Top Ten

The Sunday Denver Post is one of America's most widely circulated newspapers. Does it deserve to be?

On October 7, the Denver Post published a pair of articles commemorating the six-month anniversary of its joint operating agreement with the Rocky Mountain News -- and predictably, the pact, which combined the longtime rivals' business operations, was portrayed as a timely compromise. Staffer Kelly Pate's main report acknowledged that advertising rates and subscription prices have gone up, but implied that without the JOA (and the sizable personnel reductions that came along with it) the Denver dailies would have been forced to engage in massive layoffs of the sort taking place at newspapers big and small across these United States. Meanwhile, a second piece suggested that the only part of the JOA falling short of expectations is the Saturday Rocky, which Post owner Dean Singleton first publicly targeted in these pages ("Press for Success," August 2).

For many readers, then, the most surprising aspect of the spread was a graphic declaring that the Post's JOA-aided Sunday edition had the fifth highest circulation -- just over 800,000 -- of Sunday newspapers in America, trailing only the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune, and ahead of the New York Daily News, the Dallas Morning News, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Detroit News & Free Press and the Houston Chronicle. Given this company, one couldn't help but assume that while Denver's entry may be the country's fifth largest, it couldn't possibly be the fifth best.

Or could it? In an attempt to find out, I obtained the Sunday, October 14, issues of the ten newspapers on the Denver Post's list; nine of the ten are available through Denver news sellers, with the New York Daily News being the sole exception. Next, I compared them, page by page, for amount, variety and quality of coverage in subject areas ranging from hard news to entertainment -- and the results were intriguing. The papers fell into two broad categories, with the initial four standing head and shoulders above the next six, which frequently came across as flabby, obvious or bland at a time when groundbreaking reporting and effective communication are more vital than ever. The Denver Post ranked in the middle of this trailing pack, a couple of notches behind fifth place -- but the gulf between it and the papers occupying the upper echelon was a wide one.

Still, the news isn't all bad for the Denver Post. Its October 14 offering wasn't in the same journalistic league as the publications put out by the big boys; despite its notable size and heft, the paper frequently suffered from the dullness about which many area readers have griped for years. But of the second-tier papers, it was the only one that seemed to be making an overt attempt to improve.

Whether these efforts will eventually succeed in making it a truly top-flight newspaper is another question.

This judgment isn't a definitive one, and not just because it's based on newspapers published on a single day. For one thing, the New York Daily News's tabloid format is totally different from the structure of the other nine papers, all of which are broadsheets, making a balanced assessment difficult. For another, the copies of the Washington Post, the Dallas Morning News and the Houston Chronicle available in Denver are early editions. Known in the trade as "bulldogs," these are versions of Sunday papers sold in their respective locales on Saturdays -- and because they're largely assembled a day or more in advance, their news sections traditionally include a higher-than-normal number of wire-service stories with long shelf lives so that they won't be out of date by the time the paper hits the streets.

But although the October 14 Washington Post available to Coloradans contained a first-rate news section anyway, the same couldn't be said about the Morning News and the Chronicle. The former plugged local stories on its cover, yet it ran only two written by Morning News staffers in its opening 32 pages, with the first not appearing until page 23 -- and the latter published just three stories penned by Chronicle employees in its first 36 pages. Furthermore, the papers used a relatively modest amount of space for wire stories touching upon terrorism and war (the topics in which its readers are likely most interested), choosing instead to prominently play soft-focus filler like the Morning News's "Novelty Smokes Under Pressure From Legislators," from the Sacramento Bee, and the Chronicle's "Time to Decide Fate of Relics From Titanic," from the Norfolk, Virginia, Virginian-Pilot. Both the Morning News and the Chronicle touted the number of coupons they contained on their front covers, practically declaring that the editions are intended more for people who want to save money on their groceries than for those wishing to be informed. Talk about truth in advertising.

Overall, the New York Times was the clear leader on October 14. Rising to the occasion of the previous month's events, the paper seems ready to go on one of the more remarkable runs in journalism history. In addition to national and international coverage of uncommon thoughtfulness and depth, the paper presented its now-regular special section, poetically dubbed "A Nation Challenged." On that day, it featured a piece by Rick Bragg, "Shaping Young Islamic Hearts and Hatreds," that artfully captured the contradictions of the conflict in Afghanistan and beyond in ways that have escaped the vast majority of his peers. In other sections, the Times's writers used current events to add extra layers of depth to their presentations -- even in the travel section, which in most second-tier papers, including the Denver Post, reads as if the articles had been in the can for months. Also of note were the New York Times Magazine, the best Sunday mag by a substantial margin (the Denver Post doesn't even publish a magazine anymore), and a book section that left other competitors in the dust. Only the sports section, which was sizable but a bit staid and colorless, seemed less than outstanding.

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