All the News That Fits

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

For several months it was impossible to find movie listings for United Artists theaters in the Post. That's because the News landed an exclusive deal for the chain's daily advertising business, a deal that may have included free listings as well as cheap display rates. ("I have seen the rates, and we're not giving it away," Sease insists.) Last week the Post welcomed United Artists listings back to the fold; not so coincidentally, the paper no longer charges exhibitors for running showtimes in its movie listings.

Front Range Plus has altered editorial policies in other ways as well. When the News staff first learned of the circulation cutback, "a good 80 percent of the newsroom was aghast," recalls one reporter. "But when you consider their argument, it does make some sense. It re-emphasized the mentality that this is a Denver newspaper, not a Colorado newspaper."

At one point the News had bureaus in Aspen, Fort Collins and Boulder. They're all gone now, leaving two roving state reporters, Deborah Frazier and Joe Garner, along with southern-bureau reporter Dick Foster, to cover whatever stories out in the hinterlands might be deemed "interesting" to Denver readers. It seems unlikely that the News will be doing a sprawling series on national parks or extensive, Johnny-on-the-spot coverage of rural disasters such as the 1994 West Slope wildfires (which made the newspaper a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize) anytime soon. The resources are going to Big Stories closer to home.

The declining regional coverage rankles former state editor Steve Campbell. "We weren't doing Grand Junction stories for Grand Junction readers," he says. "The theory was that people in Denver are interested in that kind of coverage because they consider themselves Westerners; they have a connection with the rest of the state. That's what makes them different from people in Cincinnati"--home of Scripps Howard corporate headquarters.

Retrenchment at the News also seems to have influenced regional coverage at the Post, reducing the Voice of the Rocky Mountain Empire to a mumble in the suburbs. "There is a clear interest now in going toe-to-toe with the Rocky on what has become the Rocky's turf--the ski counties and the Front Range," says Patrick O'Driscoll, who left the Post recently to open a local bureau for USA Today. "That was certainly a factor in my deciding to leave."

Under the editorships of Gil Spencer and Neil Westergaard, O'Driscoll and staffers Kit Miniclier and Jim Carrier roamed the intermountain West, from New Mexico to North Dakota, writing at length about wild mustangs, the Marlboro Man, Indian reservations and other Western legacies. But lately the Post, too, has been drawing the wagons closer around the Front Range, shuffling the cowboy stuff from the front page to the thinning pages of Empire--a wispy imitation of what was once one of the fattest Sunday magazines in the country, now adrift in the blizzard of circulars from Target and Best Buy.

O'Driscoll says he spoke to Britton about his concern over declining regional coverage shortly before he left. He was told the Post would not abandon its tradition of reporting on the West, "but I don't know that whoever they hire to replace me will be doing that," he says.

Britton acknowledges that regional coverage is no longer paramount at the Post. "Are we going to cut back on the number of people who only do regional news? Sure I am," he says. "Our job is to be the newspaper of record for Colorado as best as we can be. But we don't have infinite resources. We have to concentrate our resources where the people are. We can't spend our time in the Four Corners and cover El Paso County at the same time. This is a local newspaper writing about local news."

Steve Campbell worries that a vital link between folks in Denver and the region's history, struggles and wonders--the same magical pull from the back of beyond that attracts people to the region in the first place--is disappearing.

"If you don't get those kinds of stories in the Denver papers," Campbell asks, "where are you going to get them?"

A few years ago the publisher of the Denver Post was a man named Maurice Hickey. By all accounts, he was a volatile, difficult boss, apt to erupt at staff meetings over muddy color reproduction or chronic delivery problems. His newspaper philosophy seemed to revolve around one simple idea: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

"Give me vanilla," he'd say. "I want vanilla."
It was good advice. One of the grimmer aspects of the news war has been the constant tinkering with the product by flavor-of-the-month editors and publishers hell-bent on reinventing daily journalism. Many of these experiments have failed spectacularly, driving readers away from what appeared to be the top paper and shifting the advantage to the underdog.

No one knows this better than the battle-scarred veterans at the Post. When Times Mirror bought the paper in 1980, its victory over the tightfisted Scripps Howard chain, in what was then a hotly contested race, seemed all but assured. After all, Times Mirror had deep pockets, the legendary Otis Chandler and a reputation for hard-nosed, award-winning journalism at the Los Angeles Times. In short order, the new management moved from afternoon to morning publication, redesigned the paper into a virtual clone of its Dallas paper, the Times Herald--and watched its circulation figures sink lower than Death Valley.

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