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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.

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.

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.

"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."

Just as positive are digits related to what's known as "churn," defined as the percentage of a paper's subscriber base that must be resold every year to maintain the same circulation, renewals included. In this category, the lower a number is, the better. According to DNA spokesman Jim Nolan, the industry churn average is 77.8 percent; the Post and the News are at approximately 52 percent. Most telling, though, are the results of a study done by Scarborough Research, a New York firm that analyzes markets to aid companies making advertising decisions. "At the peak, when the JOA kicked off, Scarborough showed that we had 1.4 million Sunday readers, give or take, and about 1.1 million readers in an average weekday," says Matt Baldwin, the DNA's director of market resources. "Those numbers haven't changed significantly. Sunday's still 1.4 million, and the daily is a touch under what it was."

The DBJ's Bryer questioned this conclusion in her May 3 piece: "No one at the DNA could explain how readership could remain unchanged while circulation is down." But in fact, there's an extremely logical explanation for this apparent contradiction, which DNA representatives are only now fully disclosing. Simply put, the circulation figures before the JOA, fueled by years of subscription deals in which papers were sold for a penny a day, were grossly inflated nonsense. Toward the end, roughly 40 percent of the total subscriber base at the dailies was heavily discounted, with thousands upon thousands of Denverites signing up just to get Sunday coupons. Other tactics that artificially pumped up circulation included dumping papers (a 2000 News memo asked its employees to watch out for Post peers doing so) and giving out freebies, whether people wanted them or not. One school employee reported that she ordered the Sunday News, only to have papers show up on several other days -- and when she called the News to try and stop them, editions started coming more frequently. Not surprisingly, it was common a few years ago to see papers piling up in doorways across the city like makeshift burial mounds.

Pre-JOA, daily reps dismissed such anecdotes as ridiculous overstatements. Today, MacDonald embraces them. "Consumers were saying, ŒFor a penny a day, sure I'll subscribe.' But that didn't necessarily translate into readership," he says. "Obviously, circulation will decline when it was stimulated by selling subscriptions for a penny a day. I mean, come on!"

Of course, it's MacDonald's job to make any circulation reports look good. But for the first time, he provides a way for determining in the future if the Post and the News are feeling the pinch. The Denver dailies need to remain "at or near the top of the household penetration number, both daily and Sunday," he says, as well as stay "in the top ten in circulation, excluding the national pubs, because that relates to us being considered for national advertising buys."

If the papers someday slip from these positions, though, betcha MacDonald will find some way to put a shine on the new numbers. When you spin, you win.

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