Innovative reporting techniques kept Sentinel from being scooped

When I glanced out the window of my Teller Avenue home that April night, I saw a faint reddish glow in the southern sky. While I subconsciously noted that the glow was in the vicinity of The Daily Sentinel building. I wasn’t alarmed, and my mother and I sat down to dinner as usual.

But the glow began to widen rapidly. I knew something bad was happening and that it was near the Sentinel’s South Seventh Street plant.

I turned on the television, where a routine news program was grinding on, but the program continued uninterrupted. I didn’t turn on the radio, where, I was told later, there was at least one bulletin about the fire.

As the fire continued to light the sky, we decided to drive down to the area because we agreed it looked ominously as though the Sentinel building was ablaze. We were stopped at a blocked-off junction of Seventh Street and Colorado Avenue. In the near distance, we could see the giant flames thrusting skyward. Traffic was heavy, with people parking their cars as near as possible and walking down toward the site to gawk at the flames.

We took one look and headed back home, figuring there were enough people milling around, and we didn’t need to add to the confusion. We watched the rest of the night’s procedure through television’s eyes.

The mind has a way of dulling horrifying events, and I find memories of the fire itself difficult to bring back. I probably contributed at least one story to that first paper printed on a borrowed press, but I can’t remember what it was.

But the next day and the next six weeks were a bit different story. Fairly early the next morning, I got a call from Marion Fletcher, secretary to Publisher Ken Johnson, that the news staff was to gather at 11 a.m. at the ruined building, and Marion cautioned me to wear old clothes, since the room reeked of smoke and was a dirty mess.

She was right on both counts, and my eyes began to water soon after I entered the building, where temporary electricity and telephone service had been set up. This wasn’t the computer age in the newsroom, and soon all the reporters were banging away at their typewriters. Somehow we survived that day and put together an edition, although most of us threw away the clothes we had worked in because no amount of washing was going to get rid of that awful stench. For at least one week, we reporters could count on our eyes being much more tired than usual and our clothes smelling of smoke at the end of the day.

In the six weeks or so that we continued to have a midnight deadline the night before the paper was delivered the next afternoon, I called in every favor I could think of from my political and district court beats. I wanted our daily effort to be as current as possible.

I had been recalled a week before the fire from Denver, where I had been covering the Legislature, because of some newsroom staff problems. I knew that the Long Bill, which contains the year’s state operating budget, was due to appear in the Legislature and that Mesa County and what was then Mesa College had a number of projects we hoped would be funded. In those days the Long Bill was kept under wraps until it was distributed to rank-and-file legislators in late morning, while the six legislators on the Joint Budget Committee would have their copies the night before. Because of our printing problem, we were going to be a day late getting the budget items into our newspaper.

My sense of competition rebelled at the thought that local radio and television stations might scoop the Sentinel. So I called state Sen. Chet Enstrom, a member of the JBC, to see what could be done. Enstrom said he would be in a final JBC meeting the next day, would get his copy of the budget that afternoon and would call me when he got back to his apartment.

I can remember how on edge I was as 6:30 p.m. came and went, then another half-hour. Just as I was beginning to question my plan, Enstrom called about 7:30 p.m. He had all the information I needed, and he smoothly ran through the list of projects we had outlined. Funding for county and college projects appeared in the Sentinel the next afternoon — as soon as any other newspaper in the state carried it and before it appeared on either radio or television.

I also remember a district court criminal trial. It wasn’t one of Grand Junction’s major mid-70s murder trials, but it had sparked a lot of interest. The jury had been out since early that afternoon, and it was now 9:30 p.m., with a midnight deadline looming for the next day’s paper. Only half-teasing, I told District Judge James Carter that I needed the story for the next day’s paper. He had been contemplating the “cathartic instruction,” in which he would inform the jury that a verdict was reachable and would urge them to return a decision. I guess I prodded him into action, and he issued the instruction.

The jurors pondered another hour, then sent word they had a verdict. As I recall, it was nearly 11:30 p.m., our deadline for copy. I begged the newspaper brass to extend the deadline 15 minutes and got the story on its way to Glenwood Springs along with all the other news for the next day’s paper.

How did the jury rule? Forty years later, I remember neither the details of the case nor the verdict. I remember only that the Sentinel had the story before any of the other news gatherers, and, in my competitive mind, that was the most important point.


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