The Message

The Denver Newspaper Agency has combined the city's dailies into a one-two punch.

Picture a successful salesman, and odds are good the image will look a lot like Kirk MacDonald. The head of the Denver Newspaper Agency, which handles business operations for the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News, is florid and large of frame, with broad features, thinning hair and a grip that could turn granite to dust. While shaking hands, he squashes the mitt of the person he's greeting for what seems like epochs, until he's confident that the power dynamic has been firmly established in his favor. Betcha he's gone through enough of those stress-reduction balls to fill Chatfield Reservoir.

In the context of an interview, though, MacDonald is more guarded than Dick Cheney's motorcade. He stays rigidly on message, speaking in pre-processed, jargon-heavy snippets that surrender information grudgingly, if at all. When, near the conclusion of a late-January chat, he's asked if there's anything he'd like to add, his reply is more overtly candid than any of his previous statements. "Why would I do that?" he wonders.

Why, indeed? Joint operating agreements like the one that wedded the financial elements of the Post and the News in 2001 have caused quarrels and chaos in cities such as Detroit and Seattle, where a longstanding JOA may be on the verge of rupturing. But Denver has thus far avoided the most nettlesome of these problems, thanks in part to MacDonald, who has quietly formalized a match between once-hostile rivals that's both profitable and relatively free of controversy. Today the agency seldom makes headlines about anything other than good news, and that's just the way MacDonald likes it.

The choice of MacDonald, who's in his mid-forties, to head the DNA makes perfect sense. Although the joint operating agreement is portrayed as a fifty-fifty partnership between the Post and the News, Dean Singleton, owner of the former, was in the stronger position when the agreement was reached, and he wanted someone loyal to him to take charge at the agency. MacDonald, who served in numerous executive capacities at the Post between 1989 and 1998, certainly qualified -- and, as a bonus, his newspaper background echoed that of his boss in many respects.

Like Singleton, MacDonald found his way into print at an early age. He was only twelve when, with the encouragement of a favorite teacher, he marched down to the Blade-Tribune, a Solano, California, newspaper near his home, with a sports story that he managed to parlay into a succession of newsroom jobs that included ripping wire copy and penning the fish report. He stuck around the paper until he was in his early twenties, covering the San Diego Chargers along the way -- and the only reason he left was because he was promoted to publisher of a sister paper, the Oceanside Citizen. Even today, MacDonald isn't sure why his betters decided to move him from the editorial to the sales side of the continuum. "I guess it's because I had a passion for newspapers and I've always followed that passion," he says.

After a stint as press secretary for San Diego Congressman Ron Packard and a brief return to the Blade-Tribune, MacDonald moved to the San Antonio Light, where he rose to the position of advertising manager. "From a management standpoint, what I took away from that was the realization that I'm an aggressive, results-oriented leader, and I like to surround myself with people who share that point of view," he says. "That's been a common thread throughout my professional life."

In the late '80s, while still with the Light, MacDonald was attending a newspaper conference in San Francisco when he happened to wind up at a table beside the future Kathleen MacDonald, who just happened to work on the sales side at the Denver Post. The pair, who have a daughter, Meghan, toiled together briefly at the Post before Kathleen became a community-relations specialist for Ascent Sports, onetime owner of the Colorado Avalanche and the Denver Nuggets. In 1998, MacDonald was named vice president of the Hearst newspaper chain, which meant a move to New York City. But two years later, he received a call from Singleton asking him to come home and lead what would become the Denver Newspaper Agency. He knew that some JOAs had turned into quagmires, but he was confident such an eventuality could be avoided in Denver.

"For one thing, it was two morning newspapers," MacDonald points out. "It was also two brands that had loyal audiences, with circulations that were and remain close. So I expected it to work, and I think it is working." He refuses to speculate about whether the News might have folded without a JOA, saying only that "it wouldn't have been pretty." But he believes that the agreement has helped the newspapers weather a recession that's entering its second year with far fewer bruises than they would have suffered otherwise. In his view, "the owners' timing was impeccable."

True enough, because the JOA provided an excuse for the dailies to reduce the business-side workforce by around 20 percent; MacDonald boasts that this shrinkage was accomplished entirely through the use of "early retirement, voluntary buyouts and attrition." During this time, advertising and subscription rates were raised substantially in moves that produced initial squawking from the likes of American Furniture Warehouse's Jake Jabs but now prompt barely a murmur. And circulation totals have plummeted by many thousands without tearing a hole in the bottom line.

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