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Journey's End

Mark Poutenis

Both Channel 9 and the Rocky Mountain News have produced plenty of reports of late about Ocean Journey, which will close its doors on April 2 unless a rare form of aquatic life -- a well-heeled sucker -- decides to donate many millions of dollars to a joint that's gone from being an alleged point of civic pride to one of Denver's biggest-ever boondoggles in record time. But what's been left out of these stories is the part these organizations played in Ocean Journey's creation. Simply put, the aquarium might never have existed were it not for their efforts.

An Ocean Journey timeline that accompanied a March 20 News story begins in 1990, when aquarium founders Bill Fleming and Judy Petersen-Fleming first doodled ideas for the facility on a napkin at a sushi bar in Japan. (Maybe this location explains why the idea never seemed fully baked.) After items about a 1991 feasibility study and a June 1994 loan from the city, the piece states that millions in donations from groups such as the Gates and Boettcher foundations and United Airlines poured in between December 1994 and March 1996.

But well before this time, Channel 9 and the News were already on board themselves. Both had ponied up around $250,000 for the cause and took an active part in touting the concept. For instance, an August 4, 1994, News account announced that its then-publisher, Larry Strutton, was a member of the Founders' Circle Committee, a collective "dedicated to raising the remaining $7 million Ocean Journey organizers predict it will need from private sources" that included Peter Coors, A. Barry Hirschfeld, Steve Farber and others with overstuffed wallets. Moreover, Channel 9 and the News were mentioned in article after puffy article about attempts to put Ocean Journey on the map.

Such name-dropping was important at that time, because Ocean Journey wasn't the only fishy plan making the rounds: A rival gaggle of investors had proposed turning Littleton's Riverfront Festival Center, a failed mall, into what the News described as "the nation's first for-profit aquarium." But by lining up important media operations to stand alongside the city's power brokers, the Flemings were able to make their project look far more viable. By 1996, the Riverfront folks had thrown their support behind Ocean Journey; the mall was eventually sold to EchoStar Communications.

Once the Riverfront scheme was dead in the water, Channel 9 and the News pumped out an even steadier stream of pro-Ocean Journey hype, further blurring the line between information and advertisement. Along the way, pretty much the only discouraging words from either of these proud media partners came courtesy of News columnist Gene Amole, who has a history of opposing iffy developments with hefty price tags; he railed against Denver International Airport, too. In "Latest Attraction Could Easily Tank," a prescient bit of prose published on April 21, 1996, Amole noted that an aquarium on Florida's Tampa Bay built the previous year was already "awash in red ink. Attendance projections were overly optimistic. At first, they were off by 25 percent and then by 50 percent."

Sound familiar?

He added that "the Tampa situation is so serious that taxpayers may be forced to bail out the $97 million project" -- and as it turns out, they were. He subsequently asked if a Denver aquarium was "a good idea whose time has passed" despite corporate donors like "the Denver Nuggets, TCI, KUSA Channel 9 and (heh heh) the Rocky Mountain News."

Heh, heh, indeed. On June 22, 1999, News editorialists could practically be heard cackling throughout the ultra-gushy "Welcome Ocean Journey," which blared that "Colorado's Ocean Journey was well and truly launched Monday as the newest jewel in Denver's crown of civic attractions, scuttling for good all the carping critics who said it couldn't be done." (Never mind those who said it shouldn't have been done.) But more recently, on March 20, the editorial staff checked in with "Ocean Journey's Sad Farewell," which concluded with this wish: "Would that there were a philanthropist out there somewhere who would like to rescue the fish (and the otters and the tigers) for naming rights and the knowledge that he or she had done something of great value, if not great profit, for the children and adults of Colorado."

Of course, the News is no longer in a situation to step up to the philanthropic plate. As the junior partner in a joint operating agreement with its longtime foe, the Denver Post, the paper lost approximately $15 million last year. On top of that, the building it's called home for half a century is quietly being shopped around while representatives of the Denver Newspaper Agency consider other sites large enough to accommodate the DNA staff and those of the two publications. The best the News can offer is a virtual tour of the aquarium, which remains on its Web site. But for how long?  

As for Channel 9, Ocean Journey apparently still regards it as a potential savior. On the first page of its Web site, www.oceanjourney.org, which is devoted to preserving this great white whale, a button allowing visitors to "contact 9 News" is above ones linked to the offices of Denver mayor Wellington Webb, Colorado governor Bill Owens and Denver's city council, none of whom have shown interest in swimming to the rescue.

But if the station isn't acknowledging how much it had to do with Ocean Journey's birth, there seems little chance it will do anything other than mourn its death.

A Maxim to live by: In his March 21 column, the Denver Post's Bill Husted correctly identified a truly egregious example of Ocean Journey pimping on the part of Channel 9: The station employed Judy Petersen-Fleming as a mock reporter during its grand opening -- a sure way to ensure objective coverage. But the column will be remembered more for the section that gave the piece its headline: "Maxim Falls for Denver." Husted wrote that the April edition of Maxim, a magazine best known for its photographs of scantily clad women with breasts like just-inflated air bags, dubbed Denver "The Greatest City on Earth!" thanks to its "easy-to-trap ski bunnies," attractions such as the Diamond Cabaret and the Church, and the "journalist principles" of the Post.

This last compliment seems more than a tad ironic, given that the same day's edition of the Detroit Free Press contained an article revealing that Denver only topped Maxim's chart in the issues distributed in this area. In all, the mag named thirteen cities "the greatest," including Detroit, Toronto and Phoenix -- and communities lauded in one edition were ripped mercilessly in the other twelve. Philadelphia readers found that out the hard way. According to the March 22 Philadelphia Daily News, issues saluting New York City and dismissing Philly as "a glorified piss break between New York and D.C." were accidentally sent to the home of cream cheese and the Liberty Bell. Ding dong! Fortunately for Coloradans, they didn't have to read the negative description of their roost: "Welcome to a city so screwed up that deep-fried testicles are a popular local delicacy. Good luck finding the right wine to go with a plate of pan-fried Rocky Mountain oysters. What's for dessert, a bobcat's asshole?"

Obviously, Maxim's ploy was intended to generate publicity for the magazine, and it turned out great on that count. Prior to the scheme's discovery, at least four noteworthy publications trotted out hooray-we-win items, with three of them hailing from these parts: the Free Press, which ran its back-patter on March 20, the Denver Post, the Denver Business Journal (love the blue-ribbon graphic on the cover) and the Rocky Mountain News, whose gossip columnist, Penny Parker, stuck Maxim's positive comments into the middle of her March 21 column. Then came the Free Press's debunker, which passed from writer to writer like a case of gonorrhea after it was featured prominently on the country's premier journalism gossip Web site, www.poynter.org/medianews. Shortly thereafter, National Public Radio picked up the story, interviewing Maxim editor-in-chief Keith Blanchard for All Things Considered.

Letters also poured into poynter.org -- and because the columns by Husted and Parker were linked to the site, several of the scribes attacked them by name. The response by onetime Denverite turned New Yorker William Boot (the pseudonym is taken from the fictional journalist at the center of the Evelyn Waugh novel Scoop) was nasty and funny in equal measure; it called the Denver pair "hilariously lacking in originality and enterprise. Now, I don't imagine that readers expect too much from an 'About Town' columnist, but Husted's gig in particular consists of little more than reporting on where the local news anchors dined the previous evening. And any Page Six tidbit with even the most tenuous Colorado connection ('Felicity's Keri Russell, who once lived in Boulder [Highlands Ranch, actually], is catching heat over her new haircut...') shows up in his column days or even weeks later as fresh material. Both Husted and Parker are neurotically anxious to cast Denver as a Big Time city, populated by anything but hayseeds and rubes."

On March 22, the News and the Post corrected their Maxim mistakes, with Parker doing the dirty work herself and Dick Kreck, the regularly scheduled Friday columnist, handling the chore for Husted, who has something approaching a sense of humor about the entire matter. "I think it's pretty funny," he says. "And I can appreciate the difficulty that it took for them to put out thirteen different issues of a national magazine. But it's one thing to be duped and another to be flat-out lied to. I called their senior editor [James Heidenry], just like they did in Detroit, and the guy came right out and said there weren't other cities. And he should have said, 'Okay, you busted me.'  

"Calling him was a must," he adds. "The letters on that Web site calling me such a hack missed the point that I'd been lied to by these guys, but that I made the call."

Parker, meanwhile, didn't reach for the phone until after her editor, John Temple, e-mailed her a copy of the Free Press exposé because "I've done this kind of thing many times -- just taken a snippet out of an article that had to do with Denver and repeated it. And there wasn't anything in it that made me think it might not be true. Come on, we all love Denver. And it's just a coincidence that both Bill and I picked up on this. It's not like Denver's so needy to be the best that we both went 'Whoa!' and started cheerleading."

In her view, Maxim's gambit goes to show that "it's a stupid magazine, and that's all." What happened "isn't amusing to me," she concedes, "but I'm not going to lose sleep over it. I mean, there are so many other things I could lose sleep over."

Hockey's rough off the ice, too: On March 16, at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, the University of Denver Pioneers hockey team defeated the University of Minnesota Gophers 5-2 to win the Western Collegiate Hockey Association Final Five tournament championship.

But an incident report filed by the St. Paul Police Department shows that the action didn't stop when the final horn blew. Before sunrise on March 17, at a Radisson Hotel in St. Paul, a clash between Mike Chambers, a Denver Post reporter covering the Pioneers, and John Romo, assistant program director for the men's intercollegiate athletics department of the University of Minnesota, resulted in Romo being badly beaten.

Attempts to reach Romo were unsuccessful, and representatives of the University of Minnesota sports information staff declined comment on the incident. At the Post, a call to Chambers was referred to editor Glenn Guzzo, who says, "There was an altercation, and Mr. Romo received some injuries. We're told he had a broken nose. We're investigating further; we're trying to get ahold of any reports on the subject, and any witnesses."

Chambers wasn't immediately suspended for his part in the fracas, and he spent last week reporting about the Pioneers -- but he wasn't sent with the squad to cover its playoff appearance in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (The Pioneers lost to the University of Michigan, knocking them out of the national title chase.) The Gophers played in Ann Arbor, too -- and they won. But Romo didn't travel with the team.

St. Paul police spokesman Michael Jordan (yes, that's his real name) provides only the bare-bones details of the confrontation. He says Chambers admitted to slugging Romo in the face at about 4 a.m. in an elevator at the Radisson; there's no record that Romo threw any punches either before or after being struck. The police were called, but Romo didn't press charges, even though he had to be transported to a nearby hospital for treatment.

What led to this dust-up? Insiders provide some attention-grabbing details. A couple of seasons ago, during a match-up between the Gophers and the Pioneers, Minnesota captain Erik Westrum kicked a DU player, Erik Adams, in the chest. As Chambers wrote as recently as December 4, 2001, well after the Gophers star had moved on to the Phoenix Coyotes of the NHL, Westrum was "ejected and served a two-game suspension" for his actions, "but he never apologized." Knowledgeable sources say Chambers frequently brought up Westrum's behavior in subsequent seasons, leading Gophers coach Don Lucia to eventually decide against sitting for interviews with the reporter. These same sources recall that Chambers asked Romo to intervene on his behalf, but Romo replied that it was the coach's choice.

Bad blood over this dispute reportedly boiled over on March 17 -- and when Romo tried to leave, Chambers followed him into an elevator. In short order, Romo, who's physically smaller than Chambers, had suffered considerable damage to his nose and septum, as well as facial cuts that had to be stitched closed.

Right now, says police spokesman Jordan, the department isn't pursuing the case, but that could change if Romo decides to press charges -- and civil actions remain possible as well. At this stage, however, no one looks like a winner.

The original synergy: As journalism watchers know full well, media outfits are concentrating more than ever before on combining forces. Major players like Denver Post kingpin Dean Singleton have been urging the Federal Communications Commission to ease or eliminate restrictions on cross-ownership, which currently prevent the owner of a major daily newspaper in a certain city from purchasing a TV station in the same market. And since today's FCC is overseen by pro-business types, Singleton's dream will probably come true before long.  

Until then, newspapers and TV stations are engaging in partnerships that have many of the same promotional effects as cross-ownership without the illicit paperwork. Channel 9 and the Post, in particular, are all but joined at the pelvis these days. Every Sunday, Channel 9's Mark Koebrich writes a consumer column that is arguably the worst regular feature in the Post's flagship edition; a quarter-page advertisement for the station would be significantly less obnoxious than the moronic mug shot of Koebrich that accompanies his several paragraphs of filler. And "'Stupid Game' Puts Firefighters in Hot Water," an overblown March 21 piece about "butt ball," a pastime invented by members of the Littleton Fire Department who evidently don't get enough of a jolt from sliding down poles, ran under a byline shared by Channel 9 veteran Paula Woodward.

Judging by a job posting on the 9News Web site (www.9News.com), more of this type of sharing is in the offing. The station is seeking a "multi-media manager" who's "responsible for converging content between television news and newspaper on a daily basis. Seeks out and identifies mutually beneficial stories. Reports to 9News News Director and will work out of the newspaper office. Works with newspaper editors and reporters to produce newspaper stories into compelling television news content. Attends daily newspaper budget meetings; contributes enterprise content; works to identify news pro-jects that can be a co-op reporting opportunity."

In a word, yikes.

Another illustration of this phenomenon may turn out to be KDKO, a radio station at 1510 AM. Last week, KDKO's owner, Peoples Wireless Inc., headed by station personality Jim "Daddio" Walker, agreed to exchange its deed for $2.7 million to a startup with an especially intriguing name: Newspaper Radio Corp.

The moniker doesn't seem to have been chosen at random. Joanne Ostrow, writing about the deal on March 21 for the Post, revealed that "the pending sale comes amid rumors of a possible deal with the Denver Newspaper Agency, which oversees business functions of the Post and Rocky Mountain News, to provide newsroom staff members as a source of content for the station's news-talk programming." When asked to elaborate, DNA spokesman Jim Nolan refers to the statement given to Ostrow by DNA president and chief executive Kirk MacDonald: "We're intrigued by the idea; we think the concept is credible. Beyond that, we would not be able to comment."

Adding further credence to this prospect is the participation of Ray Skibitsky as Newspaper Radio's president and chief operating officer. Skibitsky, a former executive with KBCO and the Peak, as well as a nationally known radio-industry consultant, most recently generated ink with a company dubbed Eclectic Radio. Eclectic's best-known product was an Internet radio station, GoGaGaDenver.com, which was affiliated with the Post; reporters with big stories often guested on the site, and music writer G. Brown served as the morning-shift disc jockey for its "eclectic rock" channel before the operation went belly-up last year ("Net Losses," January 18, 2001).

GoGaGaDenver.com didn't fail because of a relationship with the Post; it had more to do with the inability of operators to turn the thrill of Internet technology into good old-fashioned profits. But Tim Brown, Newspaper Radio's chairman of the board and chief executive officer, still won't say if KDKO wants to take this tack to the airwaves. He stresses that Skibitsky was hired only because "he understands radio, he's very passionate about radio, and when we were looking for someone to assist us in this business model, it was just a natural fit."

Brown doesn't have much of a radio background; he and Newspaper Radio's chief technical officer, Mark Kolar, both worked at Cisco Systems. But he's related by marriage to someone with the deepest pockets in the state: His father-in-law is gazillionaire tycoon Phil Anschutz, whose Anschutz Company is listed in FCC documents as controlling 58.4 percent of Newspaper Radio, as opposed to Brown's 29.5 percent.

Unsurprisingly, Brown is ready to spare no expense to make KDKO a premier signal. He won't divulge much about the planned format, but he promises "major technical upgrades" to KDKO: "a new transmitter, digital technology, and all the things you don't need FCC permission to do. What you'll hear is probably a ten-times increase in the fidelity of the signal." And while cost-cutting measures like voicetracking are running rampant in the radio industry ("Help Not Wanted," March 21), he actually denigrates the practice by name, saying, "I don't believe in things like voicetracking. I want the personalities on our radio station to be involved in the Denver community.  

"If you were to hold up a mirror to the station," he continues, "we would want it to reflect all points of view, to be fair and balanced, and to tell us about the things we care most about in Denver and all of Colorado. It will represent viewpoints from the conservative side, the liberal side, the black community, the Latino community, the white community. Everyone."

The African-American portion of this equation is key, since KDKO is Denver's only independent black-owned station. It specializes in soul, R&B and content that encourages "unity in the community," and it has a distinctly family-oriented feel; Walker's thirteen-year-old granddaughter, Lindsey Walker, helms her own show under the nom de plume Miss Thang. Even so, Lindsey's grandpa, who has 38 years of experience in Denver radio, acknowledges that KDKO has often been on shaky financial footing during its thirteen years of existence. One low point took place in 1992, when the IRS seized KDKO's Welton Street studio because of overdue Social Security and federal withholding taxes. Several days later, the station was back on the air, broadcasting from a motor home parked in an alley next to the studio.

"There's been monetary problems based on a lack of advertisers, and the people who bought the advertisements with us not always paying us on time," Walker says. "Accounts receiving was very slow. It was a situation that wasn't as I wanted it to have been."

Things should improve dramatically for Walker from a dollars-and-cents standpoint. For one thing, he's inked a three-year consulting agreement that will pay him in the neighborhood of $295,000 overall. He emphasizes that his duties will include an on-air talk show in which he'll be able to remain in touch with his audience. "I feel good about the move I'm making, because it takes us to another level," he says. "It's not like the community has lost a voice or a personality. You still have me, and I'll still be here fighting for the community so we can do the right thing every day of our lives."

Listeners must wait until summer, when the FCC is expected to bless the transaction, in order to discover what the new KDKO will sound like. But any station featuring contributions from Anschutz, Singleton and the indefatigable Daddio could turn out to be awfully interesting.

That does not compute: There exists a scary world that most of us who remain financially solvent know nothing about -- a spot in cyberspace where the last surviving day traders try to squeeze a little more juice out of high-tech companies. And interlopers to this place are seldom greeted with open arms.

David Milstead, a business reporter and columnist for the Rocky Mountain News, learned this the hard way. On February 2, he wrote a piece suggesting that the prospects for Level 3, a local telecom, were worse than its executives were letting on -- an opinion that, on the surface, seemed to fall far short of controversial. But numerous visitors to stock message boards supported by the Yahoo! search engine reacted to his concerns with derision, and worse. As Milstead disclosed in "Hell Hath No Fury Like Defenders of Level 3," published March 2, postings included "Who is that idiot David Milstead" and "Denver hack job by lazy RMN writer."

Most unexpected of all was the missive by someone identified as dbledsoe13 (no doubt a reference to Drew Bledsoe, lame-duck quarterback for the New England Patriots), who purported to have checked Milstead's credentials. "First -- some background on Mr. Milstead," proclaimed the anonymous fellow. "He has written a grand total of 4 articles for the paper. The paper lists absolutely NO background information on him. Luckily I did my searching. In 1997 he was the Dayton editor of the Small Business News... Before that he was a student at Oberlin University (say what?), graduating in 1994 (plenty of experience in the business world, especially with recessionary markets). For those interested, Oberlin has no finance degree, no accounting degree, and barely a whisper of a business school (economics is their ONLY business major). This guy has stuff that I want to hear?"

When Milstead, who hooked up with the News in April, 2001, stumbled across this posting, he reacted in an unconventional way; instead of simply ignoring it, he answered back. Under the heading "David Milstead Sends His Love," he provided a basic resumé: He received a degree in economics from Oberlin College (it's not a university) and worked at Small Business News and a newspaper in South Carolina before being hired by the Wall Street Journal. "I was laid off from the Journal at the beginning of the recession," he wrote, "so if you feel my 1994 degree implies I don't know what a recession does to businesses, I respectfully disagree."  

The reactions to this information by the Yahoo! crowd were thoroughly entertaining. Some were snotty ("David Milstead has been offered the position of Business Editor for Larry Flynt's Hustler magazine") or profane ("GFY," shorthand for "Go fuck yourself"). But many seemed overjoyed that a reporter for a major metropolitan daily cared enough about them to reply. Typical was this declaration: "I am AMAZED you were willing to post on this site."

Milstead doesn't regret having conducted his little experiment. "When people talk about my opinion, I don't mind that," he says. "But when somebody misrepresented me, I wanted to correct that. If, after hearing my actual background, they still think I'm an idiot, that's fine -- but they should know I was at the Wall Street Journal, too."

Likewise, he believes he's doing readers a service by being honest about high-tech stocks. "I don't share any responsibility for overhyping these companies. That's why now I'm walking on the battlefield and shooting the wounded."


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