Paper Trail

The News VP asks children's help in watching the competition

A lot of businesses have dispensed entirely with printed memos, preferring instead to go with the electronic variety. But the Rocky Mountain News is still doing things the old-fashioned way, and we're glad they do -- because a couple of memos intended for News employees that found their way to our door recently make for some of the most interesting reading produced by the paper in quite some time.

First up is an item "from the desk of Bruce Johnson," the News's vice president of circulation; addressed to all "co-workers," the sheet was attached to employee paychecks on March 17. "I am asking for your help in watching our competitor, the Denver Post," Johnson writes. "We have heard many reports in the marketplace about copies of the Post just showing up at homes without being ordered. Additionally, we have had reports of uncut bundles of the Denver Post at schools, hotels, retailers and restaurants. We need your assistance in documenting these occurrences so that we can assess the impact and react as necessary."

Aside from demonstrating why readers should count themselves lucky that Johnson's prose isn't published on a regular basis, what does this mean? Simply put, the memo implies that the Post may be pumping up circulation figures by underhanded means in order to gain ground in its battle to the death with the News -- and Johnson offers his underlings incentive to find proof. He lists eight examples of possible Post subterfuge, including:

"Schools -- your student observes large quantities of Post newspapers not being used by, or delivered to his/her school."

"Retailers -- offering 'complimentary' copies of the Post at their locations -- encouraging you to use their coupons, etc."

"A person continuing to receive the Post after they have requested their subscription to stop."

Then, as added incentive, Johnson reveals that for each completed survey, printed at the bottom of the page, "you will be entered into a drawing for cash and prizes. First place prize is a weekend getaway in Vail, which includes two nights' hotel accommodations, dinner and $200 spending money. The second place prize is $250, and the third place prize is $100." Watch out, Regis Philbin! You've got competition!

When contacted for details, Larry Hart, the News's ABC circulation manager, to whom the surveys are supposed to be sent, referred all questions to Johnson, who didn't return calls -- a lack of response that soon became a continuing theme. A case in point: Post vice president of circulation Judd Alvord said, via his assistant, to phone Post vice president of marketing Tom Botelho to learn more about the Post's circulation approach. But Botelho didn't return calls, either. Guess those open lines of communication both papers like to boast about only go one way.

Another News memorandum that went out March 17 was addressed to "all staff members" from News editor John Temple and managing editor Deb Goeken. The stated topic was "Columbine Debriefing Sessions," but the copy made it clear that what was really being offered was grief counseling for those who feel that they may be traumatized by the impending one-year anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School. The memo, which included a schedule for meetings from March 22 to March 28 and some advice about how to mentally prepare for the big day -- April 20 -- states, "This year's sessions will focus on helping you to better understand your reaction and the community's reaction to the tragedy and the anniversary. We hope they will help give you the strength to continue to excel as journalists on this difficult story." After all, the News sure as hell isn't going to skip it.

A call to Helen Resnick, the expert slated to lead the chats, was not returned (big, fat surprise), but her cohort Dave Dillingham actually phoned. However, it soon became clear that Dillingham thought I was a News employee, even though I had clearly identified myself as being from Westword on the message I left him. In a sudden burst of integrity, I stopped him a few sentences later and told him my background again. Somewhat flustered, he thanked me for my honesty and said he'd ask editor Temple if he could speak to me, adding that he would let me know the next day.

Predictably, I never heard from him again. I'm starting to get a complex.

Meanwhile, the News and Post offices, as well as other newsrooms around the country, are abuzz with rumors that the News is a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for photography because of its Columbine work, while the Post's Columbine work has made it a finalist in the breaking news category. There's no telling if this gossip is solid: Pulitzer judges contacted by Westword either didn't know if it was true or wouldn't say, and one local observer characterized much of the speculation as mere "barroom talk." But if one of the dailies wins and the other one doesn't when the Pulitzers are announced on April 10, those grief counselors had better be ready.

Thus far, the Post hasn't published anything about a lawsuit filed last month on behalf of Fort Collins's Tom Gerstung, but that's not especially surprising. After all, the suit is aimed directly at the Post, and the accusations contained within it aren't the sort likely to generate favorable publicity. Gerstung, a survivor of throat cancer, argues that he had to leave his job with the paper because of persistent ridicule he received regarding a mechanical device he must use to talk.

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