Top Ten

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

Next up, in a virtual three-way tie, were the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. Each paper did good work in the news arena. The Post shone in the areas of basic information gathering and sported thoughtful local tie-ins about the readiness of D.C. physicians to deal with bio-terrorism and the challenges presented to regional airports; the Tribune came up with several unusual takes on terrorism-related matters, most of which were penned by its own international reporters; and the Times presented "So Many Warnings, So Little Action," an exhaustive study of clues overlooked and signals missed in advance of the terrorist strikes. Other impressive specialties included the Post's editorial and analysis pages, the Tribune's sports coverage and the Times's entertainment insert, "Calendar," which is quite simply the finest section of its type put out by a U.S. daily newspaper. Nothing else comes close, which should prompt entertainment editors at dailies elsewhere to hang their heads in shame.

The highlights were harder to find in the lower-rung papers, but there were a few. The October 14 Philadelphia Inquirer wound up toward the front of the trailing pack by virtue of a lively news mix, an above-average business section and entertainment pages that had their moments -- although the latter lost points for being built around "Bin There, Mocked That," a tepid piece about comedians trying to find humor in wartime. For its part, the New York Daily News, a tabloid that aims for the broad middle ground that separates the tony New York Times and the willfully unrefined New York Post, presented by far the finest sports section of the ten papers studied; it was passionate, argumentative and exhaustive, encompassing a staggering 45 of the 95 pages in the October 14 edition. The news coverage was significantly more uneven. The tearjerking portrait of a firefighter at ground zero, "God Willing, I Will Find & Bury My Son," was honest and moving. But this piece was juxtaposed with the blood-in-the-water prose of "Bin Laden More Likely to Be DOA Than POW," an article accompanied by a screaming sidebar, "The Fates of Mass Killers," decorated with photos of everyone from Adolf Eichmann and Slobodan Milosevic to Pablo Escobar and Carlos the Jackal. Awfully subtle stuff.

As for the Houston Chronicle, the paper celebrated its hundredth anniversary with sixty pages of often wonderful graphics and puffy, nostalgia-driven copy; the other sections seemed like a complete afterthought. The Dallas Morning News, lacking the excuse of a keepsake issue, was nearly as middling. And the Detroit News & Free Press, another paper that owes its hefty circulation to a joint-operating agreement, was utterly schizophrenic. Unlike the Sunday Denver Post, whose JOA fine print requires it to include just one page from the Rocky Mountain News, the Detroit offering is cut down the middle. On October 14, the Detroit News handled news and business, and the Free Press oversaw entertainment and a style section called "The Way We Live." With few exceptions, neither organization rose above mere competence.

And the Denver Post? Its front page on October 14 was dominated by "An Epidemic of Fear," a piece picked up from the Associated Press, and included "Al-Qaeda Broadcasts New Threats," an article by the New York Times's R.W. Apple Jr. that the Times itself placed inside its second section, where it probably belonged; Al-Qaeda and its supporters had been rattling sabers regularly by that point. There was also "One Sailor's Story," a collection of e-mails sent by Longmont's Jessica Garrison, a mechanic stationed aboard the USS Enterprise, to her mother in Colorado -- a typical tie-in to far-flung events whose contents ("Hey, Momma, not much is going on here. We are still just sitting around. Unfortunately!!!") didn't justify their space.

In addition, there was a trio of stories by Post reporters: "2 Cultures Growing Together" by Steve Lipsher, about the makeup of schools in Eagle County, plus "Every Illness Stirs Panic Over Shadowy Disease," reported by David Olinger from Boca Raton, Florida, and "Afghan Refugees Carry Hope, Pain to Pakistan," written by Gwen Florio, stationed in Peshawar, Pakistan. And inside the first section were two more tales by Post reporters overseas: "U.S. Sailors Told to Handle Mail Carefully," by Ron Franscell, the paper's "Rocky Mountain Ranger," onboard the USS Enterprise with mechanic Garrison, and "Mideast a Factor in Terror Fight," by Kevin Simpson in Jerusalem.

Keeping so many reporters on the road isn't cheap, and in this economic climate, the Post's willingness to do so set it apart from the second-string papers, none of which appear to have made the same financial commitment. But thus far, the strategy hasn't paid off in journalistic excellence. The stories by Florio, Franscell and Simpson are typical of those that overseas Post scribes have turned out over the past month. They're not bad -- the writing is earnest and professional -- but neither are they as in-depth, provocative and fascinating as those available from more established news organizations, whose international reporters have infinitely more experience covering the regions in the spotlight. In contrast, none of the Post writers has worked this particular beat in the past: They're starting from square one, which helps explain why they seem several steps behind their counterparts at, say, the New York Times. Indeed, many of their articles read like lesser variations on syndicated stories the Post printed several weeks earlier -- and thus far, none have contained anything like a major scoop.

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