Brave News World
My polling place was empty at 7:20 Tuesday morning; I was the first -- and by all appearances, likely the last -- resident in the precinct to vote on Denver's charter amendments.
Obviously, the rest of my edge-of-downtown neighborhood -- home to almost as many proposed jail sites as District 6 had candidates for Susan Casey's city council seat -- did not receive Kirk MacDonald's memo.
"Dear co-worker," the president and CEO of the Denver Newspaper Agency had written in a missive to his minions, "On Tuesday, May 8, residents of the City and County of Denver will have the opportunity to vote on three referendums. One of these issues could affect you as an employee of the Denver Newspaper Agency and as a citizen of Denver. While the proposed change could result in the loss of advertising revenue for both newspapers, there is a larger civic issue about which we should all be concerned."
Thus far, the DNA has demonstrated its exquisite sensitivity to civic issues large and small by slashing sponsorships of charitable events (you didn't think the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News supported those nonprofits out of the goodness of their hearts, did you? All's fair in love and newspaper wars), raising advertising rates and increasing subscription prices to the point that both papers report significant readership reductions over the last year. But MacDonald's memo didn't mention any of that. Amendment 1B, he warned, would "significantly limit mainstream public access to important information about government finances and operations. If approved, only those people with access to the Internet would be able to read official public notices from City Hall. Legal notices would not have to appear in the two daily newspapers."
Nice try, but apparently MacDonald (or DNA ghostwriter Jim Nolan) hadn't read the fine print in the very newspapers put out by his "co-workers." The May 3 Post, for example, quoted Amendment 1B verbatim, noting that the measure would change the city charter to allow the "Manager of General Services to designate print, electronic and other media besides newspapers as official publications." As it was, when the century-old city charter referred to "newspapers," it wasn't talking about the North Denver Tribune, or the Denver Catholic Register, or even this newspaper. It referred specifically to daily newspapers, of which there are precisely three in this town: the Post, the News and the Daily Journal, a small-circulation paper geared toward the construction industry. With the passage of Amendment 1B, the city could explore targeting media outlets that might do a better job of getting the word out on specific projects -- television for big issues; the Washington Park Profile for a council race involving just a slice of the city's geography, such as Tuesday's District 6 election.
While Denver has been posting official notices on its Web site (denvergov.org) for some time, the city's interest in exploring advertising alternatives exploded after the DNA quoted its new ad rates: The 83 cents a line the city had paid to put legal notices in the News was being jacked up 360 percent. And although that increase was lower than what some stunned retail advertisers were reporting, it still seemed ridiculous to George Seaton, director of purchasing for the City and County of Denver. So even as the city negotiated with the DNA -- which ultimately dropped the city's rate to $1.88 a line -- Denver officials moved quickly this spring to get Amendment 1B on the ballot.
"The Charter and Revised Municipal Code of the City and County of Denver is currently riddled with archaic and restrictive language that requires the communication of the city's 'official' business to be conducted only through daily newspapers," Seaton explained in a letter to the editor that neither daily saw fit to publish. "This archaic language surely harks back to Denver's first Charter of 1904...an era when daily newspapers were certainly the prime method of mass communication. Times and technology have, of course, changed since 1904. We cannot continue to rely upon century-old mandates that have been outgrown by the fantastic and exciting advances in communication technology."
From radio to television to the Internet, these advances have been an indisputable boon to communication -- but no bonus for daily newspapers, which have been dying off with regularity for the past few decades. The News avoided almost certain death when it declared itself the "losing newspaper" in Denver's longstanding newspaper war and entered into a joint operating agreement with the Post last year, a move that brought us the DNA.
"The amendment is a bad idea," MacDonald's memo continued, "because the majority of people still use newspapers as the most convenient way of getting information. Newspapers also provide the most reliable and historically relevant source of information."
But the city doesn't want to publicize contracts that will be awarded in 1910, or votes that will be taken in 1950, or even jobs that will be filled in 1980. Any daily newspaper classified-ad manager can tell you what very recent history has meant for help-wanted ads: The Internet has snagged a huge chunk of the market. Today if you're looking for a job -- say, as communications director for the Denver Department of Public Safety, a thankless task recently advertised by the city -- you're going to go online first and check the weekend papers later.
MacDonald's memo didn't mention this development, either. Instead, it referred DNA employees to the Post and News human resources departments, which would help determine their polling places. And if they couldn't make it to the polls, attached was an application to request an absentee ballot -- "to cast your NO vote prior to May 8," MacDonald reminded. "Remember, as we've seen from the recent presidential election, your vote does count."
Yes, and also remember what the Florida fiasco showed us about obsolete voting systems in this electronic age.
Tuesday's News recognized the inevitable: Its story on the ballot measures referred readers wanting more information to the city's Web site. After all, accessing the Internet is even cheaper than those old penny-a-day paper deals: A free computer is as close as the nearest library.
The Post, however, chose to feed the daily dinosaur. A Tuesday editorial noted that because the paper "could be affected financially (albeit in a minor way)" by Amendment 1B, "we have chosen not to take a formal editorial position. However, the Colorado Press Association, which has no direct financial interest in the issue, strongly opposes Referendum 1B because it would limit public access to important government information."
No financial interest? The Colorado Press Association assesses dues according to its members' size -- and it has no bigger members than the Post and the News. The rest of the CPA's roster consists of smaller dailies and weeklies from around the state; free publications aren't allowed to be members. (Westword is an exception that proves the rule, because we have a second-class mailing permit from the U.S. Postal Service -- which makes us a legal newspaper as far as the federal government is concerned, a legal newspaper as far as the state is concerned and, yes, a legal newspaper as far as the Colorado Press Association is concerned.) While smaller papers far outnumber larger papers in the CPA's 154-member roster, the big boys still call the shots there. Several years back, for example, after Westword won a few prizes in the annual CPA contest, they determined that weeklies with circulations over 100,000 (of which there's exactly one: Westword) would no longer be allowed to compete against dailies with circulations of over 100,000 (a division limited to the News, the Post and, depending on that year's circulation figures, the Gazette in Colorado Springs).
Executive director Ed Otte says the CPA urged the defeat of Amendment 1B because it could have a dangerous "ripple effect" on other municipalities. Fewer people have access to the Web in rural Colorado, he points out; if those towns changed their rules governing legal notices, how would voters get the news?
On the radio, perhaps, or on television or, heaven forbid, even from the free papers that seem to spring up in every community to ensure the truly free flow of information.
Even though the Denver Election Commission made the risky choice to place the required legal notices for this election in the tiny Daily Journal -- its only alternative at the time -- voters got the message and passed Amendment 1B. While there are still plenty of potholes in the information highway, the truth will out.