The Message


The lack of response is surprising in at least a couple of instances. The News dropped "Foxtrot," a Bill Amend effort that's spawned a blizzard of books, calendars and the like, and the Post cut the web on "Spider-Man" only a month before the release of Spider-Man 2, a film expected to be a summer blockbuster. Temple says "Foxtrot" was axed because "we felt it was getting a little tired," whereas the Post killed "Spider-Man" when it didn't perform strongly in its survey. "We were frankly puzzled" by Spidey's poor showing, says Post managing editor/administration Jeanette Chavez. "But we've seen that a comic strip based on or related to a movie or a TV show doesn't always do as well as the movie or the TV show."

Several other strips weren't so much eliminated as euthanized. The News dropped the hammer on "Annie," a pupil-challenged orphan introduced in 1924 who's currently a bigger draw in dinner theaters than in print. The Post waved farewell to "Prince Valiant," which debuted in 1937, and "Rex Morgan, M.D.," introduced in 1948. Only octogenarian fans may know how valiant the prince had been in recent years, or if Dr. Morgan had advanced beyond prescribing bleeding with leeches as a miracle cure. The vintage of these strips suggests that they may have run continuously in Denver papers for between fifty and eighty years -- an accomplishment worthy of some acknowledgement. However, Temple admits that he doesn't have any idea how long the News has featured "Annie." As for "Prince Valiant" and "Rex Morgan," "I suppose we could have someone go back and look at the microfilm..." Chavez muses, but her tone makes it clear the Post is likelier to endorse Osama bin Laden for President than to give an employee this chore.

Chavez doesn't venture to express an opinion on splitting the comics into Post and News sections. "I think it's up to the readers to decide whether that's crucial or not," she says. In contrast, Temple is enthusiastic about the change, declaring it "a real positive for Rocky Mountain News readers, because the comics are now better organized. If you're a loyalist to the Rocky, you like to have your typical comics, the ones you read Monday through Friday, in the same place. But since the beginning of the JOA, the Sunday comics have been jumbled. So this was a really terrific outcome.

Christopher Smith

"I felt we were publishing some dog comics," Temple goes on -- and he's not talking about "Marmaduke," who survived the latest purge. "There was no reason from a content standpoint that the last two pages on Sunday were filled with pretty weak comics. And eight broadsheet pages of color comics is a lot to give people."

In other words, twelve was the best, but eight is enough.

The sum of all fears: On May 3, the Denver Business Journal published "Post-News Circulation Dwindling," a report by Amy Bryer that took the most negative angle possible on the circulation figures cited above. "Paid circulation at Denver's two daily newspapers continues to plummet," Bryer wrote, "with the latest figures showing it's down 32 percent" from the tally just before the JOA went into effect. The circulation slide "is raising questions from some advertisers about the cost-effectiveness of daily newspaper advertising," she continued, using a quote from Dealin' Doug Moreland, a legendarily abrasive TV pitchman/car dealer, to underline her argument. "I feel the paper has less and less value," he said, criticizing the Post's new layout. "I find myself reading it less." Also weighing in was University of California at Berkeley journalism prof Thomas Leonard, who said, "When papers embrace a JOA, they lose their edge. Any economist would predict that it creates competition that is less keen."

Much of the evidence Bryer used to support her take was extremely dubious. The Post's new look is a vast improvement over its butt-ugly predecessor, and the competition between the Denver dailies remains more heated than virtually any academic or lay observer would have predicted three years ago. Such experts and faux experts (like yours truly) felt certain the News wouldn't be able to keep pace with the Post, but its weekday circulation trails the JOA winner's by just 193 copies, selling an average of 286,004 papers per day. Moreover, the embarrassed reaction within the Post to being scooped twice in eight days by the Rocky on the CU recruiting mess epitomizes the still-healthy rivalry between the papers.

Less easily dismissed is a circulation skid of nearly one-third over a three-year span. In an attempt to take the sting out of this data, the DNA's MacDonald marshals more numbers. "Despite us being in the nineteenth-largest market in the U.S., our newspapers' combined daily circulation makes us the seventh-largest in the U.S.," he says. "And we're the sixth-largest on Sunday, excluding the national pubs [USA Today and the Wall Street Journal]. That shows we're significantly outperforming our market size."

MacDonald also brings up the dirtiest-sounding circulation stat, "penetration" -- the number of local households the papers reach. Weekday penetration is just shy of 50 percent, with Sundays hitting 64 percent. These percentages are down slightly from figures MacDonald provided in February 2003, when weekdays came in at 52 percent and Sundays at 65 percent, but they're still impressive. "On Sunday, there isn't a major metropolitan newspaper within 5 percent of our penetration number, and daily, it's the Denver newspapers and the Washington Post," MacDonald crows. "Most metro papers have household penetration of between 20 and 25 percent, so we have two times that reach."

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