All the News That Fits

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

"Did you get enough of that?" asks Steve Campbell, former state editor at the News, now city editor at the Ogden, Utah, Standard-Examiner. "It was like the door to the next world had opened. The level of coverage far exceeded the newsworthiness of a mall opening in town; it was clearly being used to court advertisers."

Rising newsprint costs and changing reader habits have killed off newspapers across the country in recent years, making Denver's news war one of only a handful still raging in major markets. In fact, it's unique; all of the other competitive situations involve much larger cities capable of supporting two or more dailies--New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.--or they reflect a limited rivalry between papers that have different primary audiences, such as those in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

"It seems to me that this isn't a big enough market to have two similar-sized papers doing the same thing across the board," says Britton, whose Sun-Times carved a niche for itself as a gritty big-city tabloid while ceding the affluent suburbs to the Chicago Tribune. "It hasn't worked anyplace else."

Pundits have been predicting the demise of one daily or the other for years (see related story, below). That the war has persisted, despite industry trends, may say more about the metro area's booming economy and strategic blunders on both sides than it does about the excellence of the product.

How much longer the competition can continue is anybody's guess, but in recent months the battle fatigue among the frontline troops seems to have gotten worse. Britton's arrival last spring, which rattled staff at the Post and raised questions about the warm-and-fuzzy direction of the paper, coincided with an even more unsettling development at the News: the decision by the paper's parent corporation, Scripps Howard, to end home delivery in all but thirteen Front Range counties and concentrate on building circulation in its core market.

One year later the Post's overall circulation lead is up--way up--while the News is pouring money into convincing advertisers of its "dominance" in the six-county metro area. Each paper appears to have ceded huge chunks of editorial as well as geographic turf to the other. Hammering away at the Big Story while cutting back on crucial coverage elsewhere, each seems determined to wrest what could turn out to be a very costly victory.

No matter who wins the war, have readers already lost?

Linda Sease asks her assistant to bring her a pie. This is not dessert but an important visual aid that Sease, the News's vice president for marketing and public relations, has been using to try to get her message across to advertisers.

The assistant brings in a white cardboard box. Emblazoned on the top is a riddle: "What do the Denver Post's 1996 fourth quarter circulation figures and a pie crust have in common?"

Inside is a real pie--pecan, from the looks of it--with a wedge missing, so you can read the punchline on the bottom of the pan: "They're both a little flaky."

Pies, videos, elaborate packages of circulation breakouts and demographic data, radio spots touting what's in the paper that day--they're all part of the arsenal for Sease, who came to the News two years ago from a career in marketing for sports, cultural and retail organizations, including Houston-based Foley's, the largest print advertiser in the Denver market.

"When I look at what we spent on marketing in 1995 compared to what we're spending now, there's been a dramatic increase," Sease says.

Much of that increase has been devoted to reassuring advertisers about the wisdom of the News's decision to pull back its distribution to thirteen counties, a strategy Sease calls Front Range Plus. Other newspapers have trimmed extraneous readers in outlying areas, but none have done it quite the way the News did: casting off three-fourths of the state's geography, running ads implying that the Western Slope was mainly inhabited by cattle, blithely explaining to metro readers, "If you live here, you get it."

"We knew it was going to be revolutionary," Sease says. "Newspapers have forever talked about total circulation, total circulation--even though everywhere around us, media are targeting specific audiences. ESPN. Cosmo. Advertisers see in these better efficiencies."

As Sease explains it, the decision to pull back was a simple matter of economics. A reader in Grand Junction paid $4.75 a month for newspapers that cost the News $35 to print and deliver. Quiet meetings with advertisers convinced the paper's management that nobody cared about the Grand Junction readers anyway, since they didn't do much shopping in Denver. Slamming the door on readers outside the Front Range was simply an acknowledgment of one of the cold facts of the newspaper business: Readers are important only to the extent that they can attract advertising, the primary revenue stream.

"Fourteen counties account for 80 percent of all the money spent in Colorado," Sease notes. "What's in those other 49 counties? A lot of beautiful country, but not a lot of people."

The strategy has stirred considerable comment across the industry. Some observers regard the move as a desperate cost-cutting measure that will only help solidify the Post's overall lead. Others predict it will free up resources while compelling both papers to focus their efforts on wooing local readers.

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