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Priority Shifts

Newspapers in Education programs are getting lost in the JOA shuffle.

Since the approval of the joint operating agreement that will bind the business departments of the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post forever and ever (or at least until one side atrophies and dies), the minions at the Denver Newspaper Agency have been working overtime to coordinate what DNA communications director Jim Nolan refers to as the debut of "the combined newspapers" on the weekend of April 7 and 8. As such, they've had to prioritize -- tackling some programs affected by the deal immediately but allowing others to drift along aimlessly. Examples of the latter are the Newspapers in Education operations at the News and the Post, which will likely float in limbo for months.

In recent years, NIE offerings, most often consisting of lesson plans that allow educators to use free newspapers as instructional tools in their classrooms, were heavily hyped. Indeed, house advertisements in both papers even appeared in the days after then-Attorney General Janet Reno's January 5 sanctioning of the JOA. That week, the Post touted a sample CSAP test over its NIE logo, and the News plugged a four-week curriculum based on "Fish Story," a multi-part report by Todd Hartman, with a huge ad sporting this banner: "Teachers: Sign Up Today!"

But by mid-month, NIE had seemingly fallen off the edge of the earth. When I called the Post and the News asking for information about how Newspapers in Education would change as a result of the JOA, I was told by representatives of the publications -- including News marketing director Linda Sease, whom I reached the day before she jumped to a new position at Clear Channel -- that the DNA would take over the program the following week, and I should ask whomever was put in charge of it. But since then, nobody has been able to tell me who that someone is. DNA's Nolan says only that "I expect that the individual programs will continue through this school year -- but whether we combine them in the future or keep them separate is still on the table, and we're not prepared to discuss it." He adds, "We have a plan for who's going to administer the NIE program, but I'm not prepared right now to go into that, because it's still being evaluated."

Nolan also asserts that "the Agency is committed to the NIE program," but that doesn't mean it'll avoid being radically scaled back -- and the end of the newspaper war is a big reason why cuts should be anticipated. After all, the free newspapers provided to schools are actually paid for by businesses through sponsorship agreements and therefore are counted as paid circulation, while other costs are kept under control through a variety of clever accounting measures. The News, for instance, established a tax-exempt foundation to handle NIE curriculum development, sponsorship pacts and distribution of papers to the schools. But now, with the JOA approved, the papers don't care nearly as much about growing their readership totals, because profits will be split down the middle no matter who sells more subscriptions. Hence, any number-cruncher worth his pocket protector is apt to be much less enamored of NIE from here on out.

Of course, NIE does more for the Post and the News than just pump up circulation figures. Getting youngsters accustomed to reading newspapers makes good business sense: Think of them as future subscribers. Likewise, the publications engender goodwill and positive publicity by associating themselves with pro-kid, pro-education pursuits -- and so do sponsors, who are often convinced to back curricula that tie in to their businesses in ways that sometimes seem more about promotion than teaching. Such as? Try some of these News NIE programs on for size:

· "The World of Travel," sponsored by Frontier Airlines, in which students in grades three through six "learn all about travel, the travel industry, geography, airplanes and more";

· "Meet Me at the Mall," sponsored by Cherry Creek Shopping Center, which offers fifth- and sixth-graders "thoughtful and fun ways to learn about money management and the retail industry"; and, perhaps best of all...

· "The Road to Your First Car," designed "to teach high school students the process of buying, insuring and maintaining their first car." Brought to you by Progressive Insurance and John Elway AutoNation USA.

That's not to say that all NIE presentations are useless. A casual sampling of several area teachers generates a handful of positive responses, particularly for stock-market games made available by both newspapers; they help hone math skills even as they inform children about the rudiments of Wall Street. And even those educators who've had unrewarding experiences with particular lessons generally like the idea of introducing kids to newspapers as a way of making them aware of current events and underlining the importance of literacy.

A librarian who oversees NIE use at a K-eighth grade school in the south suburbs (she asks that her name not be used -- no use ticking off the administration) has seen a variety of these reactions among teachers. According to her, about five instructors per year ask for programs at the school; most of them are new to the profession. But some have complained about the suitability of programs available for specific age groups: "The middle-school curricula have been pretty good, but the intermediate ones have sometimes been too broad and not really geared to lower-level thinkers," she says.

Moreover, even teachers who've liked programs such as "All of Us," a multicultural lesson plan from the Post that earns high marks, tend not to sign up for them again the next year; the librarian says only one instructor at the school uses NIE annually. As for the librarian herself, she ordered newspapers for the library at the beginning of the school year only to subsequently cancel the subscriptions. "It was a waste," she says. "Even if you only wanted it for one day a week, they'd send you several days' worth. You asked for one paper, they'd give you five -- and the Sunday paper was even worse. We didn't ask for the Sunday paper, but we were getting ten of them that nobody was using. It was like they were pushing them on you whether you wanted them or not."

Those days are probably over, but we don't know what will replace them yet. DNA's Nolan predicts that some form of NIE will be ready to roll in time for the start of the next school year. "This is an important area, and it will not be overlooked," he says. "But right now our focus for the next thirty to sixty days is the combined launch of the new weekend products and communicating the story to our advertisers."

Speaking of which: Post-JOA ad rates at the dailies won't be formally announced until April 2 and 3, but early signs suggest that they may turn out to be even higher than expected. A representative of a major advertiser who shall remain nameless says he was quoted per-square-inch contract fees more than five times higher than those the firm paid in the good old days. If that's accurate (and in recent days, DNA reps have been backing off those numbers), some noteworthy defections could be in the offing. Go ahead, Jake Jabs; stick it to 'em.

In the meantime, Post editorial employees are learning that any increased profits for Post owner Dean Singleton may not be coming their way. MediaNews, Singleton's company, agreed to open negotiations with the Denver Newspaper Guild for a new contract, even though the existing Post accord isn't set to expire until the end of 2002 -- but last week word swept through the newsroom that editorial guild members wouldn't be getting the three percent raises that the business employees at DNA will receive annually through 2003 as the result of a deal signed in January. Guild president Tony Mulligan says such panic is premature; talks are ongoing, and nothing has been finalized. But paranoia is understandable given the announcement last week about benefit packages for non-union workers at the Post. On the bright side, these employees will be able to take advantage of a plan to match some 401K contributions for the first time, and assorted pension formulas have been improved. But non-union Posters who'd previously had 100 percent of their health-insurance premiums covered will now be stuck paying 20 percent -- which many see as the equivalent of a sizable pay cut. Reportedly, these alterations are intended to bring the Post into line with "industry standards."

Post editor Glenn Guzzo, one of the many editorial-department supervisors, columnists and others these changes will affect, acknowledges that even though some employees seemed either happy or neutral about the new benefits package, "I think it's fair to say that a clear majority see it as negative, because the negative part is immediate and the positive part is down the road." Guzzo numbers himself among those with "mixed feelings."

Six-day-a-week News subscribers who recently received notices from the DNA about new subscription terms know how he feels -- and that includes me. In the past, I received copies of the News each day except Saturday. But beginning in April, the Saturday edition will be the only one the News publishes each weekend -- and because of that, my subscription has been changed to a "Tuesday through Sunday delivery cycle" that omits the Monday paper. Why is this a ripoff? Because I'll still technically be paying for a Sunday News even though it won't exist; the Sunday paper will be entirely the province of the Post except for a single News editorial page inserted into it. In other words, the price I'm charged today for six newspapers a week I'll be forking over for five newspapers plus one page. I also subscribe to the Post, so I'll be paying for the Sunday paper twice.

This JOA's getting better all the time.

Editorially correct: Over time, I've sensed that the Post is much more willing to publish corrections than is the News -- a suspicion that was confirmed when the News took nearly a month to concede that it shouldn't have claimed some candidates mentioned in an October 22 voters' guide were running unopposed when they actually faced minor-party competitors. So when three News staffers -- Marc Shulgold, M.E. Sprengelmeyer and Gene Amole -- either omitted a pertinent fact or flat-out erred in recent pieces concerning former Beirut hostage Tom Sutherland, I decided to conduct a little experiment and wound up with more fuel for my fire.

The problems all concerned onetime hostage Terry Anderson, who last year was awarded $41 million in compensatory damages and $300 million in punitive damages for his sufferings in captivity. Shulgold noted this in a February 13 piece and Sprengelmeyer repeated it in an article on February 14 -- the same day Amole, in his column, wrote that Anderson had "collected" the $341 million. But none of that was quite right. In November, when Anderson filed a claim for 110 percent of the $41 million portion, he waived his rights to the remainder -- which made Sprengelmeyer's and Shulgold's accounts incomplete and Amole's blatantly wrong.

As part of my test, I called the News corrections number and, after identifying myself as "a reader," told the person at the other end of the line about the mistakes, even going so far as to point out that the correct information had been published by the Associated Press last November. In response, he told me I should leave messages for Shulgold and Amole on their voice mail (he didn't think I needed to do likewise for Sprengelmeyer, because he was in Washington, D.C., at the time). I did so moments later, and in a February 18 column by Shulgold and a February 20 article by Sprengelmeyer, the Anderson item was restated more accurately. But Amole has yet to revisit the topic, and the News hasn't published any correction.

C'mon, guys, confession is good for the soul.

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