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Off Limits

A bird in hand: The news that Tele-Communications Inc. plans to hike its cable rates an average of 20 percent has plenty of Coloradans fuming, angry enough to give cable magnate John Malone the finger.

Well, they can stand in line. David Lockton has already done it. In fact, the entrepreneur, who started Interactive Network Inc. and then linked up with TCI, found the joint venture going so badly that he took Malone to court. And in a less civilized illustration of his feelings, Lockton had 200 employees pose for a group photo, "all of them with raised fists, their middle fingers extended," he says. "I told them this one was for John Malone." Or so Lockton said in last Thursday's Wall Street Journal, which ran a lengthy story on the dispute. The middle-finger salute rated the fifth paragraph on the front page. But then the Denver Post flipped off its own readers when it reprinted the lengthy story Sunday with that juicy paragraph--and only that paragraph--cut out.

If the paragraph disappeared, says still-executive editor Neil Westergaard, it was cut for lack of space--not because the Post was concerned with offending the delicate sensibilities of Malone, whose company claims to have lost $30 million in the Interactive deal.

But out in California, where Lockton runs what remains of his company out of a warehouse, the conversation has certainly taken a delicate turn. Because of the pending court action, Lockton "is constrained from giving anything but his name, rank and serial number," says his designated spokesman, Owen Daley. "He's a very shrewd guy who's been set upon by a giant. It's literally David vs. Goliath."

Post toasties: You usually don't dump your captain when your team is winning--but that's the way the Post is playing the game. Back in early January, a week after the Rocky Mountain News announced a significant circulation retrenchment (down to just 14 of the state's 63 counties), Westergaard had the unusual honor of calling the staff together for his announcement that the paper was looking for an editor who'd be placed over him. Last Friday, Westergaard was there when publisher Ryan McKibben introduced that new editor: Dennis Britton. Staffers who might have complained about Westergaard's management before have given him high marks for his behavior over the past two months. "You're either graceful or you leave the room," replies Westergaard, who says he plans to stay on at the Post. It helps that Britton brings impressive credentials to the job--among them 23 years at the Los Angeles Times (including the period when the Times owned the Post), before he became the top editor at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1989. Britton left that paper in December; he'd reportedly had differences with the Sun-Times's new owners, who purchased the paper in 1994 and began drastically cutting costs.

Of course, Post owner Dean Singleton has his own reputation as a cost-cutter--one he's been adding to with recent salary slashing at the newly acquired Berkshire Eagle. And at Friday's meeting in the Post newsroom, a reporter asked Britton if he'd had second thoughts about working for Singleton. Yes, Britton replied, and then added that he had no concerns about working for McKibben. And if problems arose down the line, he'd kick McKibben "in the ass."

Britton's days at a tabloid could come in handy if the Post shrinks--a move McKibben acknowledges he's considering, and one Singleton took at some of his California papers just this week. The paper would be about 90 percent of its current size, a format that's "easier to handle," McKibben says, "and still has the benefits of a true, sectionalized paper."

Not to mention significant newsprint savings.

 
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