Last week's announcement that Vince Bzdek would become the next editor of the Gazette was interesting on many levels, especially to those of us who labor in the ever-shrinking world of print newspapers.
Bzdek has multiple links to Colorado Springs, including his sister Camille Blakely, president of Blakely + Company marketing/advertising agency. He was raised in Colorado and attended Colorado College, graduating in 1982 with a degree in English. He was news editor of the Catalyst, the student newspaper. He played basketball, and he hung out at the sadly vanished Roger's Bar in Old Colorado City, according to a brief bio written by CC prof Tom Cronin when Bzdek was honored at CC's 2010 convocation. He stayed around, working as a reporter and editor for the former Colorado Springs Sun until taking a job at the Denver Post.
In 2005, Bzdek headed for the Washington Post and has worked there in various capacities, including editor at large, news director, digital political editor and front-page editor. He wrote a couple of well-received political biographies — one about Nancy Pelosi, the other about the Kennedy brothers.
Bzdek has had a good career, arguably brilliant. He's competent, seasoned and reliable, comfortable with the unceasing demands of a daily's newsroom. He may well lean to the left — after all, he didn't choose to write about Clare Boothe Luce and the Koch Brothers.
It's an interesting choice. Two of the Gazette's past three editors, Jeff Thomas and Joanna Bean, were longtime staffers who worked their way slowly up the ladder. Between them, Joe Hight came from a similar background in Oklahoma City at the Oklahoman, and he was here for the Gazette's 2014 Pulitzer Prize.
Hiring Bzdek signals that the Gazette's upper management still understands and supports good journalism. Bzdek isn't a sleepy hack, there to put a smiley face on ruthless corporate cost-cutting. He shouldn't be under continuous pressure to cut personnel, reduce coverage and degrade the news product, though his Gazette predecessors have had to deal with that.
Since the turn of the 21st century, daily newspaper advertising revenues have been in decline. Two recessions and the growth of digital media accelerated the long slide.
Yesterday's arrogant media conglomerates are long gone — remember Freedom Communications, Media News Group, Belo or Tribune Media? Some went bankrupt, shed debt and assets, and inevitably were taken over by vulture funds. Many became news zombies — the walking dead, like Freedom after its first bankruptcy. Some restructured and kept going, like Gannett (think USA Today but with papers across the nation) and Belo, which still owns the Dallas Morning News.
But a few lucky newspapers, like Syrian refugees who somehow made it to America, fell into the hands of benevolent billionaires. Warren Buffett acquired the employee-owned Omaha World-Herald, Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post and Phil Anschutz bought the Gazette.
As a business owner, Anschutz is both invisible and omnipresent. He owns more than 150 companies, including The Broadmoor. With a single exception, every director of every company is an Anschutz employee. He doesn't hold news conferences, issue bragging statements, give interviews or seek the limelight.
If you want to understand Anschutz's theories about business, read his excellent book (Out Where the West Begins), walk around The Broadmoor or read the Gazette. Anschutz buys undervalued assets, improves them and keeps them. Second rate doesn't interest him.
What defines a first-rate newspaper? A first-rate newsroom. You need strong, sophisticated leadership, great reporters and generous staffing. In a time of strained budgets, pinched salaries and mind-numbing work schedules, that's hard to achieve — unless you're Phil Anschutz.
So let's see what Vince Bzdek can put together, and what kind of resources he will have. Will the paper be content to rest on its laurels, forever trumpeting Dave Philipps' 2014 Pulitzer on the front page? Will it settle for being good but dull ... or try for greatness?
Vince, we wish you well — and welcome the competition. Game on!