The Message

Stripped

According to Westword's Best of Denver 2004, the "Best Thing to Come Out of the JOA" -- the joint operating agreement linking business operations at the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News -- was the comics section in the Sunday Post. Each week, the colorful spread covered a whopping ten pages, providing a nice break from the often ugly realities documented in other parts of the paper.

That break just got shorter. In the May 23 Post, a byline-free piece called "Some Comics Absent Temporarily; Others Are Leaving" revealed that a dozen strips, including "Amazing Spider-Man," "Funky Winkerbean," "Born Loser," "Drabble" and "Pardon My Planet," were being axed from the Sunday edition, and surviving items had been reconfigured. In the past, comics appeared on Sunday under a Post-News banner, without regard to which papers published them during the rest of the week. Henceforth, the anonymous scribe noted, they would be grouped under separate Post and News flags.

The writer failed to mention that the total number of comics pages had dropped from ten pages to eight -- and neither did he acknowledge that this was the second such diminution of the JOA era. Three years ago, prior to the formal adoption of the agreement, newspaper executives needed to convince Denver consumers that the JOA was a positive for the community, despite the impending loss of the Saturday Post and the Sunday News, and they made the Sunday comics a major selling point. In a January 22, 2001, release sent out by the PR Newswire service, newly named DNA head Kirk MacDonald put the comics first on his list of benefits: "In addition to the traditional Sunday Denver Post editorial content, Post and News readers will enjoy one of the nation's largest comics sections," he said. Former Post editor Glenn Guzzo echoed this observation in a column published on April 8, 2001 -- in the first Sunday Post under the JOA -- boasting that "we've doubled the Sunday funnies to create the world's largest comics section -- 12 pages." As this quote demonstrates, the comics had already been reduced by two pages prior to last month, making today's section only two-thirds the size it was at the JOA's outset.

Christopher Smith

Why downsize? The most obvious theory is budget-cutting. The Audit Bureau of Circulations reported in early May that the Denver dailies had experienced circulation dips during the six-month period that ended on March 31; weekday circulation at the Post and News slipped by about 5 percent, with shortfalls of less than 2 percent on Saturday and Sunday. If such decreases hurt the bottom line, then eliminating two pages of color-drenched newsprint, not to mention a percentage of syndication fees for the strips, would save cash.

But the DNA's MacDonald disputes any suggestion that the new circulation numbers portend difficulties at the Post and the News (more on that later), and he says the decline didn't motivate changes in the comics section, either. According to a source within the DNA, the decision on the strips had more to do with a quest for efficiency than a desperate need to trim expenses. Agency personnel had done an informal survey of Sunday comics sections at other major metropolitan dailies and discovered that only one, the Houston Chronicle's, was ten pages long; the rest were eight pages or less. Now that the JOA is entrenched, execs determined that they weren't getting enough bounce from the extra pages to justify the newsprint cost. (The syndication fees were so modest that they didn't come into play, this source says.) So the DNA told managers at the Post and News they would need to cut some strips to fit within their designated four pages.

These conferences took place separately, not simultaneously, because of the JOA's rule about maintaining independent editorial content -- although decisions are made within defined parameters and require coordination by the DNA and the cooperation of the two papers. For example, take the gardening inserts introduced earlier this year: "Grow" at the Post, "dig" at the News. Over the years, gardening sections at both papers were considered advertorial; the copy was written under the supervision of the advertising departments. This spring, the editorial departments took over, which is a definite improvement. But because the DNA wanted the same advertising to run in both "Grow" and "dig," the two papers had to agree to the switch and use the same basic format, and they must fill identical amounts of space each issue. That's independence, JOA style.

In this spirit, the choice of which comics to slay was left to the individual newspapers. The Post conducted a readers' survey to determine the victims, while the News used its own criteria. Neither paper's picks triggered a revolt among subscribers. By midweek, fewer than fifty readers had registered their displeasure with the DNA. On the day after the Post's announcement, News editor/publisher/president John Temple says, "We had a combination of seventeen calls and e-mails, which is nothing compared to what happens when we drop a comic that a lot of people like. We've gotten 200 calls on some, 500 or more calls on others." Right now, some of the strips that were removed from the Sunday mix are still published during the week, but Temple says he may yank some strips now and again to see if anyone misses them, and replace those that don't generate protest with fresher material.

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