The Post and Rocky Attempt a Cover-Up

Brightly colored advertising stickers on the front of the Denver dailies are part of a national trend to turn page one into a billboard.

The front page of the October 17 Rocky Mountain News featured a photo of an Arvada resident trying on a Rockies jersey at the Coors Field Dugout Store — but this image wasn't the first thing subscribers saw when they picked up the paper. Instead, the day's de facto top story was a three-inch-square black sticker with vibrant red, yellow and green letters advertising a "FALL CLOSEOUT SALE" at CleanImports.com.

Way back in the day, front-page advertising was far from verboten. "All the papers in the 1700s had ads on them — usually classified ads," says Mort Goldstrom, vice president of advertising for the Newspaper Association of America. "But newspapers got away from it, for reasons I don't know."

Such advertising remained rare at major metropolitan dailies as recently as a few years ago — but a substantial downturn in newspaper profits changed that. Although most daily papers continue to publish ad-free covers, a rising percentage currently set aside a strip at the bottom for advertising, including some of the nation's biggest: USA Today, the Chicago Tribune and more. And while neither the Denver Post nor the Rocky has yet embraced the fad, selected properties owned by MediaNews Group and E.W. Scripps, their respective parent companies, are already on board. They include MediaNews's Connecticut Post and Scripps's Commercial Appeal in Memphis, which recently announced a controversial initiative to "monetize content" — allowing businesses to sponsor some designated editorial offerings.

Stickering, meanwhile, has undergone some upgrades. Tonda Rush, director of public policy for the National Newspaper Association, points out that so-called repositionable notes, or RPNs, have been around for over a decade. In the beginning, they were essentially glorified Post-its that had to be affixed by carriers, and because they came off so easily, they tended to turn up only on the fronts of inside sections. "But now," says the NAA's Goldstrom, "they can do it by machine as they're coming off the press." Next-generation RPNs sport heavier, slicker paper and backing adhesive on all sides, making them more like bumperstickers than Post-its — and these alterations provide further options for advertisers. "Some of them have peel-backs for contests," Goldstrom says, "and some of them are scratch-and-sniff. They've really evolved."

The Rocky began sticking it to customers a couple of months back, with the Post following suit, and Jim Nolan, spokesman for the Denver Newspaper Agency, which handles business matters for the papers, says he's heard occasional complaints in two areas: "A few readers told us the stickers were hard to peel off, and we've since adjusted the amount of glue we put on to take care of that problem. And there were a handful of letters to the editor where some people said they found the stickers to be inappropriate." However, he emphasizes that the volume of criticism has been fairly low — "not what I would consider a significant number."

Is this new approach intended to prepare readers for more traditional front-page ads? "I couldn't answer that," Nolan says — but in his view, the stickers are simply "a way of offering a unique service for advertisers, a piece of real estate that's traditionally been out of bounds." Still, it wouldn't be a bad strategy, since display ads are significantly less annoying than the stickers, which block photos or articles underneath them à la Internet pop-ups and demand to be removed instead of ignored.

Nonetheless, one reader who posted to a Rocky web forum about the stickers found something positive to say. "The sticker is the best part of the Rocky," he wrote on October 11. "It's the only thing worth reading!"

Thumbs up, CleanImports.com.


Riding into the sunset: During the past year, Post readers have grown accustomed to familiar bylines vanishing, and there's no evidence that such disappearing acts will end soon. In recent weeks, three significant departures have taken place: reporter George Merritt, now covering politics for the Associated Press; veteran columnist Diane Carman; and Rocky Mountain Ranger Rich Tosches, one of the paper's finest wordsmiths.

Carman, whose last day was October 19, took a circuitous route out the door. She had actually accepted a buyout proposal in June that would have paid her the equivalent of two weeks' salary for each of her eighteen years at the paper, only to change her mind before the deal was finalized. Then, on October 8, she told editor Greg Moore that she was resigning to take a position as communications director with the Presidential Climate Action Project, associated with the University of Colorado at Denver's School of Public Affairs. "It's a group of scientists and people involved in public policy," she says. "They'll be working with candidates in both parties to help them develop a rational policy in regard to global warming and climate change." She reveals that she'd had "preliminary conversations" about the position near the buyout deadline, "but nothing was fully baked." The delay "clearly cost me some money," she confirms, laughing, "but I think people who've worked in the newspaper business as long as me have proven to be bad with personal finance."

Carman stresses that she loved her job, and she has nice things to say about Post colleagues. Even so, she won't miss some of the other aspects of a columnist's life. The day before she gave her notice, she checked her e-mail, and one she opened consisted of a single word: "Cunt." According to her, "That kind of thing happened all the time. The abuse people heap on those they disagree with is incredible." Nevertheless, she feels ambivalent about leaving. "A lot of us would like to be part of whatever becomes of the newspaper business," she maintains, but adds, "I can't deny that instability in the place encouraged me to look around."

There's no shortage of candidates to fill the vacuum left by Carman, including Jim Spencer, who was dismissed in a cost-cutting move amid the June turmoil. When asked about the vacancy, Spencer responds with an e-mail that praises Carman before stating, "I would be very interested in replacing her and continuing to do the hard work I did for the Post before I was laid off. Many readers and folks in the newsroom have asked me about that possibility. I tell them what I will tell you: It is not my decision."

Unfortunately for Spencer, editor Moore, the decider in this instance, doesn't seem interested in looking beyond his current staff. In an e-mail, he declines to specifically comment about those who've moved on other than to thank them for their service. Then, after writing that he expects to have a new columnist in place by Thanksgiving, he adds, "I am hoping to find a strong internal candidate, and I am liking the names I am seeing. This is a great opportunity, of course, so I am not surprised to see quality people stepping up for a look."

Tosches, for his part, says the seeds of his departure were planted this summer, when he was casually informed during a phone call that the Rocky Mountain Ranger position, which he loved, had been eliminated. Instead, his bosses wanted him to be part of a team charged with generating front-page stories, and he tried it for a while. "But it was different," he acknowledges. "I felt I'd lost my voice and the part of my job that had been so fun. Somewhere between a straight news story and a column is where I'd ridden my horse for a long time, and putting me back to being just a reporter was enough of a signal for me." In his view, managers took his decision to split in stride. "I was making good money at the Post, so they didn't seem too disappointed," he says. "It was like a great big financial sigh of relief."

Shortly thereafter, Tosches returned to the Colorado Springs Independent, where he'd done some writing prior to hooking up with the Post, and he's also assembling a new book with an especially glum title: The Death of Newspapers. Nevertheless, Tosches insists the tome will focus on humor — funny anecdotes he or his pals have experienced in newsrooms across the country, as well as stories about how papers either work or don't.

"Frankly, the fact that there's a newspaper left in this country shocks the hell out of me," he says, chuckling. "Seeing how they work from the inside and how they get promoted, it's a miracle that something other than the New York Times and the L.A. Times is still functioning."

At least they are as of this printing.

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