By Michael Roberts
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By Michael Roberts
From the beginning, proponents of the joint operating agreement between the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News maintained that although the papers' business departments would be mingled under the pact, their voices would remain separate and independent -- and thus far, that's proved to be the case. But the JOA didn't mandate variety. The editorial divisions at the Post and the Rocky are free to make whatever choices they wish. And if they happen to be the same choices, that's the way it goes.
Take the publications' opinion sections, dubbed "Commentary" by the News and "Perspective" by the Post. On weekdays, each generally features two or three in-house editorials, a slew of letters and four columns, some produced by locals, most picked up from syndicators. Of the syndicated commentators, the majority have exclusive deals with one paper or the other. But that's not the case with columnists from the New York Times. Its roster includes Thomas Friedman, Maureen Dowd and William Safire, arguably the most frequently published professional thinkers in the country. As a result, the Post and the News have been known to print identical columns by one or more of these scribes on the same day.
Duplication takes place in additional arenas, too, most frequently international news coverage, where it's all but impossible to avoid doubling up on occasion: There are a finite number of wire services that specialize in such material, and a smaller total still with products that are consistently first-rate. But presumably, opinions should be in much greater supply, because everyone is supposed to have one. Besides, many readers complain about hearing only from the usual columnist suspects -- members of what journalist Eric Alterman has called the "punditocracy." And with the rise of online journalism, isn't it possible that rabid fans of Friedman, Dowd and Safire are already reading them at www.nytimes.com, thereby freeing up space for alternative scribes?
Perhaps -- but Vince Carroll, editorial-page editor at the News, and Sue O'Brien, who holds the same position at the Post, feel that the value their subscribers derive from this prose outweighs the potential annoyance generated when they open the other daily in town and see it again.
"There is some overlap with Dowd, Safire and Friedman," Carroll concedes. "We tend to publish Dowd once a week, and I've been using Friedman more since September 11, since he's been quite good on that topic; he just won the Pulitzer Prize. But they usually all have interesting things to say."
O'Brien agrees: "I love Safire because he's mischievous, and I love Dowd because readers love or hate her; when Dowd doesn't run, we get more phone calls than we do for any other writer. And Friedman is so substantive and so on top of the times right now that I'm not going to give him up. He's mine."
Clearly, O'Brien feels very territorial toward these columnists, and with good reason: A few years back, the Post had the sole Denver rights to opinion pieces plucked off the Times wire. "When they went non-exclusive, that meant both the Post and the Rocky had access to Times columnists -- and it's always really pissed me off," she allows. "I don't mind readers being angry. But I refuse to relinquish what I see as a prior claim."
Denver is hardly the only community in the country where Friedman and company turn up in multiple publications. John Stickney, marketing communications manager for the New York Times Syndication Sales Corporation, says Tampa-St. Petersburg, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Toronto are other such examples from the organization's client list -- 600 total, with 300 in the United States. Predictably, he sees nothing wrong with this arrangement.
"Our news-service business is predicated on getting these columns out to clients so they can run them the same day the Times runs them," Stickney says. "That's why you're going to see Tom Friedman in papers in the same market on the same day. And it's a fact of life in the digital age that if people don't see the columns in their paper, they're going to read them at New York Times on the Web, anyway. So there's a wonderful dissemination for people who are living from one Friedman column to the next.
"Exclusive markets still exist," he adds. "We've made every kind of deal that could be made over the course of the years to serve our clients better. But there isn't a universal standard. If there were one standard that could apply everywhere, this wouldn't be the newspaper business."
Of course, the News and the Post could unilaterally decide to drop the Times opinion-givers in favor of writers who aren't currently winding up in Denver newsprint. But Carroll sees little incentive to do so, as fewer locals currently receive both Denver dailies than was the case only a couple of years back.
"The number has shrunk considerably since the JOA as the prices have gone up," he says. "And that comes into my thinking. If I know only a fairly small percentage are likely to have seen the other paper, and I know that only a small percentage get the New York Times, then I need to think about what best serves our readers. And Friedman is saying some very distinctive things that get a lot of national attention. So I don't want to concede him to the Post, even though it might irritate some readers."
As for O'Brien, she says her decisions regarding Times columnists aren't influenced by data about dual subscriptions: "Even if there was a 40 percent overlap, we would still be worried about the reader who only reads the Post. And if you want dramatic proof that there's no editorial collusion in this era of the JOA, this is it."
How so? O'Brien is so sure Maureen Dowd makes the Post better that she regularly goes the extra mile to beat Carroll to the punch. "Dowd's column moves over the wire late in the day on Saturday, but neither the Post nor the Rocky editorial staffs work on the weekend -- which is why we both used to publish her on Tuesday," she says. "So I started coming in Sunday night and putting Dowd on our Monday page. So I have her on Mondays exclusively -- until Vince is willing to come in on the weekends."
For the birds: Denver Post reporter Mark Obmascik is best known for his sprawling investigative stories -- so it's not startling to learn that he's taking a year's leave from the paper to write a book. What is surprising, however, is the non-fiction tome's subject matter: bird-watching.
As Obmascik tells it, The Big Year, to be published in 2004 by Simon & Schuster, revolves around "three obsessed guys who, back in 1998, got into a year-long contest to break the North American bird-watching record. The guy who ultimately won traveled 250,000 miles, was away from home for 270 days and lived for around four weeks on an uninhabited Alaskan island waiting for winds to blow Asiatic species over to North American airspace so he could count them.
"To me, it's a really fun travelogue. But it's also a story about what happens when you surrender to your obsession. Most people live their lives keeping their obsessions in check. But these guys took the brakes off and went for it."
Obmascik hasn't entirely hidden his jones for winged creatures from Denver readers; in April, he wrote a piece for the Post about the Gunnison sage grouse. But since 1985, when he first became interested in the pursuit while researching a story about dedicated birder Thompson March, a University of Denver law professor, he's had to squeeze it into the margins of his life. "This spring, I went out on a bird-watching trip with my father-in-law, who's turning seventy, and my son, who just turned eight," he says. "And it was wonderful. How many things can you do with an eight-year-old, a forty-year-old and a seventy-year-old where you can all have fun?"
Now Obmascik has a full twelve months to indulge his particular passion -- and he plans to enjoy every minute of it. "In journalism, we do things by the hour," he says. "But a book is timed by the calendar -- which is nice for a change."