From the moment he flew into town early last year, Dennis Britton noticed something strange about Denver's daily newspapers.
A former editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, soon to become the Denver Post's editor-in-chief, Britton knew all about the inexorable dynamics of newspaper wars; in the white-heat of competition, dailies often ape each other like a pair of street mimes preening in front of an imaginary mirror. But that didn't quite explain why, for three straight days, the Post and the Rocky Mountain News ran lead stories concerning the comments of one Jamal X, local mouthpiece for the Nation of Islam.
"Coming from Chicago, a city with a large black population, I thought he really represented something," Britton recalls. "The fact of the matter is, the African-American population in Denver is very small, and his percentage of that small percentage is minuscule. I thought both papers were overplaying that greatly."
Britton also didn't care for the slew of murder and mayhem stories topping the news in Denver. "When I arrived, both papers were playing crime-and-punishment news really heavily," he says. "There was lots and lots of it. People are tired of being bombarded by it. It's out of their control, and it's just not interesting. That's not to say the Ramsey or the Breeden case isn't interesting; but when you play all crime stories with the same weight, you diminish all of them."
Since assuming the editorship of the Post a year ago, Britton has set about "weaning" the paper from its crime fare, taking the routine slaughter off the front page and burying it inside the local-news section. He says he's encouraged his staff to "look for stories that interested them, as homeowners, as parents, as participants in the community...Absolutely to my core do I believe that readers want more positive news. That's important. That's going to sell newspapers."
That doesn't mean, he hastens to add, that the Voice of the Rocky Mountain Empire will fail to go after the Big Story, no matter how unpleasant. Indeed, over the past year Denver's dailies have been in hot pursuit of a surfeit of Big Stories: the hit-and-run death of News columnist Greg Lopez; the suicide of Spicer Breeden and the trial of Peter Schmitz; the bizarre murder of JonBenet Ramsey and its various sideshows; local angles on the Heaven's Gate cult suicides; and the pending economic summit. And, of course, each paper has its own "bomb squad" supplying exhaustive coverage of the Oklahoma City case, culminating in last week's multipage pull-out guides to the trial of Timothy McVeigh. Among the helpful features: a glossary of tricky legal terms such as "cross-examination" (courtesy of the Post), a biography of Alfred P. Murrah (the News), and detailed sketches of an empty courtroom (both papers).
With more than 2,000 media types in town and the eyes of the world on Judge Richard Matsch's courtroom, it may be heresy to suggest that the local dailies are "overplaying" the McVeigh trial. But last week's voluminous coverage of the glacial process of jury selection--brimming with day-one factoids ("4:30 a.m.: KWTV of Oklahoma City does the first live shot of the trial"), startling fashion news (a Los Angeles Times reporter is "famous" for his "ugly sneakers") and insipid juror trivia ("After growing weary of the mining business and falling in love with a woman from Tulsa, Juror 858 moved to that Oklahoma city")--demonstrates that when duty calls, reporters can write at length about absolutely nothing.
Talk about being "bombarded" by uninteresting stories. In Denver, the scene of one of the last great newspaper wars in the country, the shrinking field of battle consists of almost nothing but Big Stories, with each side waging a campaign of saturation reporting to the point of stupefaction. And while Juror 858's love life is getting front-page treatment, a host of other stories--stories about the metro area's runaway growth and Colorado's vanishing open spaces, stories about underfunded schools and overcrowded prisons and money-sucking airports, even pesky crime stories involving people who aren't six-year-old beauty queens or suicidal trust-funders--receive little, if any, attention.
In theory, we ought to love this newspaper war. Ask any journalism professor--news wars are hot stuff, and they're good for the economy. Advertisers pay less than they would in a one-paper town, and so do subscribers. Most of all, competition supposedly benefits the public, since neither combatant can afford to ignore important local stories.
All of this is true, to some extent, in Denver, where the price of year-round home delivery amounts to pennies a day and absurdly cheap ad rates have made the Post and the News among the ad-linage leaders in the nation. In addition, the past two decades of bruising competition--during which the News clawed its way from a dead heat to a 125,000-plus lead in daily circulation, only to watch the Post surge ahead once more--has produced major improvements in both papers, including beefed-up sports and business sections.
But competition also has its price. Strained resources. Leaner staffs. (The Denver dailies operate with newsrooms of barely 200 employees; some comparable dailies in monopoly markets have staffs of 300 to 400.) An obsession with cost-cutting, marketing and circulation-boosting schemes in order to deliver the kind of double-digit profit margins that today's media moguls demand. That means Big Stories--even Big Stories about non-stories, such as the breathless hoopla last summer over the opening of the Park Meadows Mall.
"Did you get enough of that?" asks Steve Campbell, former state editor at the News, now city editor at the Ogden, Utah, Standard-Examiner. "It was like the door to the next world had opened. The level of coverage far exceeded the newsworthiness of a mall opening in town; it was clearly being used to court advertisers."
Rising newsprint costs and changing reader habits have killed off newspapers across the country in recent years, making Denver's news war one of only a handful still raging in major markets. In fact, it's unique; all of the other competitive situations involve much larger cities capable of supporting two or more dailies--New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.--or they reflect a limited rivalry between papers that have different primary audiences, such as those in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
"It seems to me that this isn't a big enough market to have two similar-sized papers doing the same thing across the board," says Britton, whose Sun-Times carved a niche for itself as a gritty big-city tabloid while ceding the affluent suburbs to the Chicago Tribune. "It hasn't worked anyplace else."
Pundits have been predicting the demise of one daily or the other for years (see related story, below). That the war has persisted, despite industry trends, may say more about the metro area's booming economy and strategic blunders on both sides than it does about the excellence of the product.
How much longer the competition can continue is anybody's guess, but in recent months the battle fatigue among the frontline troops seems to have gotten worse. Britton's arrival last spring, which rattled staff at the Post and raised questions about the warm-and-fuzzy direction of the paper, coincided with an even more unsettling development at the News: the decision by the paper's parent corporation, Scripps Howard, to end home delivery in all but thirteen Front Range counties and concentrate on building circulation in its core market.
One year later the Post's overall circulation lead is up--way up--while the News is pouring money into convincing advertisers of its "dominance" in the six-county metro area. Each paper appears to have ceded huge chunks of editorial as well as geographic turf to the other. Hammering away at the Big Story while cutting back on crucial coverage elsewhere, each seems determined to wrest what could turn out to be a very costly victory.
No matter who wins the war, have readers already lost?
Linda Sease asks her assistant to bring her a pie. This is not dessert but an important visual aid that Sease, the News's vice president for marketing and public relations, has been using to try to get her message across to advertisers.
The assistant brings in a white cardboard box. Emblazoned on the top is a riddle: "What do the Denver Post's 1996 fourth quarter circulation figures and a pie crust have in common?"
Inside is a real pie--pecan, from the looks of it--with a wedge missing, so you can read the punchline on the bottom of the pan: "They're both a little flaky."
Pies, videos, elaborate packages of circulation breakouts and demographic data, radio spots touting what's in the paper that day--they're all part of the arsenal for Sease, who came to the News two years ago from a career in marketing for sports, cultural and retail organizations, including Houston-based Foley's, the largest print advertiser in the Denver market.
"When I look at what we spent on marketing in 1995 compared to what we're spending now, there's been a dramatic increase," Sease says.
Much of that increase has been devoted to reassuring advertisers about the wisdom of the News's decision to pull back its distribution to thirteen counties, a strategy Sease calls Front Range Plus. Other newspapers have trimmed extraneous readers in outlying areas, but none have done it quite the way the News did: casting off three-fourths of the state's geography, running ads implying that the Western Slope was mainly inhabited by cattle, blithely explaining to metro readers, "If you live here, you get it."
"We knew it was going to be revolutionary," Sease says. "Newspapers have forever talked about total circulation, total circulation--even though everywhere around us, media are targeting specific audiences. ESPN. Cosmo. Advertisers see in these better efficiencies."
As Sease explains it, the decision to pull back was a simple matter of economics. A reader in Grand Junction paid $4.75 a month for newspapers that cost the News $35 to print and deliver. Quiet meetings with advertisers convinced the paper's management that nobody cared about the Grand Junction readers anyway, since they didn't do much shopping in Denver. Slamming the door on readers outside the Front Range was simply an acknowledgment of one of the cold facts of the newspaper business: Readers are important only to the extent that they can attract advertising, the primary revenue stream.
"Fourteen counties account for 80 percent of all the money spent in Colorado," Sease notes. "What's in those other 49 counties? A lot of beautiful country, but not a lot of people."
The strategy has stirred considerable comment across the industry. Some observers regard the move as a desperate cost-cutting measure that will only help solidify the Post's overall lead. Others predict it will free up resources while compelling both papers to focus their efforts on wooing local readers.
"I don't think anybody knows if it's a smart move or not," says former Post executive editor Neil Westergaard. "It may turn out to be absolutely brilliant. What they're trying to do is change the historical rules of engagement. But when you do that in any competitive situation, it's risky."
In the short run, Front Range Plus has meant a circulation windfall for the Post, which was already comfortably ahead in readership outside the metro area and has picked up thousands of subscribers across the state who were abandoned by the News. According to the latest circulation figures, the Post led the News in overall daily circulation in the last audited quarter by 35,000 copies and boasted a Sunday lead of nearly 70,000 copies, a substantial increase over the same quarter a year earlier. But the News has built a lead of roughly 46,000 copies daily and Sunday in the six-county metro area.
"Each newspaper is going to put the best face on its circulation growth, or lack of it, as it can," says Post general manager Kirk MacDonald. "But it's an undeniable fact that the Denver Post has strung together several years of continued growth going back to 1991, and the Rocky Mountain News has declined."
As for Sease's suggestion that advertisers don't want to pay for readers in the outlying counties--not to mention all those readers the Post claims in Wyoming, Kansas, Nebraska and New Mexico--MacDonald snaps, "That's a dangerous assumption for them to make. This is a $24 billion retail sales market, and close to $2 billion that is spent in the six-county [metro] area comes from the outlying areas. That's a significant amount of retail dollars."
The tabloid's lead in the core market has prompted executives at both papers to trot out arcane arguments about demographics ("demos" for short). The News clearly wants to position itself as "Denver's premier newspaper," and executives cite its strong advantage in newsbox sales as proof.
"The demos on a single-copy buyer are actually stronger than home delivery," insists News circulation vice president Bruce Johnson. "These are people who are very well-educated and lead a fast-paced life; they choose to buy single-copy because it fits their lifestyle. And we own single-copy in Denver big time."
MacDonald, though, points out that the Post leads in eighteen of the top twenty zip codes in the metro area ranked by income, while the News leads in the bottom twenty. The News's six-county "dominance" is misleading, he argues, because the Post actually has the edge in three of the counties--Arapahoe, Boulder, and Douglas--while much of the News readership is concentrated in Denver and Adams counties. "To say they have a two-county strategy is more accurate," he says.
Sease counters that her paper has made significant gains in the suburbs and that comparing zip codes by income "smacks of redlining." "Do you want to be Neiman Marcus or do you want to be Wal-Mart?" she asks. "Wal-Mart has become the largest retailer in this country by going after all these 'low' zip codes. It's a volume thing."
Wrangling over numbers is nothing new in the newspaper war, but since the News adopted its Front Range strategy, the argument has spilled over to the news side. Last month the papers ran contradictory stories basically accusing each other of lying to the Audit Bureau of Circulations about their figures.
ABC audit reports are as important to newspapers as Nielsen ratings are to the television industry; advertisers use them to decide where to spend their money. So imagine the consternation at the News when Post business editor Dan Meyers wrote that the tabloid's latest ABC report had been revised to correct "495 reporting errors that included overstating some county circulation figures by 30 percent."
The News fired back with an un-bylined piece headlined, "Denver Post Caught Inflating Sales." The article blamed the "reporting errors" in the News figures on an internal error at ABC and claimed the Post had overstated its circulation in a publisher's statement filed with the agency to the tune of nearly half a million copies over a three-month period.
In response to the articles, ABC chided both clients for attributing statements to the audit bureau in violation of long-standing policy, but MacDonald and Sease insist their stories were accurate.
"ABC said 'attributions' to them were inaccurate and inappropriate; they didn't say the information was inaccurate," Sease says. "We really didn't intend to even address this audit. But when our competitor chose to make it a news story--and they've chosen quite often recently to editorialize on the war, to put out information that we felt was misleading--we decided that sometimes you've got to hit the bully, to let the bully know you can't be bullied."
The tiff illustrates how crucial even the slightest shift in reputed circulation has become to the war. Last year News publisher Larry Strutton told the New York Times that dumping statewide circulation would save his operation approximately $10 million a year; Sease says the paper is now plowing its savings back into "a whole slew of improvements in the product"--not to mention marketing campaigns and the recent hiring of twenty more advertising sales representatives. Whether the investment will eventually offset the lost circulation isn't clear, but the tabloid's aggressive pursuit of the local market has already had an impact on services that readers of both dailies had taken for granted.
For several months it was impossible to find movie listings for United Artists theaters in the Post. That's because the News landed an exclusive deal for the chain's daily advertising business, a deal that may have included free listings as well as cheap display rates. ("I have seen the rates, and we're not giving it away," Sease insists.) Last week the Post welcomed United Artists listings back to the fold; not so coincidentally, the paper no longer charges exhibitors for running showtimes in its movie listings.
Front Range Plus has altered editorial policies in other ways as well. When the News staff first learned of the circulation cutback, "a good 80 percent of the newsroom was aghast," recalls one reporter. "But when you consider their argument, it does make some sense. It re-emphasized the mentality that this is a Denver newspaper, not a Colorado newspaper."
At one point the News had bureaus in Aspen, Fort Collins and Boulder. They're all gone now, leaving two roving state reporters, Deborah Frazier and Joe Garner, along with southern-bureau reporter Dick Foster, to cover whatever stories out in the hinterlands might be deemed "interesting" to Denver readers. It seems unlikely that the News will be doing a sprawling series on national parks or extensive, Johnny-on-the-spot coverage of rural disasters such as the 1994 West Slope wildfires (which made the newspaper a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize) anytime soon. The resources are going to Big Stories closer to home.
The declining regional coverage rankles former state editor Steve Campbell. "We weren't doing Grand Junction stories for Grand Junction readers," he says. "The theory was that people in Denver are interested in that kind of coverage because they consider themselves Westerners; they have a connection with the rest of the state. That's what makes them different from people in Cincinnati"--home of Scripps Howard corporate headquarters.
Retrenchment at the News also seems to have influenced regional coverage at the Post, reducing the Voice of the Rocky Mountain Empire to a mumble in the suburbs. "There is a clear interest now in going toe-to-toe with the Rocky on what has become the Rocky's turf--the ski counties and the Front Range," says Patrick O'Driscoll, who left the Post recently to open a local bureau for USA Today. "That was certainly a factor in my deciding to leave."
Under the editorships of Gil Spencer and Neil Westergaard, O'Driscoll and staffers Kit Miniclier and Jim Carrier roamed the intermountain West, from New Mexico to North Dakota, writing at length about wild mustangs, the Marlboro Man, Indian reservations and other Western legacies. But lately the Post, too, has been drawing the wagons closer around the Front Range, shuffling the cowboy stuff from the front page to the thinning pages of Empire--a wispy imitation of what was once one of the fattest Sunday magazines in the country, now adrift in the blizzard of circulars from Target and Best Buy.
O'Driscoll says he spoke to Britton about his concern over declining regional coverage shortly before he left. He was told the Post would not abandon its tradition of reporting on the West, "but I don't know that whoever they hire to replace me will be doing that," he says.
Britton acknowledges that regional coverage is no longer paramount at the Post. "Are we going to cut back on the number of people who only do regional news? Sure I am," he says. "Our job is to be the newspaper of record for Colorado as best as we can be. But we don't have infinite resources. We have to concentrate our resources where the people are. We can't spend our time in the Four Corners and cover El Paso County at the same time. This is a local newspaper writing about local news."
Steve Campbell worries that a vital link between folks in Denver and the region's history, struggles and wonders--the same magical pull from the back of beyond that attracts people to the region in the first place--is disappearing.
"If you don't get those kinds of stories in the Denver papers," Campbell asks, "where are you going to get them?"
A few years ago the publisher of the Denver Post was a man named Maurice Hickey. By all accounts, he was a volatile, difficult boss, apt to erupt at staff meetings over muddy color reproduction or chronic delivery problems. His newspaper philosophy seemed to revolve around one simple idea: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
"Give me vanilla," he'd say. "I want vanilla."
It was good advice. One of the grimmer aspects of the news war has been the constant tinkering with the product by flavor-of-the-month editors and publishers hell-bent on reinventing daily journalism. Many of these experiments have failed spectacularly, driving readers away from what appeared to be the top paper and shifting the advantage to the underdog.
No one knows this better than the battle-scarred veterans at the Post. When Times Mirror bought the paper in 1980, its victory over the tightfisted Scripps Howard chain, in what was then a hotly contested race, seemed all but assured. After all, Times Mirror had deep pockets, the legendary Otis Chandler and a reputation for hard-nosed, award-winning journalism at the Los Angeles Times. In short order, the new management moved from afternoon to morning publication, redesigned the paper into a virtual clone of its Dallas paper, the Times Herald--and watched its circulation figures sink lower than Death Valley.
"They'd change something, and then they'd wait to see it reflected in the numbers," recalls former executive editor Westergaard, who worked for the Post for fifteen years. "And when it wasn't apparent, they'd change it again. It was tough. I don't think Times Mirror ever got its arms around Denver."
When Dean Singleton and Richard Scudder bought the paper in 1987, many observers figured the Post was doomed. Their privately held MediaNews Group was in the process of losing newspaper wars in Dallas and Houston, and Singleton had a reputation of extracting the last drop of profit from an operation and then closing up shop. The fact that MediaNews had acquired the Post at a bargain price of $95 million--the same price Times Mirror had paid seven years earlier, with a down payment of only $25 million, the balance creatively financed and the Post's new printing presses thrown into the deal--further alarmed Singleton's critics. ("That had to be the best newspaper deal known to man," says one admiring newspaper executive. "Dean gave Times Mirror a crewcut.")
But Singleton, much to locals' surprise, was in for the long haul. After his Texas papers failed, the Post became his flagship operation. He relocated to Colorado, allowing the Post to reclaim the title of Denver's only "locally owned" daily. He brought in a senior management group that has remained the same for several years (including current publisher Ryan McKibben) and paid attention to the basics of reliable delivery and quality printing. The result was one of the most astounding circulation rebounds in the history of American newspapers.
One of the shrewd moves involved the 1990 hiring of Gil Spencer, formerly of the New York Daily News, to run the newsroom. An unflappable, shirtsleeve manager who was popular with reporters, Spencer encouraged his staff to think big and work harder. "Gil got everybody pulling in the same direction," says Westergaard. "He really brought an element of stability the place hadn't enjoyed for a decade."
The Post's turnaround came at a time when the News was engaged in some unfortunate tinkering of its own. The 1980s had been good to the tabloid, which concentrated on cranking out vanilla while Times Mirror was whipping up one fancy disaster after another. But in recent years the News has wrestled with a series of production and delivery hurdles as it set about sectionalizing the tabloid, bringing a $150 million printing plant online, hiking its single-copy price to 35 cents and conducting a long-overdue circulation cleanup--all at the same time. It didn't help that many of the newcomers arriving in droves up and down the Front Range had come from broadsheet towns and seemed to prefer the Post's larger format.
By early 1996 the Post was once again on top of the heap. So it was with some trepidation, if not outright dismay, that staffers greeted the news that McKibben was bringing in a new editor-in-chief over Westergaard, who'd been running the editorial side since Spencer retired to become a columnist. Why mess with success?
"I wasn't particularly pleased about it," Westergaard admits. "When the Rocky made its decision to shrink, I think Ryan and Dean had in their minds that they'd won the war. So where do you go from here? Dean wanted to have the best possible team at the top, and he wanted somebody who was nationally recognized."
That somebody turned out to be Dennis Britton, who had left the Sun-Times months earlier for a position at the MacArthur Foundation, spearheading a project on journalism and democracy ("I had a great gig. They were paying me big bucks," he says). Britton was initially reluctant to take the job. "Part of my reluctance was Dean Singleton," he says, "and his reputation of being very frugal." But after receiving reassurances from McKibben and Singleton, Britton landed in Denver.
Westergaard left six months later. "Dennis and I worked pretty well together for about three or four months," he explains, "but increasingly, I think, it was difficult for Dennis having me there. It was difficult for him to truly assume the role of editor-in-chief, because I had all these relationships with staff."
Staffers view Britton as aloof, cautious, demanding and competitive. He's been wary of making sweeping changes and says he's not interested in imposing his "vision" on the newspaper. "That's a lofty term I try never to use," he says. "I don't even know what it means, to tell you the truth."
At the same time, Britton hasn't been at all shy about devoting resources to stories he believes are important or clearing the decks of staffers who don't deliver what he wants. He dispensed with the services of business editor Jeff Copeland, a former Newsweek staffer whose style didn't mesh with Britton's ban on editorializing in news stories, and he removed the professorial Howie Movshovitz from his film beat, on the grounds that readers want movie reviews, not critiques of cinema.
What seems to worry staffers, though, is Britton's push to have more "positive stories" in the Post--or, as he put it in an interview with the New York Times, "I am crime-ing it down and Pollyanna-ing it up." In the past year, his critics say, the Post has become a much softer and squishier newspaper.
Britton says the Times quote was taken out of context and has "bedeviled" him for months. He spoke at length with the reporter about the kind of stories he wants to see in the Post, he explains, "but it didn't fit what he was writing. It was one of the poorest interviews I've experienced by a journalist, ever."
He bristles at the suggestion that the Post's local news coverage is going soft, citing his own track record in hard news, from overseeing Watergate coverage at the Los Angeles Times to fielding death threats at the Sun-Times over its exposes on Congressman Dan Rostenkowski. "I have a history of investigative journalism that's more impressive than anybody who's working here now," he insists. "To write positive news doesn't mean that you're soft."
For Britton, positive news includes stories that "celebrate" the community or deserve prominent play because they're of value to readers. For example, a recent article about research that indicates piano lessons at an early age can help children develop intellectually was played on the front page, above the fold; Britton believes Denver parents are far more interested in that kind of news than the latest bar shooting.
"The people who complain about this are reporters, who don't understand the dynamic that's going on," he says. "A newspaper has an absolute, total responsibility to do good-citizen stories, hard-hitting stories, uncovering stories--but they'd better have a point. There's been a history in Colorado of that kind of journalism not having a point."
Good-citizen stories? "I'm not at all embarrassed about boosterism," Britton says. "Our town is a good town in which to live. We should be happy to write about that. If we're doing it in a way that's disingenuous and we forget to write about the warts, then come at us and clunk us in the head."
The Post has had a few clunkers in its quest for happy news, such as a front-page story about a party at McNichols Arena last month to reward middle-school students for regular attendance and good grades. The celebration ended in brawls in the parking lot involving up to 200 youths, a detail that was buried deep in the Post's story. The News skipped the congratulations and covered the ruckus. (A fuller account of the fights ran in the Post the following day.)
"The Rocky over-covered it, and we under-covered it," Britton says now. "We missed the story. When you have forty police [officers] respond to an incident, it's a major event in any city."
Significantly, the original story of the celebration was written by a freelancer; shorthanded even in comparison to the much-trimmed staff at the News, the Post has come to rely on stringers to cover substantial areas of local news, including the suburbs. A few years ago the Post had one staffer to cover all of Arapahoe and Douglas counties; now it has one staff reporter assigned to Arapahoe and a stringer writing about Douglas, the fastest-growing county in the country.
The practice is a sore point among local Newspaper Guild representatives. Under Singleton, the unionized staff has already endured a five-year wage freeze, followed by five years of modest increases in salaries. (In contrast to the News, the Post still doesn't offer its employees a 401(k) plan--except, of course, for management.) Britton, who left the Sun-Times because he was "tired of fighting corporate greed" and has steered clear of labor negotiations at the Post, says he would prefer to use staffers to cover the suburbs and is working on the problem.
One area where staffing isn't a problem is society news. One of Britton's first moves was to hire boulevardier Bill Husted from the News to write a gossip column, at a reputed six-figure salary comparable to that of columnist Chuck Green. He also added a full page of society photos to the Friday fashion section--a feature that recently presented the editor's wife, Tere Romero Britton, greeting diva Marilyn Horne. (A similar photo of Mrs. Britton appeared days earlier in the local-news section, with another account of the event.) The chief's clear enjoyment of the perks of his office and his fascination with high society have the ink-stained minions in the newsroom scratching their heads.
"None of us have quite sorted it out," sighs one reporter. "He's said he's basically a shy person, yet he's turned up society coverage to a new level."
Britton doesn't see what all the fuss is about; at the Sun-Times he had three gossip columnists and two society writers. "My aim in that was so simplistic, it almost embarrasses me to say this," he says. "Part of the formula is, the more names you get in the paper, the better off you are."
Of course, some names matter to readers more than others. It's hard to imagine that many folks are worked up about the nomenclature of Civic Center, the subject of a loony front-page Post article two weeks ago by Paul Hutchinson, who quoted colleague Joanne Ditmer on the pseudo-controversy. But there's one name that has become such a Big Story that the Post has devoted acres of newsprint to its invocation, like a sacred mantra: JonBenet Ramsey. JonBenet Ramsey. JonBenet. Ramsey.
Both dailies have hit the Ramsey murder hard, publishing more than a hundred articles each in barely three months. The official blackout on substantive details of the investigation--press conferences that offer no comment, designated "spokesmen" who are paid to be tight-lipped--has only added to the frenzy of rumor and speculation. Despite its short staffing, the Post has actually spewed far more column inches on the case than the competition. The difference can be attributed almost entirely to the incessant commentary on the case provided by the Post's armchair detective, Chuck Green.
A former Post editor, Green promised plenty of hard-edged reporting in his column when it debuted a couple of years ago. Instead, he's delivered mawkishness about poisoned dogs and aging comrades. But then JonBenet came along.
Green, an opportunist who knows how to beat a Big Story to death--back in the Times Mirror days, he once sat by the hospital bed of troubled former Rocky editor Michael Howard, pumping him for the names of reporters with whom he had snorted cocaine--pounced on the tragedy. He's since written an astounding 22 columns on the case, mustering the puffed-up outrage and rank sentimentality of a penny-press sob sister. He's tweaked the Boulder police and Ramsey family "experts"; ridden on the coattails of a Boulder weekly's reporting; denounced as "drivel" the inchoate account by Janet McReynolds that ran for three days in the Post; and even hawked up a gooey "Dear JonBenet" letter in which he wondered whether "any one [sic] else was thinking of you."
A News editorial denounced the JonBenet letter as "smarmy journalism." But then, the News has its own shamelessness to answer for, including at least one three-hankie headline, "Little Miss Christmas Is Put to Rest in Georgia." The smarminess quotient begs a larger question: While bottom-feeders like Green are tapping out hymns to the dead beauty queen, who's covering the news?
Success has prompted the Post to expand its news hole, but much of the increase consists of added sections of wire-service stories wrapped around bountiful real-estate and department-store ads. With the defection of investigative editor Lou Kilzer to the News, its once-vaunted reporting projects have shrunk from a lengthy exploration of the Oklahoma City investigation's loose ends (which vanished without much impact a few months ago) to a recent untidy two-parter about immigration that mingled stories about illegals from Mexico with a full-page profile of a Russian family that might emigrate to Colorado.
Front-page good news abounds: "Nordstrom to Offer Mammograms." "U.S. Lures Russian Family." "White Males at Top of Happiness Scale." There's even a quick call-in question of the day ("Do you believe in UFOs?"), just like on the local TV news. Meanwhile, gaping holes have emerged in the paper's coverage of higher education, the environment (ably handled by Mark Obmascik until his recent metamorphosis into a general columnist) and other areas.
"The only place you really have to compete or spend any energy is in these mega-big deals, like Ramsey," says one disgusted Post veteran. "If the city council does something interesting, who cares? You don't get any points for that."
"There's too little of everything," adds former staffer O'Driscoll. "Once upon a time, the Post had two environment writers. Either paper could take that issue and make a national name for themselves if they really cared about it. Both newsrooms are at the mercy of their comptrollers, but at some point you have to stand up and say, 'Look, there are certain minimums.'"
Britton has heard such complaints before. "What concerns me is not the overkill, frankly," he says. "It's not being able to do the other things because you have your resources tied up. A month or two ago it seemed like we had half the staff on Oklahoma City and half on Ramsey--who's left to cover anything?"
He adds, "But that's what competition is about. It makes you play up things that probably shouldn't be played up as much."
For some readers, the Rocky Mountain News just hasn't been the same since its most distinctive voice was silenced in a car wreck last year. A conscientious reporter and a serious talent, Greg Lopez had a gift for capturing, with ruthless honesty, the hopes and struggles of everyday folks--people who would never make it into the society column at the Post.
Lopez was also a consummate craftsman. He could figure out how to tell a compelling, well-rounded story in a mere ten inches. That's a knack that's much in demand at any daily, but especially at the News, which has been feeling the squeeze of an ever-shrinking news hole and a demand from on high for the kind of "reader-friendly" stories that will wow 'em in the 'burbs.
Without Lopez, what remains of a writerly voice at the News can be found on page six, a collection of "Views From the Mile High City" known as Rocky Talk. Sadly, most of the views are the banal musings of two recent arrivals who are still adjusting to the altitude, Kim Franke-Folstad and Bill Johnson. Franke-Folstad's work, in particular, has been about as interesting as staring at a hole in the ground--an activity to which she devoted an entire column last week.
Although the ailing Gene Amole puts in an occasional appearance, the rest of the page consists of a comatose cartoon by Ed Stein and celebrity sightings by that Avis of gossip columnists, Norm! Clarke. Say what you want about Norm!, his ascendancy at the News provided instant validation to Britton's notion that Bill Husted was a talent worth hiring.
Rocky Talk has acquired quite a few detractors in its own newsroom, if for no other reason than that it takes up a prominent page at a time when space for local news is at a premium. The crunch has become so severe that news stories are now routinely "jumped" to the bottom of the page.
"I think it shows a rush to judgment," says one staffer. "Rocky Talk was supposed to be a conversation with the community, but they didn't figure out how they were going to fill it. Now they're not even trying to do that."
Rocky Talk has been doubly disappointing, some reporters say, because it's the first major innovation in the newspaper under the reign of Bob Burdick, who was appointed editor in the summer of 1995. A former editor of the Los Angeles Daily News and business editor of the Post, Burdick had vowed to shore up the tabloid's traditional strengths in covering local news and bring more in-depth coverage to the paper.
Burdick's appointment was welcome news to a staff that had become demoralized after six years of his predecessor, Jay Ambrose. An "idea man" who seemed intent on making the News the ultimate in quick reads, Ambrose had demanded shorter story lengths, fewer jumps, more infographics and other visual grabbers. He also devised a rigid format that included pages devoted to science and education news and, at one point, a digest of regional and world events on page two. The formula yielded a higher story count, but some stories were little more than headlines by the time they'd been shoehorned into the newspaper.
"Sometimes we became slaves to the format," recalls former state editor Campbell. "They'd take my top regional story, and we'd have to make it ten inches so it could fit on page two. You kind of hoped your story wouldn't wind up there, because it would bleed the life out of it."
Burdick was seen as more of a hard-nosed newsman than Ambrose, and more personable, too. In contrast to his predecessor, who'd surrounded himself with a squadron of assistant editors and yes-men, in his early months on the job Burdick was a frequent presence in the newsroom.
"The time he was most visible was when Greg Lopez died," recalls Lynn Bronikowski, a former News reporter, now spokeswoman for Colorado Ski Country USA. "His leadership was commendable. He showed a great deal of compassion for everybody on that staff."
In recent months, though, Burdick sightings have become so rare that he's known in certain circles as Punxsutawney Bob. "He seemed very hands-on the first six months he was there," says one reporter. "But the most I see of him now is when they leave the conference-room door ajar." (Burdick didn't return calls from Westword requesting an interview for this story.)
Day-to-day operations of the newsroom are overseen by managing editor John Temple, who's been described by staffers as shrewd and dedicated and also as somewhat intimidating and obsessed with details--"a colonel fixing a jeep," as one observer puts it. Burdick's perceived inaccessibility has added a further note of uncertainty to a newsroom already rocked by losing the daily lead, the decision to retreat from statewide competition, staff turnover and other upheavals.
By dropping some of Ambrose's innovations, such as the page-two digest, Burdick has managed to free up some space in the paper. But the tabloid's vanishing news hole--the size of which is influenced by newsprint costs and management decisions about the kind of advertising-to-editorial ratio that's necessary to keep the paper profitable--remains a fundamental stumbling block.
"The news hole has just shrunk over the past three years," says one recent Rocky refugee. "On a given Monday, it seems like there's hardly anything there. And the size of the news hole really affects coverage--not only what you cover, but how you cover it."
The squeeze has had a particular impact on local news coverage, for many years the tabloid's strong suit. Its beat coverage is still superior to the Post's in many areas, but the knowledge that their work is going through a buzz saw hardly inspires reporters to track down more information than space allows. "If you know your story is only going to be a few inches, that makes it easier to just go to one or two sources," one staffer explains. "That's your six or eight inches. That's all they have room for, so why bother to do more?"
The tabloid's smaller format, coupled with a policy of discouraging the jumping of a story from one page to another, only compounds the problem. It's not too much of a stretch to contend that the paper's designers now have more impact on its contents than anyone else, since they can (and do) order stuff shrunk to fit without even reading a paragraph of it. Copy editors do the trimming, long after the reporter's called it a day.
In such a claustrophobic setting, where the flow of news bumps up against a logjam of Rocky Talk and then dribbles onward, a narrow stream of type hemmed in by fat banks of Foley's underwear ads, expansive efforts at enterprise reporting make no sense. What makes sense are quick hits on Big Stories--a barrage of short but satisfying forays into the latest developments in the news everyone's talking about.
"The News's philosophy is to just overwhelm the big story, the talk story," says one recently departed editor. "And that, for the time being, is going to be Oklahoma City and JonBenet and G-7. It's a strategy that isn't necessarily bad, depending on how often it happens."
In recent months it's been happening--well, daily. The News has scored several scoops in its coverage of the Ramsey and McVeigh cases, the kind of talk stories that readers, editors and even marketing executives clamor for. "Look at how many stories this paper has broken on JonBenet," boasts marketing director Sease. "Not only do we want to have it first, we want to be the source that the Today show quotes, that Nightline quotes, that 20/20 quotes. That's all about building your image as a quality newspaper."
But Big Stories are only a small part of the news. While the News is dispatching reporters to Kingman, Arizona, and Junction City, Kansas, to provide yet another rehash of how these McVeigh stopovers are "forever linked" to the Oklahoma City bombing, or quibbling with the Post over whether any semen was found at the JonBenet crime scene, where's the in-depth coverage of local stories people aren't talking about because nobody's bothered to report them yet?
Early in the Burdick era, it seemed as if the News was poised to probe city politics in a serious way, with none of the boosterism implicit in the Post's approach or the "let's put on a town meeting" civic journalism of Jay Ambrose. ("During the Ambrose years, we were the Mother Teresa of newspapers," recalls one reporter.) But outside the realm of Big Stories, investigative projects have been in short supply at the News. Recent Sunday packages have addressed the wonders of the altitude and the glories of living in the foothills; such fluff, evidently targeted to newcomers to the area, suggests that the News is ready to revive the Post's old motto--"'Tis a privilege to live in Colorado"--while dodging the critical issue of massive growth and all the problems that come with it.
To its credit, the tabloid has managed to tackle some stories about suburban sprawl and shady developers; it's even used staff reporters, not stringers, to do it. But the paper has poured far more resources into courting the suburbs with feature stories--witness its latest pull-out goody, Home Front, a Sunday supplement chockfull of remodeling and interior design tips and begging for ads from developers and home-furnishings stores.
Home Front hasn't quite figured out who its audience might be--in one recent issue, a smirky feature about a Boulder threesome's unusual partner-swapping was bookended between Dear Abby and Dr. Laura. But its arrival is evidence of management's belief that building readership in the metro area will depend on perky, service-oriented features as much as news. The News has beefed up its weekend entertainment section, too, and added a pull-out book section. (The Post, meanwhile, still doesn't have a full-time movie reviewer, although Britton expects to announce one soon.)
Both papers also have put bucks into retooling their business sections and hiring top sportswriters such as Tracy Ringolsby and Jack Etkin. But in the News's case, it's a struggle sometimes to locate these liftouts within liftouts. The mania for sectionalization--which contributed to its printing plant woes and may have cost the newspaper thousands of subscribers in the past few years--has all but destroyed one of the tabloid's traditional advantages, the ability to leaf through it like a book. These days it's like peeling an onion; the whole mess unravels the closer you get to the core.
Editors seem to be having a hard time making it through the paper, too, judging from the number of howlers that have slipped into print lately. A story on Aspen reports that the population in neighboring West Slope counties is expected to escalate to 64 million people soon. (Correction: 64,000.) A shoot-from-the-hip reporter discovers that the G-7 summit is going to cost Denver $46 million. (Correction: She misunderstood a source who told her it would cost "four to six million," and nobody bothered to check that figure; by the time that stat reached the Post, it was up to $49 million.) A subhed on a business story says travelers are "saving up to 400 percent flying United Airlines from Springs vs. DIA." (No correction followed, but the story made it clear that travelers could save up to 80 percent, not an impossible 400 percent.)
Part of the problem may be the reshuffling of the copy desk that took place when the News cut back its statewide circulation last year. For several years the paper had different copy editors assigned to features, business and news stories. It now operates a universal desk, meaning that editors simply grab the next story in the queue: Dear Abby, maybe, then a child-rape story and the latest Al Gore yawner.
"There's no expertise," says one veteran of the copy desk. "You don't get used to seeing certain names and issues so you can be quick to recognize a mistake. It's like a factory--you punch the clock and put the screws in the door."
Fundamentals as basic as math may be one of the casualties of the news war. Who has time for them? Both papers are too busy chasing stories with a high gee-whiz factor, Big Stories--or, as one ex-Rocky staffer puts it, "stories that talk fast and leave you breathless." Stories about lifestyles (how do the bombing survivors cope? How does John Ramsey?) rather than process, stories about personalities rather than people. Stories that are a lot like what you see on television.
"At other papers I've worked at, we used to keep the TV on at the city desk so we could laugh at the newscast and see how they could screw up the story," says one well-traveled News staffer. "Here, they watch the newscast with a greater sense of urgency. There's a real fear of getting beat on a big story."
Next week the Denver dailies will file updated publisher's statements with the Audit Bureau of Circulations, covering circulation performance through the end of March. These will provide the first look at a full year's readership since the News adopted its Front Range strategy, and executives at both papers say they expect the figures to reflect the Post's widening overall lead, bolstered by gains outside the metro area.
The larger question is whether the News's growth in the six-county area will be sufficient to offset those gains. At the moment, the two papers appear relatively healthy--Singleton's Colorado newspaper group recently reported a doubling in net income in the latter half of 1996, and Scripps Howard's newspaper division has also been performing well--but erosion of support in the News's core market could signal rough times ahead. Corporate types at both operations have said they don't think Denver can continue to support two dailies, particularly if one pulls far enough ahead in the numbers, but they've been saying that for at least ten years now.
Post publisher Ryan McKibben stresses the broadsheet's commitment to being a "complete newspaper" for Colorado. "There's more to local news than geography," he says. "The day it closed its doors, the Dallas Times-Herald had the lead in Dallas County, yet the Dallas Morning News circulated more widely. People look for that depth of coverage."
The Rocky's Sease offers a homily about how her newspaper is focused on its own business, not on putting the Post out of business. But she also remembers how her previous employer, Foley's, was able to take advantage of news wars in eight of its eleven markets back in the late 1980s; eight years later, only one of those cities still has two newspapers duking it out. "It's a trend you can't ignore," Sease says. "There's an awful lot of pressure that comes from that."
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"They both have strong motivators to hang on," notes Westergaard. Scripps Howard is "this Fortune 500 behemoth," he adds, while "Dean Singleton's whole being is wrapped up in the Denver Post. It's his flagship paper, the one that allows him to play in the ranks of the big newspapers."
Westergaard likens the combatants to two prizefighters who have blind spots on opposite sides of their heads. "They keep slugging each other, and when one gains the upper hand, the other doesn't respond in kind, because he can't see it," he says. "That's what keeps the thing going."
Satirist Finley Peter Dunne once said it was the duty of a newspaper to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. With the Post busily celebrating the community and elevating society news to an art form, and the News doing a striptease of pull-out sections to wow the suburbs, both dailies seem to be doing a pretty good job of comforting the comfortable.
The afflicting is another matter. Most of the carnage these days is in the newsrooms themselves.