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Rocky Mountain Low

How a hedge fund slowly unraveled one of the best sports pages in the country

A Denver Post ad with “TK” written over it in in red Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On the sports page of The Denver Post, Jason Blevins was an oddity. He wore sunglasses in his author photo. He likes to joke that he’s the worst sports reporter on the planet. “I don’t know a single baseball player’s name,” Blevins said. “I don’t know a single hockey player’s name. Forsberg and Sakic—I don’t know if they’re still doing it.” (They’re not.)

But Blevins is the kind of reporter who made The Post’s sports section unique. After joining the paper in 1997, he covered 18 X Games and treated the competitors like real athletes, not sideshow acts. The Post’s Broncos writers filled the sports section with football jargon. Blevins told his editors that the paper that calls itself “The Voice of the Rocky Mountain Empire” ought to do the same for winter sports. “I’m not going to explain what a triple cork 1260 is every time,” he told me.

Blevins occasionally got frustrated when stories about the glove Peyton Manning was wearing out-trafficked everything else in the paper. But at this year’s Winter Olympics, his expertise paid off. Blevins noticed a woman doing a trick-less run down the halfpipe. Sources on the team told him she was Elizabeth Swaney, the freestyle skier who had gone shopping for a country to represent. Blevins quickly turned out a profile that became one of The Post’s great traffic monsters.

As Post sports columnist Mark Kiszla later noted, the best reporters in the world were in Pyeongchang. But “Jason Blevins actually knew what he was looking at.”

In March, Blevins got back from South Korea and settled into his routine. (He also wrote about business and other subjects.) The next few weeks turned out one of the grimmest stretches in The Post’s history. On April 6, The Post adorned its “ultimate visitors guide” to Coors Field with a photo of Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia—a mistake so egregious that one Denver radio host joked it was a strapped staff calling for help. The same night, The Post ran an editorial denouncing the paper’s owner, Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund that’s decimating the Post’s newsroom.

But what got Blevins was Alden president Heath Freeman’s order that The Post lay off 30 more employees. “I couldn’t really reconcile the fact that I was working so hard for such a shithead,” Blevins said.

Asked whether he’d ever seen Freeman, Blevins said, “No one’s ever seen him. There’s like one photo of him out there. He’s more like a mystery serial killer, just hiding in the shadows and slowly murdering newspapers.”

Blevins decided to add himself to the 30-man headcount voluntarily. He sent an email to his editor and a resignation letter to the HR department. He kissed off the paper’s “black-souled” owners in a tweet. And with that, The Post lost a good sportswriter, a newsroom character, and 21 years’ worth of institutional memory.

When we spoke last week, Blevins had no regrets about quitting. But the weight of his decision was starting to sink in. “I had it good,” he said. “I can’t believe I left. I wake up in the middle of the night sometimes wondering, ‘What the hell did you just do?’”

The Denver Post’s sports section isn’t dead. Seven days a week, it comes adorned with copy from a dwindling band of writers like Kiszla, Gina Mizell, and Patrick Saunders. But the paper’s health is precarious enough that it’s not too early to write an appreciation. “It’s weird even saying what made The Denver Post great,” said Benjamin Hochman, a former columnist who now writes in St. Louis. “It still makes The Denver Post great. But some of this stuff is in the past tense.”

If a sports editor measures their worth in APSE awards (and which one doesn’t?), The Post was never going to match The Boston Globe or Los Angeles Times. But it was very good—and often great. The Post boasts alumni from its ’80s and ’90s heyday including Woody Paige, Rick Reilly, Adam Schefter, Marc J. Spears, Gene Wojciechowski, Shelby Strother, Jay Mariotti, and Jerry Crasnick.

When you talk about newspapers in the ’80s, you have to be like a sabermetrician and control for the era. But thanks to infusions of cash from the Times Mirror Company, The Post’s gilded age was as gilded as anybody’s. One year, a sports editor asked Paige to cover every college bowl game. “On the baseball beat, I would say I was limited by my imagination,” said Troy Renck, who wrote for the paper until 2016 and often covered the full baseball postseason, whether or not the Rockies were in it. A reporter could fly to a far-off locale and write a profile that had no local angle. “That was Sports Illustrated kind of stuff,” Paige said. “It was stuff where you could breathe.”

In later years, The Post had a healthy balance between news-breaking (two sports reporters helped out on the paper’s Pulitzer-winning coverage of the Aurora theater shooting) and enterprise pieces or writerly takeouts. Mike Klis, who wrote for the section for more than 17 years, told me the editors would ask for 40 inches, he’d deliver 60, and they’d print all of them. Hochman was allowed to write a baseball feature in the voice of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea because the book was a favorite of one of the characters in the story.

The Post’s calling card was its one-two punch of columnists: Paige and Kiszla. If there were a Denver sports Rushmore—Hochman said with only a touch of journalism-nerd hyperbole—it would include John Elway, Todd Helton, Joe Sakic, and Paige. Paige got to The Post’s sports section in 1981. Other than a few detours (as a general columnist, as Skip Bayless’s antagonist on Cold Pizza), he stayed for 35 years. Viewers of Around the Horn might think of Paige as America’s goofy uncle. But Paige’s colleagues in The Post newsroom knew better: He is America’s well-sourced goofy uncle.

“Woody changed the ball game here,” Kiszla said, by creating the model of a Denver columnist who was willing to slice up local teams when required. But Paige said, “I’ve mellowed over the years.” For a guy who often got asked for his autograph on Broncos road trips, he was known for taking a sincere interest in people at the paper. Once, during a run as Post sports editor, Paige asked everyone in the department for their professional wishes and granted them all.

Kiszla—whom everybody calls “Kiz”—got to The Post in 1983, replacing Reilly on the staff. He cuts a happily cynical figure, like a guy who wants to get on Twitter and take on all the haters, Battle Royale–style. “Kiz was always the devil on your shoulder,” said Joan Niesen, a former Post writer who now works at Sports Illustrated. Paige may have invented the slashing Denver sports columnist, but he has passed the machete to Kiz. “Mark is more of a hammer,” Paige said.

Kiszla fancies himself a reporter-columnist. Paige told me, tongue somewhat planted in cheek: “If Kizsla has a hot take, I want it to at least be a reported hot take.” He is also incredibly versatile. He can write a man-of-the-people column. He can write what they used to call a weeper. Kiszla is also an ace Olympics columnist. See his piece from Pyeongchang about Czech skier Ester Ledecka.

Long after most cities lost their columnists to age or debate TV, Denver retained at least partial use of Kiz and Woody. In 1998, when John Elway’s Broncos won their first Super Bowl, owner Pat Bowlen declared, “This one’s for John.” Sixteen years later, Seattle obliterated the Broncos in the Super Bowl. Paige’s opening line was: “This one’s for the john.” That’s the kind of lede you write when you’ve been around a while.

The other thing that lent the Post’s sports page an identity was its rivalry with the Rocky Mountain News. If you know anything about newspaper wars, you know the combatants usually play one of two roles. Post sportswriters were the smug voices of the establishment (or so Rocky writers claimed after a few beers), whereas Rocky writers (this was what the Post guys claimed, also after a few beers) viewed sportswriting as nothing short of a moral crusade. The Denver newspaper war was notable for its length and its viciousness. “I loved it and I hated it and I was honored to be a part of it,” said Adam Schefter, who worked at both papers.

At times, the battle for scoops took on a surreal air. The Rocky’s T.J. Simers bragged that he asked for a dorm room at Broncos training camp that was situated a floor above a room used by Post staffers and then listened through the air vents so he could hear their story ideas.

In 2000, The Post’s Mike Klis got upset about a point of decorum in the press box at Coors Field. He wound up slugging the Rocky’s Tracy Ringolsby. A “regrettable episode,” Klis told me last week. At the time, Ringolsby told Westword, “I’ve had ex-wives who hit harder.”

The Broncos beat was ground zero of the Post-Rocky war, because it was arguably the most important beat, in any section, for both papers. (A joke now is the Post’s three big topics are the Broncos, crime, and pot.) “It was just a battle every day over everything,” said Schefter, who started at the Rocky in 1990. If you could find out what kind of candy John Elway was giving out at his home on Halloween, that counted as a scoop.

When sportswriters competed in print rather than online, they vied for a “driveway scoop.” Beating the competition had a certain finality. “You owned the news cycle for 24 hours until the next day’s paper arrived,” Schefter said. “It was like a prehistoric version of the Twitter world we live in today.”

The bad news was you could be on the wrong end of a driveway scoop, too. “That morning paper would show up,” Schefter said. “I’d be sleeping in my apartment and I’d hear the thud at 5:30 in the morning and it would snap me awake like a dog wakes up from his nap when he smells food. I’d have to go to the door and peel back the section of The Denver Post to see if I got beat on anything. It was miserable seeing something you missed as a young reporter. You’d see that the Broncos were shopping John Elway and you’d go, ‘Oh my God …’”

Schefter still remembers his big first driveway scoop. It was 1993. He was walking to practice with Elway, talking about the quarterback’s relationship with former coach Dan Reeves. When Elway coughed up a vivid quote—“The last three years have been hell”—Schefter got so excited he started shaking. He ran across the Broncos’ training-camp facility to huddle with his reporting partner, Rick Morrissey. When Morrissey got a response from Reeves—“Let’s just say it wasn’t exactly heaven for me, either”—the story made the front page.

As a Rocky reporter, Schefter turned down two offers to go to the Post. In 1996, he defected for what he remembers was about a $20,000 raise. “Boy, it felt treasonous,” he said. The Rocky’s sports editor had former columnist Jay Mariotti call Schefter to try to talk him out of leaving. Schefter thought that was odd, since Mariotti had jumped from the Rocky to the Post himself.

The Post won the newspaper war when the Rocky folded in 2009. USA Today’s Lindsay H. Jones, who was then on The Post’s Broncos beat, said: “I remember the reaction being, ‘Oh, shit. What does this mean for journalism in Colorado?’” Everyone knew the same market forces, if not the vulture capitalists, would soon descend on The Post. “We’ve already seen the death of one great paper,” Schefter said. “We could be close to seeing the death of another.

“It just makes you sad,” he continued. “It’s like hearing they’re tearing down your old high school.”

When Jason Blevins got to The Post in 1997, the paper was still flush. But in recent years, editors started asking whether Blevins needed to stay five nights in Aspen to cover the X Games. Maybe he could pick two days instead.

In fairness, that kind of belt-tightening has happened at every sports section in the country, and started at The Post before Alden bought the paper’s parent company in 2010. In 2009, Klis was cited by the APSE for a story he cowrote about murdered Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams. “I got the email of congratulations that morning,” Klis said. “And then, that afternoon, I got a company-wide email saying that our pay was getting slashed 10 percent and that we were having salary freezes for three years.” Klis made up the pay cut by refereeing basketball and slow-pitch softball. Scott Monserud, The Post’s sports editor, said his section has one-third as many writers as it did when he started editing the section in 2005.

But there’s no question the sleeper hold Alden put on the paper has made things worse in sports. John Leyba, a well-regarded photographer who had been at The Post since 1984, left last week as part of the most recent round of layoffs. Because of earlier printing press runs (another near-universal headache for newspapers), Rockies writer Nick Groke started turning in first drafts of his gamers in the eighth inning, so as not to overwhelm the already depleted copy staff.

“Our deadlines were a joke because we were printing all these other newspapers,” Paige said. “You could get the Colorado Springs Gazette and the Rockies game would be in it. If you read The Denver Post, it would say, ‘For the Rockies story, go online.’”

Now, there are occasional periods during the day when the Post sports section has no copy editor on duty. To get her stories up quickly, Broncos beat writer Nicki Jhabvala edited some stories herself, and even shared them on the Post’s social media accounts. (Monserud said he or a deputy tries to look at every major piece.)

Jhabvala told me she was happy to work hard; during one stretch of free agency last month, she had 25 bylines in a week. But she worried such a torrid pace was affecting her development. “I wanted to continue to get better as a writer,” she said. “But I got to the point where I was like, ‘Man, I’m getting worse.’”

On March 26, Jhabvala, Groke, and Broncos writer Nick Kosmider told management they were leaving for The Athletic’s newly created Denver site. Groke, who’s 39, had worked at The Post almost continuously since he was a 17-year-old recording high school football and basketball scores. Asked about the morale in sports, Kiszla said with a merry chuckle, “I don’t know if we have enough people to have a morale.”

As Westword’s Michael Roberts has pointed out, The Post now has a football-writer-in-absentia problem. Former Broncos beat writers Klis, Renck, Jhabvala, Kosmider, Lindsay H. Jones, and ESPN’s Jeff Legwold continue to live in Denver. “We’re all still in this market, covering the Broncos or covering sports locally,” said Jones. “But none of us work for The Denver Post.”

Kiz is still firing away in his column—happily, he insisted. “I’m not a big woe-is-me guy,” he said. “I have had—and do have—a great life. I’m not going to reach in, grab my heart, and go all Hamlet on you.”

But Paige is long gone. Two years ago, while celebrating his 70th birthday in Mexico, Paige found out The Post had laid off a writer he was close to. That was his breaking point. He quit. As Paige remembered it: “I said, ‘I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to work for the vulture capitalists’—which has suddenly become a famous term.

“I got in my car and I thought I’d cry,” Paige said. “I’d been there 35 years. But I didn’t have any emotion whatsoever.” The same day, he made a few calls and got a column for the Colorado Springs Gazette and a gig with ABC’s Denver affiliate to go with his sinecure on Around the Horn.

On April 6, The Post made a gaffe heard round the sports media world when it mistook a photo of Citizens Bank Park for Coors Field. That the photo ran in Life & Culture rather than Sports didn’t spare Rockies writers Groke and Patrick Saunders from catching grief. This is the kind of thing that happens when you remove the eyeballs from a newspaper office. “I understand the industry is struggling and probably requires some cuts and trimming of the fat,” Blevins said. “But these are pure battlefield amputations that were not needed.” (In 2016 the paper was reportedly making a profit of more than $25 million.)

Hours after the photo ran, the Post published its now-famous cry for help. “When they did that,” Paige said, “that showed me a lot of balls. … He [editorial page editor Chuck Plunkett] basically shit on his own newspaper.”

Now, Post writers wait for a benevolent billionaire, or maybe a civic group, to wrest the paper from Alden. Until then, they’re getting by as best they can. Blevins still subscribes to the print version of the Post. “I’ll give ’em a little bit of money,” he said. “But I’m not going to give ’em my blood, sweat, and tears anymore.” Lately, when Blevins goes to fetch the paper, he has noticed rocks in the plastic bag it arrives in. The Denver Post has gotten so thin—has been drained of so much of what made it great—that the delivery man needs extra weight to throw it across the driveway.

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