All the News That Fits

What gets lost in the heat of Denver's newspaper battle.

From the moment he flew into town early last year, Dennis Britton noticed something strange about Denver's daily newspapers.

A former editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, soon to become the Denver Post's editor-in-chief, Britton knew all about the inexorable dynamics of newspaper wars; in the white-heat of competition, dailies often ape each other like a pair of street mimes preening in front of an imaginary mirror. But that didn't quite explain why, for three straight days, the Post and the Rocky Mountain News ran lead stories concerning the comments of one Jamal X, local mouthpiece for the Nation of Islam.

"Coming from Chicago, a city with a large black population, I thought he really represented something," Britton recalls. "The fact of the matter is, the African-American population in Denver is very small, and his percentage of that small percentage is minuscule. I thought both papers were overplaying that greatly."

Britton also didn't care for the slew of murder and mayhem stories topping the news in Denver. "When I arrived, both papers were playing crime-and-punishment news really heavily," he says. "There was lots and lots of it. People are tired of being bombarded by it. It's out of their control, and it's just not interesting. That's not to say the Ramsey or the Breeden case isn't interesting; but when you play all crime stories with the same weight, you diminish all of them."

Since assuming the editorship of the Post a year ago, Britton has set about "weaning" the paper from its crime fare, taking the routine slaughter off the front page and burying it inside the local-news section. He says he's encouraged his staff to "look for stories that interested them, as homeowners, as parents, as participants in the community...Absolutely to my core do I believe that readers want more positive news. That's important. That's going to sell newspapers."

That doesn't mean, he hastens to add, that the Voice of the Rocky Mountain Empire will fail to go after the Big Story, no matter how unpleasant. Indeed, over the past year Denver's dailies have been in hot pursuit of a surfeit of Big Stories: the hit-and-run death of News columnist Greg Lopez; the suicide of Spicer Breeden and the trial of Peter Schmitz; the bizarre murder of JonBenet Ramsey and its various sideshows; local angles on the Heaven's Gate cult suicides; and the pending economic summit. And, of course, each paper has its own "bomb squad" supplying exhaustive coverage of the Oklahoma City case, culminating in last week's multipage pull-out guides to the trial of Timothy McVeigh. Among the helpful features: a glossary of tricky legal terms such as "cross-examination" (courtesy of the Post), a biography of Alfred P. Murrah (the News), and detailed sketches of an empty courtroom (both papers).

With more than 2,000 media types in town and the eyes of the world on Judge Richard Matsch's courtroom, it may be heresy to suggest that the local dailies are "overplaying" the McVeigh trial. But last week's voluminous coverage of the glacial process of jury selection--brimming with day-one factoids ("4:30 a.m.: KWTV of Oklahoma City does the first live shot of the trial"), startling fashion news (a Los Angeles Times reporter is "famous" for his "ugly sneakers") and insipid juror trivia ("After growing weary of the mining business and falling in love with a woman from Tulsa, Juror 858 moved to that Oklahoma city")--demonstrates that when duty calls, reporters can write at length about absolutely nothing.

Talk about being "bombarded" by uninteresting stories. In Denver, the scene of one of the last great newspaper wars in the country, the shrinking field of battle consists of almost nothing but Big Stories, with each side waging a campaign of saturation reporting to the point of stupefaction. And while Juror 858's love life is getting front-page treatment, a host of other stories--stories about the metro area's runaway growth and Colorado's vanishing open spaces, stories about underfunded schools and overcrowded prisons and money-sucking airports, even pesky crime stories involving people who aren't six-year-old beauty queens or suicidal trust-funders--receive little, if any, attention.

In theory, we ought to love this newspaper war. Ask any journalism professor--news wars are hot stuff, and they're good for the economy. Advertisers pay less than they would in a one-paper town, and so do subscribers. Most of all, competition supposedly benefits the public, since neither combatant can afford to ignore important local stories.

All of this is true, to some extent, in Denver, where the price of year-round home delivery amounts to pennies a day and absurdly cheap ad rates have made the Post and the News among the ad-linage leaders in the nation. In addition, the past two decades of bruising competition--during which the News clawed its way from a dead heat to a 125,000-plus lead in daily circulation, only to watch the Post surge ahead once more--has produced major improvements in both papers, including beefed-up sports and business sections.

But competition also has its price. Strained resources. Leaner staffs. (The Denver dailies operate with newsrooms of barely 200 employees; some comparable dailies in monopoly markets have staffs of 300 to 400.) An obsession with cost-cutting, marketing and circulation-boosting schemes in order to deliver the kind of double-digit profit margins that today's media moguls demand. That means Big Stories--even Big Stories about non-stories, such as the breathless hoopla last summer over the opening of the Park Meadows Mall.

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