By Michael Roberts
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The Saturday, February 28, edition of the Denver Post — the paper's first since the Rocky Mountain News put out its final issue the previous day — featured scads of in-house ads meant to convince Rocky readers that subscribing to the Post wouldn't constitute an act of disloyalty. Most of these displays affected a charitable tone, as did Dean Singleton, vice chairman and CEO of MediaNews Group, the Post's owner, during remarks at a February 26 press conference about the Rocky's demise. "We're not here because one newspaper beat the other newspaper," but due to changing economics that made it impossible for Denver to support two major dailies, Singleton had emphasized. Nonetheless, a full-page spread in the Saturday sports section (it turned up on Sunday, too) felt considerably less gracious. The spot was dominated by a black-and-white photograph of an empty boxing ring over which a headline read, "We feel a little like Ali without Frazier."
For sports fans who know even a little bit about the history of boxing, this message was freighted with symbolism. Note that Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier met three times during the first half of the 1970s, with Ali emerging victorious in two of those matches en route to becoming his generation's ultimate pugilistic icon. Hence, the ad equated the Post with an athlete nicknamed "The Greatest" even as it dismissed the Rocky as a scrappy underdog whose main achievement (after almost 150 years of existence) was to help its opponent hit exalted heights.
Now that the Post has reached this pinnacle, it apparently can maintain excellence without goading from its longtime rival. At the aforementioned press conference, Post editor Greg Moore said fear that his paper's quality would drop now that the Rocky is gone isn't among his top four worries.
And what made his list? "None of your business," he declared, to the amusement of the media on hand to quiz the assembled executives — among them Rich Boehne, president and CEO of E.W. Scripps, and John Temple, the Rocky's editor, publisher and president (who subsequently announced that he won't be taking a position with the company). After the laughter subsided, however, Moore made it clear that he isn't entirely free of concerns. He just prefers to share his trepidations privately with his staff, not at an event being streamed live by a gaggle of local news outlets.
This acknowledgement was far more believable than the faux humbleness being pushed by the Post's promotions department. In truth, the Post has a long way to go before becoming the broadsheet Ali. The paper's stacked with strong, talented reporters and editors, and the addition of numerous big names from the Rocky only adds to its strength in this area. And yet, despite having more resources than any other news organization in town, not to mention an owner — Singleton — with oversized ambitions and a continuing (and increasingly rare) belief in the future of newspapering, the Post is often dull, unimaginative and risk-averse, particularly in comparison to its late, lamented adversary. If the Post rests on its laurels now, it could soon join the Rocky as part of journalism history. And given the sorry state of the newspaper business these days, even retaining at least 80 percent of Rocky subscribers (Singleton's pie-in-the-sky, historically unprecedented goal) is no guarantee of long-term survival.
Granted, Singleton sounded confident that the Post would thrive. But he also admitted that he might have been forced to close the paper if his desire to keep operating in the town where he lives had been weaker, and "if Scripps had wanted badly to stay in the market" — a claim Boehne has echoed more than once.
Boehne's words didn't answer the rhetorical question posed by Rocky reporter April Washington after the December announcement that Scripps was putting the tabloid up for sale: "Why does Scripps always blink first?" But clearly Scripps had done so even though the Rocky had a higher circulation than did the Post, whose numbers were often propped up by smoke-and-mirrors trickery (like third-party sales, in which advertisers paid for papers to be delivered to non-subscribers) intended to make the contest seem closer than it really was.
Scripps's disinterest in keeping up the fight proved a blessing for the Post, whose financial health has been in dispute for months. According to a late-January article by Rocky business reporter David Milstead, the Denver Newspaper Agency, which handled business matters for the Post and the Rocky under a joint operating agreement, paid millions in newsroom expenses to keep the Post going — but it couldn't do so again because, Milstead wrote, "the agency's credit has dried up and the banks will not lend it any more money." Although MediaNews Group reacted angrily to this claim, charging Milstead with unspecified errors in a press release, the gist of his piece appears to have been accurate. At the press conference, Singleton conceded under Milstead's questioning that the DNA might have been a candidate for bankruptcy "had we not gotten our costs down" via agreements with various unions resulting in pay and compensation cuts estimated at 11.7 percent. For Singleton's creditors, this deal was a pretext for renegotiating a payment plan on a backbreaking $130 million debt associated with a state-of-the-art printing press that came online in 2007. Singleton hopes to finalize this arrangement once labor pacts with the DNA and the Post are ratified.
As for Milstead — one of five Rocky stars whose hiring by the Post was encouraged in these pages — he likely lost his chance for a new gig by pissing off Singleton; the paper couldn't really bring him aboard after its parent company publicly denounced him the previous month, no matter how talented he is. Baseball Hall of Famer Tracy Ringolsby was also left on the sidelines, probably due to a numbers game. But the Post wisely signed up the other three staffers on our list — metro columnist Mike Littwin, sports columnist Dave Krieger and ace reporter Lynn Bartels — shortly after bouncing six high-paid supervisors, including managing editor Gary Clark, in a move akin to an NFL franchise clearing cap space to sign coveted free agents.
In addition, the Post also inked seven other Rocky longtimers, including two more metro columnists, Tina Griego and Bill Johnson. Given Johnson's history of notable screwups — including a 1999 profile of an apocryphal Internet character, a 2005 piece about a death-threatening anti-abortion protester whose existence he couldn't prove, a 2006 offering in which he wrote about something he'd seen on TV as if he'd witnessed it in person, and a 2007 column that required five separate corrections — it's amazing that he was never sacked at the Rocky, let alone that the Post picked up his option. Then again, the Post's columnist spree is surprising in and of itself. Back in 2002, Moore was looking to reduce the number of columnists at the paper, declaring that a focus on opinion gives papers "a decided lack of urgency," which he saw as "a recipe for not having a compelling product." Now he's got four metro columnists, including the Post's Susan Greene — a huge number to juggle even if all of them manage to keep their egos in check.
Thus far, the Rocky expatriates have received ultra-prominent play. Johnson's predictably wet-eyed piece about a high-school basketball player with a spinal disorder landed on the February 28 front page, and Littwin and Griego columns ran in prominent page-two slots on succeeding days in lieu of contributions from Greene and Porter, who were entirely absent from the new-look Post through March 3. As usual, the highlight of the paper was its sports coverage, which gravitated to the cover on several entirely justified occasions; a scoop about misbegotten trade talks involving Broncos QB Jay Cutler was especially juicy. But the papers as a whole have been better than average thus far: more energetic, as if the Post has something to prove.
Not that the Post is the reincarnation of Muhammad Ali yet. Just because the paper has christened itself the Greatest doesn't mean Rocky subscribers will keep buying it.