Don't Bogart That Joint

It's our turn to take a hit off the Post/News merger.

The topic that the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News cover worse than any other is themselves.

Sometimes the inaccuracies are unintentional; they're caused by a predictable lack of objectivity, perhaps, or the seemingly benign but actually corrosive tendency to give statements made by their overseers a free pass rather than the healthy scrutiny to which other folks are routinely subjected. But sometimes they're purposeful: Embarrassing facts are often excluded, or they're twisted in ways that editors would never accept under different circumstances. That may be why so many reports about circulation changes in Denver have gone unsigned over the years. Who'd want to admit that he or she was responsible for such lousy fiction?

For that reason, the Post and the News were the absolute last places anyone interested in learning the scoop about the joint operating agreement, or JOA, the papers announced on May 11 should have turned -- and those who did got what they deserved.

But at least the Post's page-one headline on May 12 -- "Rocky Seeks Truce: Post Agrees to Joint Operation With Failing Paper" -- contained an echo of the old animosity between these two rivals. News editor John Temple was clearly annoyed by it: His whining about these lines on Peter Boyles's KHOW radio show that morning (not to mention his contemptuous declaration that anyone predicting that the News would fold within five years, as the editor of this paper did on the program moments earlier, was being irresponsible) lends credence to the word from Rocky insiders that he threw a massive "Temple tantrum" after learning about the JOA, shaking visibly and tossing things around the newsroom.

In many ways, this reaction was a poignant one. Clearly Temple, as well as most people at the News, were convinced that they were winning the Denver newspaper war. But what they failed to realize is that positive circulation numbers (which the News was still boasting about in a double-truck ad on May 14) aren't nearly as important as profit margins.

Granted, pieces in both papers cast some light on the nuts and bolts of the JOA and the Denver Newspaper Agency, a new entity that will manage the business, printing, advertising and circulation elements of the Post and the News, with ownership and profits being split down the middle. But there was a severe shortage of interesting color, like the juicy item snipped from an analysis by News business writer Steve Caulk: Reportedly, Bill Burleigh, chairman and CEO of E.W. Scripps Co., the News's corporate parent, missed the May 11 press conference that starred the Post's owner, Dean "Dinky" Singleton of MediaNews Group Inc., and Scripps's president/COO Ken Lowe and executive vice president Richard Boehne, because he was returning on an airplane from Lourdes, France. Was he hoping for a last-minute miracle? In addition, the vast majority of Post and News articles either soft-pedaled the pact's likely fallout or avoided it completely. (An exception was a belated but fairly balanced look at JOAs in the May 14 Post.) This approach was epitomized by the series of questions and answers prepared by E.W. Scripps Co. and MediaNews Group that appeared in the publications' Friday editions. What follows are some samples from the document, accompanied by an attempt at truth-telling courtesy of yours truly:

Published question: "Does this mean there was a winner in Denver's long newspaper war?"

Published answer: "Of course this is a question that is open to much interpretation. It is the opinion of management at Scripps and MediaNews Group, however, that both newspapers and the entire Denver community emerge as winners."

Actual answer: Are you kidding? The Post won, and everyone at Scripps knows it. Do you think the company would have chucked $60 million in cash into the pot (as opposed to zilch from MediaNews Group) if the News had been the victor? Besides, only one newspaper will be published on each of the weekend days, with the Post getting the far more lucrative Sunday issue and the News being stuck with Saturday, the least-read paper of the week. (An editorial page from the Post will appear in the Saturday News, with the favor being returned in the Sunday Post.)

Even more humiliating is that the Saturday News will be a broadsheet, not its familiar tabloid format, resulting in an ignominy that calls to mind another French city: Vichy. Given the gargantuan physical size of the News's "Wall Street Week" section, currently printed on Sundays, that Saturday broadsheet may only be about twelve pages long -- but in a pinch, nautical sorts will be able to use it as a sail.

As for the community, it may continue to have two dailies (a mixed blessing on many days), but it will get screwed in a plethora of other ways.

Published question: "Does this mean that the News and the Post will raise the price of the paper once the JOA is approved?"

Published answer: "Subscription rates in the Denver market are significantly lower than in markets of comparable size. However, it would be premature to speculate on what will happen to circulation rates prior to the approval of the JOA."

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