Brave News World

Feeding the daily dinosaurs.

My polling place was empty at 7:20 Tuesday morning; I was the first -- and by all appearances, likely the last -- resident in the precinct to vote on Denver's charter amendments.

Obviously, the rest of my edge-of-downtown neighborhood -- home to almost as many proposed jail sites as District 6 had candidates for Susan Casey's city council seat -- did not receive Kirk MacDonald's memo.

"Dear co-worker," the president and CEO of the Denver Newspaper Agency had written in a missive to his minions, "On Tuesday, May 8, residents of the City and County of Denver will have the opportunity to vote on three referendums. One of these issues could affect you as an employee of the Denver Newspaper Agency and as a citizen of Denver. While the proposed change could result in the loss of advertising revenue for both newspapers, there is a larger civic issue about which we should all be concerned."

Thus far, the DNA has demonstrated its exquisite sensitivity to civic issues large and small by slashing sponsorships of charitable events (you didn't think the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News supported those nonprofits out of the goodness of their hearts, did you? All's fair in love and newspaper wars), raising advertising rates and increasing subscription prices to the point that both papers report significant readership reductions over the last year. But MacDonald's memo didn't mention any of that. Amendment 1B, he warned, would "significantly limit mainstream public access to important information about government finances and operations. If approved, only those people with access to the Internet would be able to read official public notices from City Hall. Legal notices would not have to appear in the two daily newspapers."

Nice try, but apparently MacDonald (or DNA ghostwriter Jim Nolan) hadn't read the fine print in the very newspapers put out by his "co-workers." The May 3 Post, for example, quoted Amendment 1B verbatim, noting that the measure would change the city charter to allow the "Manager of General Services to designate print, electronic and other media besides newspapers as official publications." As it was, when the century-old city charter referred to "newspapers," it wasn't talking about the North Denver Tribune, or the Denver Catholic Register, or even this newspaper. It referred specifically to daily newspapers, of which there are precisely three in this town: the Post, the News and the Daily Journal, a small-circulation paper geared toward the construction industry. With the passage of Amendment 1B, the city could explore targeting media outlets that might do a better job of getting the word out on specific projects -- television for big issues; the Washington Park Profile for a council race involving just a slice of the city's geography, such as Tuesday's District 6 election.

While Denver has been posting official notices on its Web site (denvergov.org) for some time, the city's interest in exploring advertising alternatives exploded after the DNA quoted its new ad rates: The 83 cents a line the city had paid to put legal notices in the News was being jacked up 360 percent. And although that increase was lower than what some stunned retail advertisers were reporting, it still seemed ridiculous to George Seaton, director of purchasing for the City and County of Denver. So even as the city negotiated with the DNA -- which ultimately dropped the city's rate to $1.88 a line -- Denver officials moved quickly this spring to get Amendment 1B on the ballot.

"The Charter and Revised Municipal Code of the City and County of Denver is currently riddled with archaic and restrictive language that requires the communication of the city's 'official' business to be conducted only through daily newspapers," Seaton explained in a letter to the editor that neither daily saw fit to publish. "This archaic language surely harks back to Denver's first Charter of 1904...an era when daily newspapers were certainly the prime method of mass communication. Times and technology have, of course, changed since 1904. We cannot continue to rely upon century-old mandates that have been outgrown by the fantastic and exciting advances in communication technology."

From radio to television to the Internet, these advances have been an indisputable boon to communication -- but no bonus for daily newspapers, which have been dying off with regularity for the past few decades. The Newsavoided almost certain death when it declared itself the "losing newspaper" in Denver's longstanding newspaper war and entered into a joint operating agreement with the Post last year, a move that brought us the DNA.

"The amendment is a bad idea," MacDonald's memo continued, "because the majority of people still use newspapers as the most convenient way of getting information. Newspapers also provide the most reliable and historically relevant source of information."

But the city doesn't want to publicize contracts that will be awarded in 1910, or votes that will be taken in 1950, or even jobs that will be filled in 1980. Any daily newspaper classified-ad manager can tell you what very recent history has meant for help-wanted ads: The Internet has snagged a huge chunk of the market. Today if you're looking for a job -- say, as communications director for the Denver Department of Public Safety, a thankless task recently advertised by the city -- you're going to go online first and check the weekend papers later.

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