What We've Lost

Are two weekend newspapers really better than four? You do the math.

At its best, the rapport between area readers and their hometown daily newspapers, the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News, is wonderfully personal. Subscribers may love them on some days and hate them on others, but their mere existence is reassuring, and what fills them matters in unexpected ways.

It's tempting to snicker at the 300-plus folks who recently wrote Post columnist Tina Griego to comment on her hairstyle, and to wonder why locals seldom react to stories about government corruption, police brutality or other pressing issues in similar volume. But at least they're engaging in a dialogue about something in their town, superficial though it might be -- and they're using a newspaper to do it. Which is why April 7 and 8, when the joint operating agreement between the News and the Post cut the number of weekend papers in half, was hardly a time to celebrate, despite a promotional blitz intended to convince the citizenry that the change represented good news.

For cynics and other shortsighted individuals, it might be. But even though the Denver dailies are too often cautious, edge-free and overly provincial, they're also a part of our lives -- or my life, anyway. Over the years, I've been most loyal to the News, in part because of its tabloid format, which I prefer over the Post's broadsheet approach (given my place of employment, that's not much of a shock). Even after the News went to its current sections style, I had no problem tracking down the stuff I wanted to peruse, and its layout and design made it much more readable and easy on the eye than the consistently homely Post. Moreover, the photography, from the vibrancy of the color reproductions to the rudiments of the images themselves, was almost always outstanding, and still is, as News photog Marc Piscotty's finalist status for the 2001 Pulitzer Prize demonstrates. (Pulitzer winners will be announced April 16; if Piscotty prevails, it will mark the second consecutive year that the News has earned honors in this specialty.) Of course, such attributes didn't prevent me from being angered by the occasional article or coverage slant -- but no matter how upset I was, I still started my Sunday mornings by flipping through the pages of the News, just like thousands of other Coloradans.

Sam Turner

Predictably, then, I was distressed by aspects of the JOA that stuck it to the Rocky. Over the past couple of weeks, the paper's editor and president, John Temple, has appeared in virtually every local media forum that would have him, with the exception of this one (more on that later), and he has regularly emphasized that the News and the Post will split profits fifty-fifty -- the implication being that neither side has an advantage over the other. But that's a crock the size of Bill Clinton's libido. In truth, the agreement heaped at least three hefty indignities upon the News. First, E.W. Scripps, the News's parent company, was required to pay $60 million to MediaNews, the owner of the Post, before being allowed to play the JOA game. Second, the News was forbidden from publishing an edition on Sunday, far and away the most important day of the week in the newspapering biz. And while the News received a monopoly on Saturday, this was awfully poor compensation, because readership customarily plummets that day. Third, the JOA forced the News to publish Saturdays using a broadsheet, which undermines its tabloid identity and makes it far less distinguishable from the Post. This shift is the equivalent of a scarlet letter -- "L" for "Loser" -- the News must wear once a week.

Although the News's April 7 cover, which wrapped around the sports section, consciously evoked its customary tabloid opener, it was virtually the only nod to this design in the entire paper. In most other respects, the News was a standard broadsheet, albeit an especially attractive one; thanks to a clean, airy look that made inviting use of photos and graphics, the average page was simpler to survey than those in the typical Post. However, another reason for the lack of visual clutter -- a dearth of ads in the majority of sections -- carried with it the seeds of doom. The paper was much larger than the News's usual Saturday offerings, but if advertisers can't be convinced to run in it, either the Denver Newspaper Agency will have to prop it up financially, which is unlikely over the long run, or its size will shrink dramatically.

If the latter takes place, as seems more likely, many readers baffled by the way the April 7 paper was assembled may feel relieved. Indeed, "Helpless," the main headline, was an especially unfortunate choice for the broadsheet News's debut: While it referred specifically to the first part of a thorough, detailed exposé of the probate system by Lou Kilzer and Sue Lindsay, it also described how many readers felt after trying to navigate the issue's contents. For instance, the Kilzer-Lindsay report was located in "Insight," a new features section buried deep inside the Saturday bundle -- and those who turned to the cryptically written "Guide to the Weekend Rocky Mountain News" for help finding it could still be looking. Too bad they didn't also miss the day's main local story -- yet another profile of philanthropist Sharon Magness, in which writer James Meadow portrayed the "Colorado Queen" as being both (oh, my gosh!) rich and (can you believe it?) lucky. My guess is that execs at the dailies have a Sharon Magness hourglass: When the sand runs out, the next guy on the list gets assigned to write the latest glowing tribute to her.

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