The Man Who Wasn't There

Bill Johnson doesn't let the truth get in the way of a good story.

But rather than leaving it at that, Johnson attempted to blunt any criticism of his methods by talking about the tremendous positive response the column had received, quoting at length from a letter sent by Sgt. Victor Ross of the Glendale Police Department. Yet he never stopped to ponder whether such compliments might have been tempered had the readers known the real details, and his flippant final line ("And you know, crow -- once you get past the feathers -- isn't really such a bad dish") strongly suggested that the question didn't trouble him in the slightest.

Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Brian Stauffer

The arts and entertainment output of the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post is weighed -- almost literally -- as part of Reporting the Arts: News Coverage of Arts and Culture in America, a just-released ten-city study conducted under the auspices of the National Arts Journalism Program at New York's Columbia University. Rather than critiquing the quality (or lack thereof) of these sections' component parts, the researchers, overseen in large part by project co-director András Szántó, concentrated on cataloguing it, counting the column inches devoted to these topics whether in the form of reviews, articles or listings and then trying to put it in an overall context. Locals will find numerous flaws in the data, some of which are mighty sizable. For example, the Denver gay publication Out Front is identified as Up Front (sounds like a porno mag for dudes into big busts), and a parenthetical mention of Westword argues that this publication "once boasted a wide readership throughout the metropolitan region [but] that changed when the paper was acquired by the New Times chain" -- a description that has no connection to reality. (When it was purchased by New Times in 1983, Westword was a biweekly with a circulation of 35,000; today it's a weekly with a circulation of 110,000.)

A few of the findings about the News and the Post are on the suspect side, too: The News is said to give "hardly any coverage at all" to classical music, when in fact classical/dance specialist Marc Shulgold is generally kept quite busy. But many of the study's conclusions are fairly intriguing. Arts coverage in the News is said to "take up a small share of the paper's pagination," with most of that total coming in the Friday and Sunday "Spotlight" sections. Staffing in this department is described as "very lean," and arts and entertainment editor Mike Pearson admits that much of it has an emphatically populist slant: "If the Rolling Stones are in the arena vs. 700 people at a classical concert," he allows, "then I'll cover the Stones." As for the Post, it devotes "a meager share of its space to arts coverage," with listings on the weekend consisting of between 49 and 75 percent of the available space -- "which is the highest among the [fifteen] reviewed papers." The working environment is also criticized by an anonymous former Post critic, who says, "The arts were pushed deeper and deeper into the paper and reduced in length to twelve inches. The paper wants to be liked and thus seeks out what they think is popular and basks in the glow of the coverage. The idea is to trumpet things about which writers have no particular knowledge."

In contrast with this slap, co-director Szántó makes it clear that he has a great deal of respect for the vast majority of reporters, critics and editors covering arts for the News and the Post, all of whom he feels are working hard under difficult circumstances created by the battle between the papers -- the closest, most hard-fought scrap of its kind in the nation. "You have two strong organizations that have dug in and are trying not to let the other beat them at anything," he says. "So readers in Denver benefit from having two newspapers doing their absolute best to capture readers in all areas of coverage. But there are also indications that at times their efforts are more focused on the competition than on generating the deepest possible coverage in every area." The Portland Oregonian wins praise from Szántó for the latter characteristic: "It does an exemplary job with a weekend section that surpasses the efforts of many much larger papers. That shows that, if you want to, you can do better." Still, he feels that neither Denver daily is in a position to follow suit. According to him, "Denver is unique, and perhaps the freedom to make those kinds of decisions isn't so great, because all the resources are stretched to the max. It's a warfare situation."

See? War is hell.

In "Show & Sell," our November 25 analysis of Denver's late newscasts, Channel 9 was identified as the longtime ratings leader in this market, and its sweeps month ratings performance confirmed its supremacy: The station was number one in every weekday time slot with the exception of the 4-to-5 p.m. block, when it was bested not by a news competitor, but by Oprah Winfrey.

Why does 9 rule? Among the reasons are its flashy, graphics-heavy weather reports and management's ability to get the maximum mileage out of this portion of the program. An example of the latter is The Colorado Weather Book, credited to "Mike Nelson and the 9News Weather Team." The tome is an elaborate soft-cover presentation filled with illustrations aplenty and a slew of colorful photographs by the likes of John Fielder, whose participation in Channel 4's current "Colorado Millennium 2000" project means that he's probably the only local media figure in a business relationship with two rival Denver stations simultaneously. And that's not all: There are also entries about the century's biggest storms, instructions showing how to do weatherman Nelson's "tornado dance," and daytime weather dude Ed Greene's "favorite weather trivia questions." The resulting edition, which is being hyped by slick ads, demonstrates why Channel 9 is still kicking the cabooses of its competitors.

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