into something I wanted to ask you about in terms of investigative, watchdog kinds of pieces. I was really impressed by the recent infrastructure series by David Olinger. Is that a model of the kinds of things you'd like to see in the future.
GM: Mmm-hmm. I think if you look at what we've done in the last month and a half, you'll see what I want exactly in this environment. I thought the story that Burt Hubbard did a couple of Sundays ago, or maybe it was last Sunday, looking at the changing demographics here, was great. We've been doing more stories that are data-driven -- not just done by him, but done by a number of others. That's what I'm looking for. Tell me something new. To be able to say that Denver has become whiter and the suburbs have become the home of more minorities sort of turns conventional wisdom on its head, but it's based on data, it's based on good reporting, and we're telling people things they don't know about the place they live. That's good journalism, and that's what I want to do.
WW: In terms of projects, that was one of the Rocky's specialties, and I sensed it wasn't as much of a focus for the Post, and you were more interested in doing day-to-day reporting...
GM: That's absolutely not true. We've devoted a lot of resources to doing investigative reporting and doing projects. Generally we would do about three major projects a year, and we've been doing two or three major projects a year for the last seven years. No, no, no, no, no. We were doing major projects, and we've been doing mini-projects, too. We understand that in-depth reporting, and that's really the term I should use, is really critical. People buy newspapers to learn things they don't know. Just chronicling the day-to-day news, and going to meetings and stuff - that's not the kind of journalism we want to do. In fact, the kind of journalism we want to do is what we're doing in Jeffco, where we've got one of our best reporters...
WW: Karen Crummy.
GM: Yeah, Karen Crummy, who's got a lot of watchdog skills. And we've asked her to go in there and tell the stories about what's going on with Jeffco. It's not just trying to do critical stories. But we want to tell people about what's happening in one of the biggest counties in metro Denver, and in the state, where a lot of our readers live. Those are our readers, and we want to aggressively connect with them. And right now, I think it's paying some dividends.
WW: You've got the biggest newsroom in the state of Colorado right now, I think by quite a margin. You talked earlier about how if you don't do it, who will. Do you feel a responsibility as a result of being sort of the big man on campus.
GM: I feel that with the resources we have, we shouldn't squander this opportunity. Losing a paper like the Rocky, I think, puts more pressure on us to use our resources wisely, use them well. Do good journalism for as long as we can do it. That's what the commitment is - to use our best brainpower and all of our reporting and editing talent to have a crackling, crisp newspaper that tells people things they don't know. Yeah, we feel that responsibility. Hugely.
WW: I feel that the Post's sports section is one of the best in the country, and I'm guessing you won't disagree with me about that.
GM: I won't.
WW: What makes it so good?
GM: Ambition. Ambition and breadth and depth. We have good writers. Our columnists are tough. We aim to be a complete paper, and we realize that first our obligation is to cover our teams extremely well, and to be well-sourced enough to where the big stories, like the Jay Cutler-Josh McDaniels imbroglio - if you care about it, this has to be your first stop. I think that's what we do well. And we've had some really good stories over the years, looking at the disassembling of the Nuggets a few years ago to broken down bodies of football players and what the NFL is doing about that. So not only do we cover the local sports community, but we're also ambitious enough to do things that have broader significance and implications.
WW: In the Internet age, a lot of hits are generated by sports fans - so obviously it makes sense to put a major investment in that area. But is there any fear that the sports section might grow so dominant that it overshadows other areas?
GM: No, I don't think so. The sports department has suffered its share of reductions, and it hasn't gotten a whole bunch of additional resources, just like other parts of the paper. They've had to sort of work smarter and find ways to get greater efficiencies out of the talents they have there. So I don't think so. People sometimes complain if we put a Cutler story on the front page, but I kind of know when we misstep. The readers let us know. So while I might get a couple of complaints about "Why do you have a Cutler story on the front page?," the vast majority of our readers understand that is a significant story. But no, I'm not worried about sports overshadowing other parts of the paper. I don't think we're even close to anything like that.
WW: In terms of the front page, is you goal to have the story that people are talking about on the cover, and if it happens to be a sports story, then fine?
GM: Yeah. I think more than anything else, we want to put out a paper that's interesting. And to put out a paper that's interesting, you want to tell people things that they don't know, and you want to have stories out there that they will talk about. If you're out of step with what people are talking about out there, pretty soon you're going to be irrelevant.
WW: Newspapers across the country have cut back on arts and entertainment coverage; the Rocky certainly did, completely gutting its Spotlight section. But the Post has preserved as much of it as possible, and as a result of that, I think the section is strong.
GM: I do, too.
WW: Why is it worth the investment for you to have your own staff write arts stories as opposed to bringing in a lot of syndicated material?
GM: Because, first of all, the arts community is local news. It can't be duplicated. Somebody in Chicago can't cover our local arts community, and it's a very important and vibrant part of this city and how it sees itself. The DCPA has world-class entertainment in a world-class venue, and it deserves to be treated as a vibrant part of our local news community. Yes, I could probably get theater reviews and movie reviews from some other places. But having a movie reviewer who understands the taste of the local community... They sort of know that certain types of movies aren't going to play well here, and that's why they don't come here. That's the intrinsic thing that, say, a Lisa Kennedy brings. But John Moore doing a review of a performance at the DCPA can't be duplicated by somebody from Chicago or what have you. So we treat the arts community and the theater and the cultural community here as a vibrant part of our local news menu. That's why we've devoted, and continue to devote, time and attention to it. And actually, there's a lot of money spent on that kind of stuff - just as much as is spent on the Avs and the Broncos, by the consuming public.
WW: You mentioned Lisa Kennedy, and my point of view about movie critics is that there really is a value in having her here even though she's writing about the same movie as reviewers across the country, because people here in the community get to know her and trust her and have a relationship with her writing and critical point of view. Is that your opinion as well?
GM: It is, absolutely. And as long as we can do that, it's another way that our readers come to depend on us and identify and relate to us. Whether you agree with Lisa or not, you're able to make some judgments about the kind of entertainment you're considering consuming based on a relationship, and knowing that her tastes match up with your own - or they don't.
WW: You mentioned some of the features you picked up from the Rocky, including the two pages of comics. Is there a part of you that wishes you had those two pages to devote to more original arts coverage. Or is it more, well, that's what the people want, so we need to give it to them?
GM: I think we're doing okay. We're doing what we need to be doing. I don't think anything is suffering. Part of it is, I think we still have a healthy amount of space. Even though we've endured some cutbacks over the past two or three years, I think it's commensurate with the shrinking of our staff. So if we had many more column inches of space, I'm not even sure what we would do with it. I th