The Name Game

The "Denver" is gone from the Rocky Mountain News. What's next?

The chiseled sign in front of the building at 400 West Colfax still reads "Rocky Mountain News," as it has since long before October 1998, when the publication billed as "Colorado's oldest newspaper" rechristened itself the "Denver Rocky Mountain News." But the move to drop the "Denver" and reclaim the tabloid's original moniker didn't clear up the confusion for those who visited the News's home on the day of the switch. After all, the cheerful placard that confronted them beyond the main doors read "Welcome to the Denver Newspaper Agency."

Such contradictions are the stuff of which joint operating agreements are made, and they were rife on January 22, which marked the official start of the JOA between the News and the Denver Post. That morning, the folks at the Denver Newspaper Agency (DNA), the entity created to handle the riches the pact will produce, scheduled a press conference and a slate of calm-down gatherings meant to reassure worried workers. They also directed that the News lobby be dressed up in party finery -- hence the presence of a rainbow arch of balloons behind the information desk and a poster that listed the event itinerary under the slogan "Let's Celebrate." But not every News toiler was in a festive mood. While staffers were presented with T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan "Rocky Mountain News: 1st in Colorado," only a few chose to don them, and others commemorated the occasion by wearing black -- and not as a tribute to Johnny Cash.

Such glumness isn't wholly without rationale. For instance, virtually every JOA article published in the Post and the News has emphasized that the two editorial staffs are to remain completely independent, with only business boys and girls falling under the umbrella of the DNA. So imagine the dismay of reporters when they received a misdirected mass voice-mail message from DNA president Kirk MacDonald informing them that, beginning this week, they'll be on the agency payroll. The gaffe was explained, and apologies were made shortly thereafter, but you don't have to be Sigmund Freud to see a certain significance in it. Perhaps that explains why some business siders interpreted a packet waiting for them on their desks when they arrived on January 22 not as an information kit -- that's how it was described by Carol Green, DNA vice president of human resources and labor relations -- but as a buyout offer.

The press conference didn't put many other rumors to rest, if only because the main participants seemed intent on providing as little information as possible. Although panelists included Green, Post owner/publisher Dean Singleton, DNA executive vice president Jeff Hively and two representatives from the News's corporate parent, E.W. Scripps, president Ken Lowe and senior vice president Alan Horton, MacDonald did most of the talking, focusing primarily on the same old facts. Advertising rates will be going up, but how much won't be announced until April 2 for retail, national or pre-print sales, and April 3 for items in the Post-News classified section, a broadsheet design that will debut the same day in both papers and on their respective Web sites. Subscription rates are also heading skyward, but it's too soon to say whether they'll reach the stratosphere or the ionosphere. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Similar spin filled a "reader's guide" about the proposed JOA changes that was distributed at the press conference; the eight-pager is set for distribution sometime in late March. Its tag line -- "You're gonna need a bigger dog" -- is a reference to the "combined" weekend editions, with the News getting stuck with Saturdays and the Post handling Sundays starting April 7 and 8, and is intended to imply that the papers will be so much bigger that your little ol' mutt won't be able to lug them anymore. But dogs whose owners currently receive both the Post and the News will actually get a break, since they'll have to lug just one paper on weekend days, not two. Moreover, the dimensions of the guide are smaller than those associated with today's Rocky, encouraging speculation that the paper's height and width will be reduced. (A DNA spokesperson says no decision about that has been reached.) So hang on to that dachshund, kids. The little fella should be able to handle it.

As for rockymountainnews.com, which has just been redesigned (what a coincidence), and denverpost.com, MacDonald confirmed that they'll be DNA concerns but otherwise avoided specifics about how they may be altered: "We have a very exciting Internet strategy that we're not prepared to discuss today..."

MacDonald's cohorts weren't quite as vague, but they came close. Singleton began his remarks by thanking employees, labor unions and community leaders for "climbing on board" the JOA bandwagon. As a result of the agreement, he added, the Sunday Post will have an average circulation of 940,000, making it the fifth largest U.S. newspaper -- "so we have to be the fifth best, or at least the fifth best, newspaper in the country." Don't shoot too high, now.

Singleton also made a point of referring to Lowe as "my friend," a kindness that was promptly returned. (As soon as they agreed to split untold millions of dollars, the love started flowing.) Later, Singleton and Lowe reiterated their desire to increase the size of their newsroom staffs, with Singleton again predicting the addition of 100 more reporters over the next three years and Lowe referring such questions to News editor (and newly named president) John Temple, who wasn't on hand and, as usual, failed to reply to a subsequent interview request. In that same vein, MacDonald insisted that any business-staff reductions can be accomplished through attrition. "This combination is about growth, not layoffs," he said.

Of course, none of that is written in stone -- and neither was the "Denver" part of the "Rocky Mountain News" appellation, which is why the sign in front of News HQ doesn't need modification. In rationalizing the revising of a handle that had worked pretty well since the paper's 1859 birth, Temple, in an October 23, 1998, editor's note, surmised that News founder William Byers had left "Denver" out of the name because back then the city "didn't mean much to anybody." Yet the real reason for the change was the circulation war between the News and the Post: Execs hoped that the "Denver" insertion would help the News compete more effectively with the Post for national advertising dollars as well as underline distribution cutbacks in outlying regions. Like most of the News's strategies, however, it backfired, failing to bring in more ad dollars from afar even as it was ignored by locals. "No one got used to calling it the Denver Rocky Mountain News," Horton conceded at the press conference, "and it was almost never referred to that way in the media" -- this column included.

So the News went back to the future, just as the Post did on Tuesday by resurrecting "There is no hope for the satisfied man" and "'Tis a privilege to live in Colorado," two vintage slogans cooked up by the publication's creator, F.G. Bonfils; these maxims appear on the Post's editorial page and weather page, respectively. Still, the timing for the News was considerably more humiliating, and Temple's attempt to put the best face on it felt plenty forced. In his crow-eating January 22 editor's note, he wrote that, in light of the JOA, "I thought it only fitting to resume the mantle of the great name Byers chose as he raced to print his first edition." But to his credit, he also acknowledged that, in retrospect, the name change had been a mistake, and he apologized for taking so long to admit it.

Will a similar confession about the JOA as a whole be forthcoming? Check back in a couple of years.

Headline of the week: An article in the January 19-21 edition of the Colorado Daily was teased with "Vagina Chronicles set to open on Main Stage: Theater project delves into sensitive areas and probes women's issues."

Sounds like a trip to the gynecologist's office. Nurse, where's my speculum?

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