Greg Moore’s Plans For ‘The Denver Post’

By: Jim Moscou

Gregory L. Moore won’t sugarcoat his lesson.

It’s September, early in the school year, as Moore sits on a teacher’s desk at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s journalism school, bumming out 35 college students. After arriving at The Denver Post as its new editor nearly 100 days earlier, this is his latest stop, the state’s biggest newspaper training factory, in his effort to get to know Colorado — and for Colorado to get to know him.

He’s trying to be gentle. Moore, 48, knows what it’s like to be eager and young. And he knows how Colorado journalism has worked — in part, like a good-ole-boy network. J-school graduates land a job, say, in Boulder, Colorado Springs, or Fort Collins, then, after a few years, knock on the friendly door of the Post or Rocky Mountain News.

But a dogged student wants answers and asks, again, “What will it take to get to the Post?” Moore tells it like it is, kids. Tradition is over.

“I would not want to see more [University of Colorado grads] at the Post,” he says. “I want people with different backgrounds. So, go off some place. Go do different things, then come back home knowing what needs to be done here for Colorado to be great.”

Moore thinks he knows how to make Colorado journalism great. After 16 years at The Boston Globe, seven as managing editor, he has made a bigger impression on this local newspaper scene in his first five months than some of the wise heads whose likenesses hang on the Denver Press Club walls. He’s working this city like an East Coast player. Breakfasts, lunches, dinners — he wants to meet anyone, anywhere, with a bear handshake, that baritone laugh and just enough slang to grease a conversation and put you at ease. He’s got style.

And, he’s made history. With The Sunday Denver Post & Rocky Mountain News‘ circulation now at 789,137, Moore’s arrival makes the combined Sunday paper the largest in the country, perhaps ever, with an African American as editor. For Moore, the job is a prize he’s eyed for two decades — a dream encouraged, nudged, and nurtured by mentors, some black, some white, all who saw his future even before he did.

But now Moore aims to spin a notoriously underachieving newspaper into a daily contender. His boss, MediaNews Group Inc. Vice Chairman and CEO William Dean Singleton, has asked him to turn the company flagship into one of the top five newspapers in America, an ambitious goal for a paper that doesn’t have a single foreign bureau, struggles to beat its crosstown rival at local news, and has an owner and publisher (Singleton) once famous for “bare-bones” newsrooms.

It can be done, Moore says. Give me the tools, give me the resources, show me the money, and the Post will crack the top 10, at least. The effort seems well under way. Post staffers already fired, reassigned, and hired could field a football team. Post stories are getting attention outside Colorado. And, in an industry still spinning from layoffs, Moore’s on a Grade-A hiring binge — thanks to that parsimonious owner.

“Wow,” says Post reporter Trent Siebert. “The guy has come in and filled a vacuum. He’s dominating. He’s running a meritocracy on speed here. He’s a genius in a freaky way.”

Still, these are nerve-racking times for many Post veterans, whose hard-earned skepticism can’t be underestimated. “We’re war-weary,” says a longtime scribe. Hearing that a new editor wants to take the paper to “the next level” is “a running joke,” he says.

Regardless, the fact is, it’s time to keep an eye on Greg Moore. Heck, people have always watched the big man (he’s 6 feet 2 inches tall), especially when he’s against the ropes or traversing a newsroom in those walloping strides. You can’t miss Moore. If he succeeds, Rocky Mountain newspapers, maybe American newspapers, may never be quite the same.

And if he fails, well — actually, Moore doesn’t often let himself do that.

Even now I can remember

Moore has roots deep in the banks of Lake Erie — on black, working-class Cleveland’s East Side. His father worked at a foundry and as a handyman. His mother, a high-school graduate, was “the most educated person I knew,” he says. The local newspaper? It was “My Plain Dealer,” his mother always called it. “My Plain Dealer.”

At Glenville High School, a big-city black school, Moore nailed grades and charmed classmates. Muhammad Ali was his idol, boxing his sport. His basement held a homemade boxing ring, where “we settled neighborhood disputes, sold tickets even.” But Moore grew up sheltered, from whites: “I kept hearing the basic old saw, ‘You got to work twice as hard as they do. … They’re different. … They’re smarter.'”

Moore was accepted at Ohio Wesleyan University in 1972. But one more lesson awaited him in Cleveland. A week before college, his parents split up, his mom taking his three younger sisters and baby brother. He helped her move all the furniture out. His father came home from work that night and “went ballistic,” feeling Greg had committed “the ultimate betrayal.” But, Moore says now, “I’m very proud of what I did. I think I made the right call.

“So, you see?” he adds, sitting in his shiny, new Post office. “I’m used to making tough decisions.”

At college, he took a double major — political science and journalism — and was “the life of the party,” says Verne Edwards, Moore’s college adviser. He loved politics, but found journalism pure, honorable. And when he worked on the college newspaper and didn’t like its minority coverage, he started his own: The Witness, which continued publishing 10 years after his graduation. It’s still one of Moore’s proudest achievements.

“Oh, he desperately wanted to work in Cleveland,” Edwards says. But first he landed at The Journal Herald in Dayton, Ohio, covering City Hall. There, on Jan. 16, 1978, at 24 years old and 178 pounds, Moore stepped into the Golden Gloves ring as “The Blue Bomber.” Two rounds later, he knocked out his opponent. The next fight: TKO in the third, but Moore perforated his eardrum. At his mother’s plea, he retired, walking away a bit battered, but with this lesson: “I knew I’d regret it if I never did it [Golden Gloves],” he says. “And I now knew what it’s like to be one-on-one, when you only have yourself and your wits. Very few people will understand that — unless they’ve been a boxer.”

He still wanted to work for Mom’s “My Plain Dealer.” And in February 1980, Robert G. McGruder, the paper’s city editor, hired Moore. McGruder was the most powerful black editor he’d ever known, and talked of being editor of The Plain Dealer. “I didn’t know a black man could do that,” Moore says. Two years later, McGruder made Moore the paper’s statewide political editor. In 1986, however, Moore got the call from The Boston Globe, and moved east, with his wife, Sheila, and their baby son, Michael.

Meanwhile, McGruder’s hope of becoming The Plain Dealer‘s top editor was dashed. A few years later, he moved north, landing the top job at the Detroit Free Press. Moore watched that, and learned: sometimes a man, especially a black man, has to hold his tongue and travel to find his own mountaintop.

Boston brawler

Moore arrived at the Globe as an assistant metro editor, but rose quickly, in 1987, to city editor. “Man, I was nervous!” he says. So he called McGruder. “He said, ‘Take control of the room. And, if you’re afraid, don’t show it.'”

So when trouble found Moore, he stayed in the ring, handling in 1989 the public outcry surrounding the coverage of the killing of Carol Stuart, an 8-months-pregnant white woman, by her husband, Charles (who claimed a black man shot her). A racially tense story, in a racially tense town, but Moore, the story’s editor, hit the radio talk shows and TV, sparring with the critics, “his public crucible moment,” says Mark Jurkowitz, the Globe‘s media critic.

In 1994, Moore was named managing editor. Sixteen Pulitzer Prize nominations (and four wins) followed, along with a string of national stories. Then came the summer of 1998, “the hardest time I’ve ever had in the business,” he admits, with columnist Mike Barnicle suspended and then forced to resign after being accused of copying and fabricating commentary. Around the same time, Patricia Smith, a Moore protege, was caught inventing quotes in a column that he himself edited.

Again, Moore takes punches, uses the ropes, stays on his feet.

Then the crucial round: In July of last year, Martin Baron, executive editor of The Miami Herald, was plucked by the New York Times Co. as the Globe‘s first Jewish editor and the first outsider to head the newsroom in years. It stunned Moore. Globe tradition was dead. Some read more into it. “For the premier industry jobs, the prestige jobs, blacks are not getting the nod,” says one minority Globe editor, a Moore fan. “You start to wonder if this is the way things really are.”

Moore dodges that blow, too: “Yeah, I deserved an interview. … I also learned, a long time ago, a black man being angry gets you ignored.”

Mile High game plan

While Moore thrived at the Globe, The Denver Post newsroom was getting pummeled. A newspaper war with the Rocky Mountain News had all of management’s attention and money. Turnover was rampant, morale low. The Post was editor’s hell, averaging a new leader every three years.

Sure, they pulled in a Pulitzer in 2000 covering the massacre at Columbine High School in nearby Littleton. But, while the decade started strong with Editor Gil Spencer, it crumbled when he retired in 1993. Next up, notes Singleton, was “Neil [Westergaard], who just wasn’t up for the job. … Then Dennis [Britton] … who couldn’t connect with the staff.” And, finally, Glenn Guzzo, who “crawled into his office and shut the door.”

Moore knew Denver journalism, and he wasn’t impressed. In 1997-98, recently divorced, he was dating Nina Henderson, a top executive at Black Entertainment Television. Nina lived in the Mile High City. “I realized I liked the place, but I hated the papers,” he admits. “I’d drive all over just to find The New York Times.”

But in May 2000, with the E.W. Scripps Co.’s Rocky bleeding red and MediaNews Group’s Post in the black, a truce was called. The Denver joint operating agreement was born, with the Post claiming victory. The Rocky would publish Saturdays, the Post Sundays — No. 5 in circulation in March of this year.

Singleton names himself the Post‘s publisher, a position he’d held just once, in the late 1980s. He wants his own editor. So he mines his favorite U.S. paper: The Boston Globe. “I called [Editor Matthew V.] Storin … and I asked, ‘Who was most responsible for the excellent product the Globe was putting out?'” Singleton says. “Moore,” was the reply. In August last year, Singleton makes the call.

Baron had just arrived in Boston, emotions were raw, but Moore was still scrapping. “Greg came to me in early August last year and asked the ‘Spotlight’ [investigations] team to look at the case of [defrocked priest] John Geoghan,” says Walter V. Robinson, editor of the Globe‘s Spotlight Team, recalling a spark to the paper’s pedophile-priest coverage. “Keep in mind, the notion of investigating the Catholic Church is a bold step in a city so Catholic.”

Moore listened to Singleton, but those days visiting Nina stayed in his mind, and he put him off. By last winter, with two candidates “from the west” also in contention, “everybody involved in the interview process was pointing toward Greg,” Singleton says. “I wanted Greg.”

Singleton promised money, resources, long-term commitment. After seven months of courtship, the men got along. Moore loved Boston — he was a Beantown player, a role model in its black community. But Denver has culture, too, and a black mayor. He can thrive there.

So, in March, he does what he’s done before: he flies to Detroit to see McGruder, who is dying of cancer. McGruder tells him, “You’ve got to step up and do it.”

Then, on April 15, Moore flies to Denver for another meeting. “I had to leave early,” Moore says. “Bob died.” In Detroit, he delivers McGruder’s eulogy: “Bob was my inspiration. He was my first black professional role model. He was a powerful man in a largely white industry. Yet he retained his essence as a black man while being a figure available to everyone.”

Three days later, Moore accepts the Denver job. It feels right — coming to the Post, a paper begging for stature, diversity, leadership.

The drive for five

The directive from on high, however, was daunting. “I told Greg, ‘If we’re No. 5 in size Sunday, we must be one of the five best newspapers in the country,'” says Singleton. “‘I’m willing to spend the money to make it one of the five best. You have to figure out how.'”

Beginning June 10, as Nina packed up in Boston, Moore tackled Denver, scribbling in a blue-spiral notebook his overhaul plan: “Week one: Packaging and budget. … Week two: Sunday and narrative story. … Week three: Hiring and organizational charts.” Down to week eight: “Metro.” This is where he plans to make his biggest mark. News. Hard news. Politics.

Sitting in his corner office on the second floor in The Denver Post‘s building, early in his tenure, Moore envisioned a greater mix of stories on Page One, more in-depth reporting, better photography, more original features, stories to lure young people — the list is long.

And, of course, the decisions are tough. Chuck Green, a two-decade columnist with as many critics as Barnicle, decides to leave. Moore decrees no more “thumb-sucking” commentary. He revamps religion, moving a popular, two-decade veteran to obituaries. He diversifies — a Singleton mandate — posting jobs on minority job boards almost exclusively. “It’ll make us a better newspaper,” he says. And he goes shopping for top talent across the country. “It costs a little bit more,” he says. “But it doesn’t cost that much to find out who the best reporter is at Fort Worth, read those clips, fly that person in and, if you like ’em, hire ’em.” Some people who took that flight:

* Jeff Taylor, Chicago Tribune, named assistant managing editor for local news.

* Mark Rochester, Newsday in Melville, N.Y., named assistant managing editor for national and foreign news and the Sunday paper.

* J. Damon Cain, The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., named managing editor for presentation and design.

* Judith Howard, The Dallas Morning News, named assistant editor for features.

There are a few internal promotions, more outside hires, as Moore turns cubicles inside out. “Please understand, I don’t work for him,” says Sue O’Brien, the paper’s editorial page editor. “He doesn’t supervise me. I don’t owe him anything or have to curry favor. But I am very, very high on what I think Greg could do for the Post. Greg has the hard-news-editor experience and, coming from Boston, political hunger to really light a fire under this place.”

Barnstorming tour hits the fan

But some people feel like that fire is burning too hot.

When Moore takes the podium in the Adam’s Mark hotel ballroom at the annual luncheon of the Colorado Black Chamber of Commerce, his reputation fuels a standing ovation by the 500-plus crowd before he mutters a word. “When Dean Singleton brought me to the Post, he charged me with the responsibility to help make this paper one of the best regional papers in the country,” he says. “And to do that, and I think most of you who know Dean, he’s kinda of salty … he’s fond of saying, ‘You can’t just move manure around the barnyard.'”

The audience loves it. But two weeks later, huzzahs turn to gasps. Moore repeats the barnyard imagery when asked in a staff meeting about laying off an assistant city editor, who is in that audience. (Moore’s urban days may not have nurtured a knack for farm metaphors.) The comment rips old wounds open. His candor cuts like a double-edge sword. Change is good, needed, wanted — unless you’re its target.

“He’s making moves, a little bit here, a little bit there, and then this ‘–it’
comment, and it’s, ‘Oh man, what are we in for?'” reflects one veteran reporter.

There’s also concern changes are gutting experience. “I support more diversity, but you don’t cut your own throat doing it,” says a longtime female reporter. “These new people don’t really know what’s going on here in Colorado.”

I ask Moore how he can reconcile rallying staffers with likening some to — manure?

“All that refers to is there’s going to be change. I probably shouldn’t have said it. But I did, so there’s no way to sugarcoat it.”

“So how do you soothe newsroom nerves?”

“If you’re worried about something, come ask me directly. I’ll give a straight answer. And do your job, do it well, and you have nothing to be concerned about.”

Give ’em the heater

Doing it well means, foremost, beating the Rocky, a strong tabloid that does a lot of things better, including Moore’s passion: politics.

Still, Moore has already landed some hooks. Take the Post‘s pre-election profiles of U.S. Senate candidates — Tom Strickland and incumbent Wayne Allard — traditional softballs in these parts. This year, the Post delivered tough, skin-crawling critiques. Hard, fun fastballs that “never would have been written by the old Post,” says O’Brien. “He threw that tradition out the window. We’re not used to that here!”

Moore is also beefing up investigations, broadening the environmental beat (hoping to make it a Post signature), and likely opening foreign bureaus in Mexico City and the Middle East next year. Moore even likes a little Eminem in his paper, the rapper appearing on Page One this month. And in July, he moved a risque fashion story about low-riding jeans to the front page. “I had more people say to me, ‘Why the hell?'” notes a veteran newsroom editor. “‘Low-rider jeans on Page One of The Denver Post?’ But it was a well-calculated move. We’re not reaching enough young readers.”

But no story has more Moore fingerprints than the saga of Jesus Apodaca. On Aug. 11, the Post ran a feature on Apodaca, a Mexican and high-school graduate with a 3.93 grade point average ineligible for an in-state tuition rate at college because of his status as an illegal immigrant.

The Denver metropolitan statistical area is home not only to a 20.5% Hispanic population but also to one of the country’s greatest critics of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo. He sees the Post story on Apodaca and calls the INS to get the Apodaca family deported. Later, the Post runs a story under this hed: “Illegal labor aided Tancredo: Workers say they redid basement for immigration critic.”

Gotcha!

“It’s not personal with Tancredo,” Moore tells me. “We’re just covering the issue.”

“Oh, come on.”

“We are! I think it would have been totally irresponsible to not write that story. … A number of illegal workers were getting false documentation. … That it is so pervasive that they even end up working in the home of probably the most vociferous critic nationally! It’s just incredible.”

“Well, Tancredo recently mentioned the Post on the floor of the House of Representatives.”

Moore smiles. “Yeah.”

“You like that?”

“Yeah! I love that.”

“Tancredo said, ‘Who is really the bully? Who is the mean-spirited one here?’ You love this attention?”

Moore smiles, turning serious. “I want us to be taken seriously when it comes to covering issues. I want us to be paid attention to. I like the fact we’re being talked about. We don’t want to be provocative just to be provocative. … But yeah, I want us to write stories that sometimes get under people’s skin. I want us to write stories about issues that don’t normally get the light of day. And I want us to do it in an intelligent way, and maybe we provoke a few people and piss them off. That’s OK. Very true. No doubt about it. I plead guilty.”

“You love politics?”

“I love politics.”

“And the Tancredo thing was a good score?”

“Not bad, huh?”

The honeymooners

On Nov. 5, Tancredo was re-elected with nearly 67% of his district’s vote, one of the biggest margins in the state. Days later, Moore is sitting in the Capitol Lounge Bar down the block from the newsroom, relaxing and sipping on a second Glenfiddich. “I’m just blessed,” he says. “If Dean fired me tomorrow, I’m still just blessed.”

After all, this job is a dream come true. Nina is due to give birth the following week. He likes Denver, its Western rhythm: “There seems to be more time to smell the roses here.” And Moore isn’t getting fired tomorrow. In fact, a Post editor says when Singleton introduced Moore, “Dean glowed like a kid in the candy store. I’ve never seen him like that before.”

The 51-year-old “salty” publisher, who has multiple sclerosis, says “legacy” is on his mind — and a lot of it may rest with Moore.

“Greg is the last editor I ever want to hire in Denver,” he says. “We’re married. And the great thing about this relationship is, he has no problem talking back to me. If I make a suggestion, he’ll say, ‘I think you’re full of it.’ I love that. I love an editor that will spar with me, yet wants to fight for the same thing: To build a great newspaper.”

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