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All the News That Fits

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

In such a claustrophobic setting, where the flow of news bumps up against a logjam of Rocky Talk and then dribbles onward, a narrow stream of type hemmed in by fat banks of Foley's underwear ads, expansive efforts at enterprise reporting make no sense. What makes sense are quick hits on Big Stories--a barrage of short but satisfying forays into the latest developments in the news everyone's talking about.

"The News's philosophy is to just overwhelm the big story, the talk story," says one recently departed editor. "And that, for the time being, is going to be Oklahoma City and JonBenet and G-7. It's a strategy that isn't necessarily bad, depending on how often it happens."

In recent months it's been happening--well, daily. The News has scored several scoops in its coverage of the Ramsey and McVeigh cases, the kind of talk stories that readers, editors and even marketing executives clamor for. "Look at how many stories this paper has broken on JonBenet," boasts marketing director Sease. "Not only do we want to have it first, we want to be the source that the Today show quotes, that Nightline quotes, that 20/20 quotes. That's all about building your image as a quality newspaper."

But Big Stories are only a small part of the news. While the News is dispatching reporters to Kingman, Arizona, and Junction City, Kansas, to provide yet another rehash of how these McVeigh stopovers are "forever linked" to the Oklahoma City bombing, or quibbling with the Post over whether any semen was found at the JonBenet crime scene, where's the in-depth coverage of local stories people aren't talking about because nobody's bothered to report them yet?

Early in the Burdick era, it seemed as if the News was poised to probe city politics in a serious way, with none of the boosterism implicit in the Post's approach or the "let's put on a town meeting" civic journalism of Jay Ambrose. ("During the Ambrose years, we were the Mother Teresa of newspapers," recalls one reporter.) But outside the realm of Big Stories, investigative projects have been in short supply at the News. Recent Sunday packages have addressed the wonders of the altitude and the glories of living in the foothills; such fluff, evidently targeted to newcomers to the area, suggests that the News is ready to revive the Post's old motto--"'Tis a privilege to live in Colorado"--while dodging the critical issue of massive growth and all the problems that come with it.

To its credit, the tabloid has managed to tackle some stories about suburban sprawl and shady developers; it's even used staff reporters, not stringers, to do it. But the paper has poured far more resources into courting the suburbs with feature stories--witness its latest pull-out goody, Home Front, a Sunday supplement chockfull of remodeling and interior design tips and begging for ads from developers and home-furnishings stores.

Home Front hasn't quite figured out who its audience might be--in one recent issue, a smirky feature about a Boulder threesome's unusual partner-swapping was bookended between Dear Abby and Dr. Laura. But its arrival is evidence of management's belief that building readership in the metro area will depend on perky, service-oriented features as much as news. The News has beefed up its weekend entertainment section, too, and added a pull-out book section. (The Post, meanwhile, still doesn't have a full-time movie reviewer, although Britton expects to announce one soon.)

Both papers also have put bucks into retooling their business sections and hiring top sportswriters such as Tracy Ringolsby and Jack Etkin. But in the News's case, it's a struggle sometimes to locate these liftouts within liftouts. The mania for sectionalization--which contributed to its printing plant woes and may have cost the newspaper thousands of subscribers in the past few years--has all but destroyed one of the tabloid's traditional advantages, the ability to leaf through it like a book. These days it's like peeling an onion; the whole mess unravels the closer you get to the core.

Editors seem to be having a hard time making it through the paper, too, judging from the number of howlers that have slipped into print lately. A story on Aspen reports that the population in neighboring West Slope counties is expected to escalate to 64 million people soon. (Correction: 64,000.) A shoot-from-the-hip reporter discovers that the G-7 summit is going to cost Denver $46 million. (Correction: She misunderstood a source who told her it would cost "four to six million," and nobody bothered to check that figure; by the time that stat reached the Post, it was up to $49 million.) A subhed on a business story says travelers are "saving up to 400 percent flying United Airlines from Springs vs. DIA." (No correction followed, but the story made it clear that travelers could save up to 80 percent, not an impossible 400 percent.)

Part of the problem may be the reshuffling of the copy desk that took place when the News cut back its statewide circulation last year. For several years the paper had different copy editors assigned to features, business and news stories. It now operates a universal desk, meaning that editors simply grab the next story in the queue: Dear Abby, maybe, then a child-rape story and the latest Al Gore yawner.

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