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When on Rome...

A syndicated sports talker and a local station run afoul of the Colorado Rockies PR department.

"We're calling their agents now, and we're getting through," he says. "That's the only way to deal with this crap."

Gentlemen's agreement: The public's opportunity to comment on the proposed joint operating agreement between the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News officially ended on July 10, but the door isn't entirely closed: According to Justice Department spokeswoman Jennifer Rose, individuals or organizations will still be able to submit filings in support of previously tendered documents until August 8. (Interested parties can fax their feelings to Assistant Attorney General Stephen Colgate at 202-514-4317.) Nonetheless, the July 10 quasi-deadline was preceded by a flurry of responses from various quarters -- some urging the feds to green-light the pact, others arguing that approval shouldn't be granted without public hearings.

The heaviest blow in favor of the JOA was struck by unions representing workers at the Post and the News. As previously noted in this space ("Look for the Union Label," June 8), these associations may lose plenty if the agreement goes through -- namely, jobs for their membership. But from the beginning, they've appeared to have little stomach for warfare. So, to the surprise of absolutely no one, the unions agreed not to object to the Post-News wedding in exchange for a contract promising 3 percent wage increases for each of the first two years after the JOA takes effect, plus a pledge that any workforce shrinkages during that period will be accomplished through attrition. Union reps have been portraying the pact as a victory, but the papers are the real winners; they've nullified what could have been some of their most tenacious, well-funded adversaries, and all they've got to do is keep condemned workers on board for the equivalent of a transition stage before lowering the boom. Keep those resumés updated, my friends.

On the other side of the ledger is American Furniture Warehouse honcho Jake Jabs, who's been among the few business types to raise objections about the JOA thus far. His June 30 letter, which argues that "Colorado's robust economy will be harmed by the inflationary impact of substantially higher ad rates," was described in a News article as "the first major objection to the proposed merger" -- seemingly an attempt to flatter one of the paper's biggest advertisers even as he takes a stand against it.

Jabs's call for hearings was echoed by Gold Messenger Inc., a direct-mail business whose president, Donald Kittelson, accuses the Post and the News of engaging in "gestapo tactics" to undermine his operation; Jeffco Publishing, owner of local papers such as the Lakewood Sentinel and the Wheat Ridge Transcript, which fears the JOA would allow the dailies to tag-team competitors; the Greater Pueblo Chamber of Commerce, concerned about the potential negative influence on small businesses; and Westword, which raised several issues, including (my personal favorite) the public's right to know more about what's really going on.

A couple of just plain folks added their voices to this chorus as well, including Susan Williams, a self-described "private citizen and English lit major who enjoys monitoring newspapers for quality and accuracy." In her opinion, "The more homogenous news coverage becomes, the less free the citizenry."

Meanwhile, at least one observer who's currently on the sidelines is just itching to get in the game: Ed Wendover, former owner of Plymouth, Michigan's Community Crier, who led the almost-successful challenge to the joint operating agreement between the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press. (He agreed to sell the Crier in March after filing for bankruptcy protection.) Wendover has at least a couple of reasons to be interested in the situation in Denver: He has a history with Post chieftain Dean Singleton, who owned, and eventually shut down, a nearby Michigan paper, the Ypsilanti Press, and he once taught media and ethics at Colorado State University. But overriding these factors is his belief that the JOA concept is one whose time should never have come. "I'm telling you -- the JOA will destroy newspapering as you know it in Denver, just as it has in Detroit," he says.

At the same time, Wendover is thunderstruck by the apparent willingness of Coloradans to let the JOA move forward without putting up a fight. As the co-chair of Michigan Citizens for an Independent Press, he oversaw a coalition that included the head of the local newspaper guild and numerous advertisers, employees and readers. In addition, he had the support of at least one Michigan state senator, who opposed the deal on anti-trust grounds. "Has the Colorado congressional delegation completely fallen asleep?" he asks. "I understand that it's difficult for representatives who are running for re-election to take on the newspapers. But if they're asleep on this, they're not doing their job."

Today Wendover is the chairman of Citizens for an Independent Press; he calls it the "national clearinghouse" for information about JOAs. But he sees the organization's role as helping locals rather than wading into battle on its own. "We have a file cabinet and a half that will leave for your town as soon as a community group steps up and realizes what a sham this is," he says. "And we can also help gather support and progress legally. We will certainly put them in touch with our lawyers -- and actually, the time is good for that, because [Green Party presidential nominee] Ralph Nader's Public Citizen defended us in our case, and I'm sure Ralph would love the publicity now. But we have to be asked first.

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