Don't Bogart That Joint
The topic that the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News cover worse than any other is themselves.
Sometimes the inaccuracies are unintentional; they're caused by a predictable lack of objectivity, perhaps, or the seemingly benign but actually corrosive tendency to give statements made by their overseers a free pass rather than the healthy scrutiny to which other folks are routinely subjected. But sometimes they're purposeful: Embarrassing facts are often excluded, or they're twisted in ways that editors would never accept under different circumstances. That may be why so many reports about circulation changes in Denver have gone unsigned over the years. Who'd want to admit that he or she was responsible for such lousy fiction?
For that reason, the Post and the News were the absolute last places anyone interested in learning the scoop about the joint operating agreement, or JOA, the papers announced on May 11 should have turned -- and those who did got what they deserved.
But at least the Post's page-one headline on May 12 -- "Rocky Seeks Truce: Post Agrees to Joint Operation With Failing Paper" -- contained an echo of the old animosity between these two rivals. News editor John Temple was clearly annoyed by it: His whining about these lines on Peter Boyles's KHOW radio show that morning (not to mention his contemptuous declaration that anyone predicting that the News would fold within five years, as the editor of this paper did on the program moments earlier, was being irresponsible) lends credence to the word from Rocky insiders that he threw a massive "Temple tantrum" after learning about the JOA, shaking visibly and tossing things around the newsroom.
In many ways, this reaction was a poignant one. Clearly Temple, as well as most people at the News, were convinced that they were winning the Denver newspaper war. But what they failed to realize is that positive circulation numbers (which the News was still boasting about in a double-truck ad on May 14) aren't nearly as important as profit margins.
Granted, pieces in both papers cast some light on the nuts and bolts of the JOA and the Denver Newspaper Agency, a new entity that will manage the business, printing, advertising and circulation elements of the Post and the News, with ownership and profits being split down the middle. But there was a severe shortage of interesting color, like the juicy item snipped from an analysis by News business writer Steve Caulk: Reportedly, Bill Burleigh, chairman and CEO of E.W. Scripps Co., the News's corporate parent, missed the May 11 press conference that starred the Post's owner, Dean "Dinky" Singleton of MediaNews Group Inc., and Scripps's president/COO Ken Lowe and executive vice president Richard Boehne, because he was returning on an airplane from Lourdes, France. Was he hoping for a last-minute miracle? In addition, the vast majority of Post and News articles either soft-pedaled the pact's likely fallout or avoided it completely. (An exception was a belated but fairly balanced look at JOAs in the May 14 Post.) This approach was epitomized by the series of questions and answers prepared by E.W. Scripps Co. and MediaNews Group that appeared in the publications' Friday editions. What follows are some samples from the document, accompanied by an attempt at truth-telling courtesy of yours truly:
Published question: "Does this mean there was a winner in Denver's long newspaper war?"
Published answer: "Of course this is a question that is open to much interpretation. It is the opinion of management at Scripps and MediaNews Group, however, that both newspapers and the entire Denver community emerge as winners."
Actual answer: Are you kidding? The Post won, and everyone at Scripps knows it. Do you think the company would have chucked $60 million in cash into the pot (as opposed to zilch from MediaNews Group) if the News had been the victor? Besides, only one newspaper will be published on each of the weekend days, with the Post getting the far more lucrative Sunday issue and the News being stuck with Saturday, the least-read paper of the week. (An editorial page from the Post will appear in the Saturday News, with the favor being returned in the Sunday Post.)
Even more humiliating is that the Saturday News will be a broadsheet, not its familiar tabloid format, resulting in an ignominy that calls to mind another French city: Vichy. Given the gargantuan physical size of the News's "Wall Street Week" section, currently printed on Sundays, that Saturday broadsheet may only be about twelve pages long -- but in a pinch, nautical sorts will be able to use it as a sail.
Published question: "Does this mean that the News and the Post will raise the price of the paper once the JOA is approved?"
Published answer: "Subscription rates in the Denver market are significantly lower than in markets of comparable size. However, it would be premature to speculate on what will happen to circulation rates prior to the approval of the JOA."
Actual answer: Christ on a crutch! You bet subscription rates are going up. Money is what this whole thing is about, and Scripps has been putting out a helluva lot more than it's been taking in; reported losses at the News since 1990 were $123 million. Since the papers will be sharing profits 50-50 pending the approval of the JOA by the Justice Department, there's no reason on God's green earth why the Post and the News would continue butchering their bank accounts with bargain subscriptions. The Friday after the announcement, the News was still offering a year of its product six days a week for $4.95, but that won't last long. Watch out, because the hammer's coming down soon.
Published question: "If the News and the Post no longer compete for advertising, does this mean that ad rates will go up after the JOA is approved?"
Published answer: "The CEO for the agency will be responsible for establishing rate plans that are reasonable and fair."
Actual answer: Yes, yes, a thousand times yes -- the ad rates are going up. Hold onto your wallet, Jake Jabs.
Published question: "Does the JOA create a monopoly for the News and the Post in Denver's media market?"
Published answer: "No. The media market in Denver is not limited to the News and the Post. It includes 14 broadcast television stations, 37 radio stations, cable and satellite television services, and the rapidly growing presence of the Internet."
Actual answer: Maybe so, but none of these other enterprises have the U.S. government, via the Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970, supporting a plan that creates a business juggernaut unprecedented in these parts. Think of it as owning both Boardwalk and Park Place. Better roll those dice carefully, my friends.
Published question: "How many employees will lose their jobs as a result of this JOA?"
Published answer: "It is hoped that once the joint operating agreement is approved and the Denver Newspaper Agency is created that there will be a minimal loss of jobs. It is currently anticipated that any need to eliminate positions will be done primarily through attrition."
Actual answer: Editorial positions are probably safe, at least in the near term, although many reporters at the News are doubtless weighing their options -- especially those who specialize in the longer-form features or special projects that the publication has been running lately on Sundays. (The News won't even have a Sunday paper in the future, remember?) As for employees in the business and circulation areas, particularly, they should prepare for a George Romero-style bloodbath. Start polishing that resumé now.
A question that should have been published: "Since the News looks like it will survive for a while longer, does that mean it's going to continue publishing reproductions of its Pulitzer Prize medal beneath its banner for all eternity?"
An answer that should have been published: "Can't say for sure -- but aren't they cool? From a distance, they look just like two Cocoa Puffs."
The spin-free answer to another query -- "Why is Scripps entering into a JOA with MediaNews?" -- is about as self-evident as it could be. Throughout the '90s, Scripps has poured bad moola after good into its flagship paper despite substantial losses; the firm sometimes excluded its Denver property from press releases about newspaper division profits because including it would have made the figures look dismal. Moreover, informed sources believe that Scripps shut down some of its papers, such as the El Paso Herald Post, which closed its doors in 1997, in order to divert resources to the News and put other publications, like the Albuquerque Tribune, on bread-and-water diets for the same reason. It doesn't take a degree in economics to deduce that Scripps ultimately grew tired of this routine and concluded after recent circulation gains didn't improve its bottom line that it had to stop.
The more interesting questions are: Why did Dean Singleton agree to this deal when he could have simply allowed the News to die, after which he would have been free to pick its bones? After all, hadn't Singleton once compared a News-Post JOA with "kissing your sister"? And if that's true, does it mean the deal is like something out of Chinatown?
Rather than acknowledge the unnatural character of this union, Singleton dodged this and other intriguing issues at the press conference, and even kept his gloating to a minimum. But it's obvious that his decision wasn't motivated by the altruistic belief that Denver would be better off with two newspapers. By entering into a JOA, Singleton gets the $60 million as well as a surefire 50-percent portion of what's apt to be a much bigger pie without having to fight for every subscriber. Just as important, he's put himself in a position to take over the News in the most convenient manner possible if it eventually gives up the ghost -- and considering the recent history of JOAs, there's every chance it will.
Such speculations were sidestepped by Scripps's Lowe, who peppered his press-conference remarks with assertions that the JOA would ensure Denver two newspapers for the next fifty years -- a claim that deserved to be greeted with peals of laughter. In truth, most JOAs have failed or are in the midst of doing so. According to "The Death of the JOA," an article by the Washington Post's Paul Farhi that appeared in the American Journalism Review, the 28 JOAs that existed during the late '70s were down to 13 circa the article's September 1999 publication, and today, another two are on the brink. In Hawaii, a U.S. district judge has held up the dissolution of a JOA between Gannett Pacific Corporation, owner of the Honolulu Advertiser, and Liberty Newspaper's Honolulu Star-Bulletin (a trial's been set for September); and in California, the Hearst Corporation's attempt to shut down the San Francisco Examiner, part of a JOA with the much more successful San Francisco Chronicle, is also embroiled in legal red tape.
If these JOAs eventually falter, they'll add to a large list of casualties. In 1997 and 1998 alone, agreements came apart in four American cities (Chattanooga and Nashville, Tennessee, Evansville, Indiana, and El Paso, Texas), and no new JOAs arose to fill the void. The last JOAs prior to the News-Post wedding, involving publications in York, Pennsylvania (one of them owned by Singleton), and Las Vegas, were cemented almost a decade ago. The entire concept had become so discredited by the time of the AJR article that John Sturm, president and CEO of the Newspaper Association of America, a trade organization that has strongly supported the whole JOA notion, told Farhi, "I think it's safe to say it's unlikely we'll ever see any more JOAs. It's just the way the world has developed."
Reached after last week's developments, Sturm said, "Occasionally it's healthy for the soul to be wrong."
Many of the JOA deaths have occurred because one partner was weaker than the other, and although that may eventually prove to be the case in these parts, the strong Denver economy and its jumbo circulation should buy the News some time. But these factors offer little protection in the event of labor difficulties, which have been plenty bad for several JOAs. For instance, the relationship of the Pittsburgh Press to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, formalized by a JOA back in 1961, came apart after a 1992 Teamsters strike, and although the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press survived a similar strike that ended on Valentine's Day 1997, it decimated both publications. Since most unions other than the one that represents journalists will have to negotiate new contracts with the proposed Denver Newspaper Agency (to be headed be a CEO chosen by a four-person panel divided equally among Newsies and Posters), something similar could very well happen here. Indeed, a strike might be just the excuse Singleton needs to put the News out of its misery.
Not every JOA is a disaster, though. The accord that links the Seattle Times to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer is "usually pointed to as the one JOA that actually works," says James Bush, a staff writer for the alternative Seattle Weekly who covers the dailies in his hometown. Even David Brewster, the former publisher of the Weekly, who was part of a group that took the Seattle dailies to court back in 1983 in a failed effort to prevent the JOA from being enacted, has come to terms with the agreement. "I suppose in fairness it did keep these two papers going longer than they probably otherwise would, and that's not necessarily all bad," he says.
In some ways, the Seattle JOA is very similar to the one in the works in Denver: Both the Times and the Post-Intelligencer publish Monday through Friday, and the stronger, more powerful Times gets Sundays to itself, with the exception of a Post-Intelligencer editorial page. But the affiliation was made easier by staggered distribution: Until recently, the Post-Intelligencer came out in the mornings, the Times in the afternoon. And circulation-wise, they remain in the same ballpark. Audit Bureau of Circulations figures for the six months ending March 31 find the Times with weekday numbers just over 218,000, as opposed to a respectable 185,000 for the Post-Intelligencer.
JOAs can be amended, however, and changes in Seattle's suggest to many observers that the days of peaceful coexistence are about to end. Specifically, the Times announced in early 1999 that it would begin delivering its papers in the mornings, thereby going head-to-head with the Post-Intelligencer. Bush's article about this move was headlined "Suicide Pact," and now that the agreement is a reality (the Times started a.m. distribution in March), Brewster thinks it's just a matter of time before one of the papers vanishes from the Pacific Northwest forever.
"The JOA is a game of chicken with rules as elaborate as an eighteenth-century duel," he points out. "At the end of two or three years, we'll see which side says, 'We're tired of this, and we'll accept the terms of surrender.' And those terms are very generous. The losing party gets to share the profits of the surviving paper for eighty years. In some ways, it's surprising that one of them doesn't just stop publishing right now."
At this point, neither the Post nor the News seems ready to raise the white flag. The Justice Department will require some hoop-jumping prior to approving the JOA (something everyone expects will happen), and a few provisions in the papers' application may not survive the process; an example might be the News's advertising links with the Scripps-owned Boulder Daily Camera, which Daily Camera publisher Colleen Conant says both publications would like to see continue. Meanwhile, few media types are buying Ken Lowe's statement that the JOA was a "win-win" for the News and the Post. After News sports columnist Bob Kravitz appeared on AM 950/The Fan on May 12, Fan host Sandy Clough joked that the Post's Woody Paige needed someone to shine his shoes -- the implication being that since Kravitz's employment was in doubt, he might be just the man for the job. Clough's partner, Mike Evans, guffawed at that, but I'm guessing Kravitz may have been somewhat less amused.
As for Singleton, nothing he's said since the announcement has been as provocative as a remark he made in a September 28, 1998, newsletter published by NewsInc. In the midst of discussing his York, Pennsylvania, JOA, he noted that the Newspaper Preservation Act "guaranteed two editorial voices. But it didn't guarantee it forever."
Have comments, tips or complaints about the media? E-mail "The Message" at Michael_Roberts@westword.com.
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