All the News That Fits

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

Both dailies have hit the Ramsey murder hard, publishing more than a hundred articles each in barely three months. The official blackout on substantive details of the investigation--press conferences that offer no comment, designated "spokesmen" who are paid to be tight-lipped--has only added to the frenzy of rumor and speculation. Despite its short staffing, the Post has actually spewed far more column inches on the case than the competition. The difference can be attributed almost entirely to the incessant commentary on the case provided by the Post's armchair detective, Chuck Green.

A former Post editor, Green promised plenty of hard-edged reporting in his column when it debuted a couple of years ago. Instead, he's delivered mawkishness about poisoned dogs and aging comrades. But then JonBenet came along.

Green, an opportunist who knows how to beat a Big Story to death--back in the Times Mirror days, he once sat by the hospital bed of troubled former Rocky editor Michael Howard, pumping him for the names of reporters with whom he had snorted cocaine--pounced on the tragedy. He's since written an astounding 22 columns on the case, mustering the puffed-up outrage and rank sentimentality of a penny-press sob sister. He's tweaked the Boulder police and Ramsey family "experts"; ridden on the coattails of a Boulder weekly's reporting; denounced as "drivel" the inchoate account by Janet McReynolds that ran for three days in the Post; and even hawked up a gooey "Dear JonBenet" letter in which he wondered whether "any one [sic] else was thinking of you."

A News editorial denounced the JonBenet letter as "smarmy journalism." But then, the News has its own shamelessness to answer for, including at least one three-hankie headline, "Little Miss Christmas Is Put to Rest in Georgia." The smarminess quotient begs a larger question: While bottom-feeders like Green are tapping out hymns to the dead beauty queen, who's covering the news?

Success has prompted the Post to expand its news hole, but much of the increase consists of added sections of wire-service stories wrapped around bountiful real-estate and department-store ads. With the defection of investigative editor Lou Kilzer to the News, its once-vaunted reporting projects have shrunk from a lengthy exploration of the Oklahoma City investigation's loose ends (which vanished without much impact a few months ago) to a recent untidy two-parter about immigration that mingled stories about illegals from Mexico with a full-page profile of a Russian family that might emigrate to Colorado.

Front-page good news abounds: "Nordstrom to Offer Mammograms." "U.S. Lures Russian Family." "White Males at Top of Happiness Scale." There's even a quick call-in question of the day ("Do you believe in UFOs?"), just like on the local TV news. Meanwhile, gaping holes have emerged in the paper's coverage of higher education, the environment (ably handled by Mark Obmascik until his recent metamorphosis into a general columnist) and other areas.

"The only place you really have to compete or spend any energy is in these mega-big deals, like Ramsey," says one disgusted Post veteran. "If the city council does something interesting, who cares? You don't get any points for that."

"There's too little of everything," adds former staffer O'Driscoll. "Once upon a time, the Post had two environment writers. Either paper could take that issue and make a national name for themselves if they really cared about it. Both newsrooms are at the mercy of their comptrollers, but at some point you have to stand up and say, 'Look, there are certain minimums.'"

Britton has heard such complaints before. "What concerns me is not the overkill, frankly," he says. "It's not being able to do the other things because you have your resources tied up. A month or two ago it seemed like we had half the staff on Oklahoma City and half on Ramsey--who's left to cover anything?"

He adds, "But that's what competition is about. It makes you play up things that probably shouldn't be played up as much."

For some readers, the Rocky Mountain News just hasn't been the same since its most distinctive voice was silenced in a car wreck last year. A conscientious reporter and a serious talent, Greg Lopez had a gift for capturing, with ruthless honesty, the hopes and struggles of everyday folks--people who would never make it into the society column at the Post.

Lopez was also a consummate craftsman. He could figure out how to tell a compelling, well-rounded story in a mere ten inches. That's a knack that's much in demand at any daily, but especially at the News, which has been feeling the squeeze of an ever-shrinking news hole and a demand from on high for the kind of "reader-friendly" stories that will wow 'em in the 'burbs.

Without Lopez, what remains of a writerly voice at the News can be found on page six, a collection of "Views From the Mile High City" known as Rocky Talk. Sadly, most of the views are the banal musings of two recent arrivals who are still adjusting to the altitude, Kim Franke-Folstad and Bill Johnson. Franke-Folstad's work, in particular, has been about as interesting as staring at a hole in the ground--an activity to which she devoted an entire column last week.

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