By Michael Roberts
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When the business wings of the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post were fused earlier this year via a joint operating agreement, many observers predicted that competition between the news departments, left independent by the pact, would go the way of those dinosaurs not cute or scary enough to make it into any of the Jurassic Park movies. The following incidents, which took place prior to the News's August 11 publication of "Beyond the Mirror," by reporter Robert Sanchez, suggest that this worst-case scenario hasn't yet come to pass -- but they also raise intriguing questions about when papers should try to beat rivals to stories and when they should back off.
"Beyond the Mirror" tells the tale of Kelley Sperry, a Westminster ten-year-old who has Parry-Romberg syndrome, a little-known disease that has caused the partial deterioration of her face. As the introduction to Sanchez's story notes, the News learned about Kelley as the result of an e-mail sent out last spring by her mother, Donna Sperry, a fourth-grade teacher. But the intro failed to mention that this e-mail went not only to the News, but also to the Post and, according to Donna, "all the TV stations."
The News responded within minutes, with the TV outlets not far behind and the Post bringing up the rear, giving Donna and her husband, Jay Sperry, a Westminster firefighter, the luxury of choosing the organization with which they would share their family's painful experiences. The pair soon nixed television: "They wanted to put Kelley on the ten o'clock news that night -- and that's not what we wanted," Donna says. Besides, she got a good vibe from her meeting with Sanchez, who didn't respond to interview requests from Westword, and, she says, "I like the News better, anyway."
So the Sperrys told the Post no. Shortly thereafter, they received a letter from Post city editor Evan Dreyer in which he tried to convince them to reconsider their decision. "That didn't bother me," Sperry says. "The Post was very assertive, but that's good."
She was less thrilled about what took place next. Donna heard through the Internet grapevine that a reporter from the Post had contacted the Romberg's Connection Web site in search of other people in Colorado who had the disease. "I thought that was really tacky," she says. "When we wouldn't do it with them, they went behind the scenes to find somebody else. And since these other people they were trying to reach hadn't made the attempt to go public, it could have really hurt us. Romberg's Connection is our support, our lifeline, and we didn't want anybody who wanted their privacy to get angry at us, thinking the Post was calling because of us. It would have made us sick if that happened."
To make this point, Donna e-mailed everyone associated with Romberg's Connection. "I wasn't malicious about it. I just told them what the Post was trying to do and that I wasn't comfortable with it." She also e-mailed Allison Sherry, the Post reporter in question, "and said what I'd done, and said you really need to think about if this is the kind of reporter you want to be." Donna adds, "When she answered back, she was very polite. But she was probably irritated with me, because I kind of scolded her."
This reprimand must not have been too severe, because Sherry says she doesn't remember receiving such an e-mail, or replying to it. She also disputes Donna's assumption that the attempt to contact other local Parry-Romberg patients meant the Post was trying to get to a similar story ahead of the News, thereby undercutting what was sure to be a marquee piece. (More than two weeks after it appeared, "Beyond the Mirror" is still featured on the News's home page -- a sure sign that it will be a major entry in journalism contests. And why not, since the 2001 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing went to Tom Hallman Jr. of the Portland Oregonian for a profile of a disfigured fourteen-year-old boy?) "I wanted to find out more about the disease," Sherry says. "I was just curious at that point, just fishing -- and obviously, it's always good to talk to people in Colorado."
No matter what version of events is closest to the truth, the quest to be the first with Kelley's story has its distasteful elements, even if Kelley's own mother unwittingly set the competition in motion. ("We had no idea it would even be newsworthy," Donna says, explaining why she cast such a wide net.) News consumers expect media outlets to race each other over the uncovering of political corruption or the documentable charges of whistleblowers. But when they do the same thing for a story about children with facial deformities, they confirm the negative impressions many people have about the press in general. Even Donna wasn't surprised when she learned the Post was trying to contact others with Parry-Romberg after she'd signed up with the News. "I just figured that's what reporters do," she says.
By the same token, the Post didn't continue to search the countryside for Parry-Romberg kids after being admonished by Donna, nor did it rush an article about the malady into print merely to undermine the News's feature. Yet Post city editor Dreyer admits to some discomfort over the competition. "Sort of a cliched statement in the newsroom is, 'This is still a war, and every bullet counts.' But it's still unfortunate that sometimes real people with real tragedies get caught up in the competitiveness of the news business. It's unseemly even to us to be in that position."