All the News That Fits

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

"There's no expertise," says one veteran of the copy desk. "You don't get used to seeing certain names and issues so you can be quick to recognize a mistake. It's like a factory--you punch the clock and put the screws in the door."

Fundamentals as basic as math may be one of the casualties of the news war. Who has time for them? Both papers are too busy chasing stories with a high gee-whiz factor, Big Stories--or, as one ex-Rocky staffer puts it, "stories that talk fast and leave you breathless." Stories about lifestyles (how do the bombing survivors cope? How does John Ramsey?) rather than process, stories about personalities rather than people. Stories that are a lot like what you see on television.

"At other papers I've worked at, we used to keep the TV on at the city desk so we could laugh at the newscast and see how they could screw up the story," says one well-traveled News staffer. "Here, they watch the newscast with a greater sense of urgency. There's a real fear of getting beat on a big story."

Next week the Denver dailies will file updated publisher's statements with the Audit Bureau of Circulations, covering circulation performance through the end of March. These will provide the first look at a full year's readership since the News adopted its Front Range strategy, and executives at both papers say they expect the figures to reflect the Post's widening overall lead, bolstered by gains outside the metro area.

The larger question is whether the News's growth in the six-county area will be sufficient to offset those gains. At the moment, the two papers appear relatively healthy--Singleton's Colorado newspaper group recently reported a doubling in net income in the latter half of 1996, and Scripps Howard's newspaper division has also been performing well--but erosion of support in the News's core market could signal rough times ahead. Corporate types at both operations have said they don't think Denver can continue to support two dailies, particularly if one pulls far enough ahead in the numbers, but they've been saying that for at least ten years now.

Post publisher Ryan McKibben stresses the broadsheet's commitment to being a "complete newspaper" for Colorado. "There's more to local news than geography," he says. "The day it closed its doors, the Dallas Times-Herald had the lead in Dallas County, yet the Dallas Morning News circulated more widely. People look for that depth of coverage."

The Rocky's Sease offers a homily about how her newspaper is focused on its own business, not on putting the Post out of business. But she also remembers how her previous employer, Foley's, was able to take advantage of news wars in eight of its eleven markets back in the late 1980s; eight years later, only one of those cities still has two newspapers duking it out. "It's a trend you can't ignore," Sease says. "There's an awful lot of pressure that comes from that."

"They both have strong motivators to hang on," notes Westergaard. Scripps Howard is "this Fortune 500 behemoth," he adds, while "Dean Singleton's whole being is wrapped up in the Denver Post. It's his flagship paper, the one that allows him to play in the ranks of the big newspapers."

Westergaard likens the combatants to two prizefighters who have blind spots on opposite sides of their heads. "They keep slugging each other, and when one gains the upper hand, the other doesn't respond in kind, because he can't see it," he says. "That's what keeps the thing going."

Satirist Finley Peter Dunne once said it was the duty of a newspaper to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. With the Post busily celebrating the community and elevating society news to an art form, and the News doing a striptease of pull-out sections to wow the suburbs, both dailies seem to be doing a pretty good job of comforting the comfortable.

The afflicting is another matter. Most of the carnage these days is in the newsrooms themselves.

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