Fightin' Words

Two small-town newspapers find themselves in an economic war with municipal officials.

His problem with the Commerce City paper, says Gagen, is that there sometimes seems to be no discernible difference between the editorial content and the news. The publisher's opinions, he says, color the reportage, and the paper does not disclose both sides of an issue. "We've had a number of contacts with them, calling them to task as expressing disappointment" over coverage, Gagen says. "We met with them privately and said that this is not a service to the city and the people."

Matters finally came to a head this past spring, when the town began hearings on two controversial issues--a property-maintenance ordinance and new rules governing adult businesses. Gagen says he didn't feel that the paper properly reported both sides of the issues. Gagen again summoned Union to a meeting. This time, however, Gagen said he told the publisher that the town would no longer be advertising with the Beacon.

"Basically," Union says of the meeting, "Gagen said that he didn't like the way we were characterizing him and that some of our information was not correct and that he wasn't going to put up with it. He said they were going to call us on it."

The threat didn't affect the paper's reporting, however. "We're not going to be placing ourselves under anybody's thumb," Union says.

And by late June, when someone with the city's parks and recreation department ordered a full-page ad touting the city's Fourth of July activities, Union figured the brouhaha had blown over. He was wrong. Just two hours before press time, Union was informed that the city would not pay for the ad. Union ending up pulling the page, but he inserted a red-inked box on the front page, accusing the city of economic blackmail.

Gagen fired back with a letter (which Union then published in full in his paper) stating that the city tries to get the best value for its money and that "this does not include buying poor-quality or bad products, including poor journalism."

"The City," Gagen wrote, "also has an obligation to get the most accurate information out to the people it serves, and until the quality and accuracy of information that is being published in the Beacon improves, the City will continue to exercise its consumer choice not to buy the product."

If Matsch's recent ruling is any indication, however, Gagen just might have to eat his--or Union's--words.

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