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All the News That Fits

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

"I don't think anybody knows if it's a smart move or not," says former Post executive editor Neil Westergaard. "It may turn out to be absolutely brilliant. What they're trying to do is change the historical rules of engagement. But when you do that in any competitive situation, it's risky."

In the short run, Front Range Plus has meant a circulation windfall for the Post, which was already comfortably ahead in readership outside the metro area and has picked up thousands of subscribers across the state who were abandoned by the News. According to the latest circulation figures, the Post led the News in overall daily circulation in the last audited quarter by 35,000 copies and boasted a Sunday lead of nearly 70,000 copies, a substantial increase over the same quarter a year earlier. But the News has built a lead of roughly 46,000 copies daily and Sunday in the six-county metro area.

"Each newspaper is going to put the best face on its circulation growth, or lack of it, as it can," says Post general manager Kirk MacDonald. "But it's an undeniable fact that the Denver Post has strung together several years of continued growth going back to 1991, and the Rocky Mountain News has declined."

As for Sease's suggestion that advertisers don't want to pay for readers in the outlying counties--not to mention all those readers the Post claims in Wyoming, Kansas, Nebraska and New Mexico--MacDonald snaps, "That's a dangerous assumption for them to make. This is a $24 billion retail sales market, and close to $2 billion that is spent in the six-county [metro] area comes from the outlying areas. That's a significant amount of retail dollars."

The tabloid's lead in the core market has prompted executives at both papers to trot out arcane arguments about demographics ("demos" for short). The News clearly wants to position itself as "Denver's premier newspaper," and executives cite its strong advantage in newsbox sales as proof.

"The demos on a single-copy buyer are actually stronger than home delivery," insists News circulation vice president Bruce Johnson. "These are people who are very well-educated and lead a fast-paced life; they choose to buy single-copy because it fits their lifestyle. And we own single-copy in Denver big time."

MacDonald, though, points out that the Post leads in eighteen of the top twenty zip codes in the metro area ranked by income, while the News leads in the bottom twenty. The News's six-county "dominance" is misleading, he argues, because the Post actually has the edge in three of the counties--Arapahoe, Boulder, and Douglas--while much of the News readership is concentrated in Denver and Adams counties. "To say they have a two-county strategy is more accurate," he says.

Sease counters that her paper has made significant gains in the suburbs and that comparing zip codes by income "smacks of redlining." "Do you want to be Neiman Marcus or do you want to be Wal-Mart?" she asks. "Wal-Mart has become the largest retailer in this country by going after all these 'low' zip codes. It's a volume thing."

Wrangling over numbers is nothing new in the newspaper war, but since the News adopted its Front Range strategy, the argument has spilled over to the news side. Last month the papers ran contradictory stories basically accusing each other of lying to the Audit Bureau of Circulations about their figures.

ABC audit reports are as important to newspapers as Nielsen ratings are to the television industry; advertisers use them to decide where to spend their money. So imagine the consternation at the News when Post business editor Dan Meyers wrote that the tabloid's latest ABC report had been revised to correct "495 reporting errors that included overstating some county circulation figures by 30 percent."

The News fired back with an un-bylined piece headlined, "Denver Post Caught Inflating Sales." The article blamed the "reporting errors" in the News figures on an internal error at ABC and claimed the Post had overstated its circulation in a publisher's statement filed with the agency to the tune of nearly half a million copies over a three-month period.

In response to the articles, ABC chided both clients for attributing statements to the audit bureau in violation of long-standing policy, but MacDonald and Sease insist their stories were accurate.

"ABC said 'attributions' to them were inaccurate and inappropriate; they didn't say the information was inaccurate," Sease says. "We really didn't intend to even address this audit. But when our competitor chose to make it a news story--and they've chosen quite often recently to editorialize on the war, to put out information that we felt was misleading--we decided that sometimes you've got to hit the bully, to let the bully know you can't be bullied."

The tiff illustrates how crucial even the slightest shift in reputed circulation has become to the war. Last year News publisher Larry Strutton told the New York Times that dumping statewide circulation would save his operation approximately $10 million a year; Sease says the paper is now plowing its savings back into "a whole slew of improvements in the product"--not to mention marketing campaigns and the recent hiring of twenty more advertising sales representatives. Whether the investment will eventually offset the lost circulation isn't clear, but the tabloid's aggressive pursuit of the local market has already had an impact on services that readers of both dailies had taken for granted.

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