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Median Range

Mike Gorman

The most immediate effects of the joint operating agreement between the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News -- fewer weekend papers, increased advertising and subscription rates, etc. -- have been well documented. But there's been other fallout as well, and in some unexpected arenas. Consider the following examples, which concern the passage of an ordinance forbidding peddling or panhandling on Denver medians, and a decrease in the amount of newsprint available for recycling.

Takin' it off the streets: Denver's new median measure was inspired by suggestions from policeman Larry Carr, a community resource officer in District 3 who sees the presence on traffic islands of salesmen, political boosters or people looking for spare change as inherently dangerous. A panhandler was hit on a city median on March 17, he told the press in late April, around the time that the proposed bill was approved by Denver's safety and personnel committee.

Carr's way of thinking struck a chord with city councilwoman Elbra Wedgeworth, who authored the final plan, and several of her colleagues, including Polly Flobeck, who represents District 5 on the council. "To me, it's all about safety," Flobeck says. "When people are on the medians, it can either distress drivers or make them mad, so that they lose concentration. That can jumble traffic and cause accidents."

This logic was persuasive. Despite opposition from the likes of John Parvensky, president of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, the full council unanimously approved the median ordinance on May 14, after which Mayor Wellington Webb signed it into law with little fanfare and even less spillage of ink at the city's papers. Both Denver dailies offered up modest articles about the suggested ban after the safety and personnel committee's okay in April, but the News didn't bother to report its passage just over two weeks later, and the Post tacked two lines about it to the very bottom of an Arthur Kane article that otherwise reported a delay in a vote to license valet-parking outfits.

What's any of this got to do with the JOA? In November 1999, District 10 councilman Ed Thomas introduced virtually the same median bill as the one that skated through in May, and he advertised it using the same safety claims voiced by Flobeck. Likewise, the proposition was criticized by Parvensky and other advocates for the homeless, who saw it as an unnecessary regulation that would strip many poor people of their meager livelihood -- the same argument the council dismissed last month. But instead of being embraced, the 1999 proposal never got out of committee. Thomas has a pretty good idea why. "The newspapers came out against mine," he says.

They had a good reason: Among other things, the bill would have largely snuffed out the street-hawker programs then being operated by the News and the Post as part of their duel-to-the-death circulation battle. The dailies provided newspapers free of charge to anyone willing to sell them at intersections and medians -- not surprisingly, most participants were homeless -- and allowed these people to keep whatever money they collected. In exchange, the dailies were able to add the papers to their circulation figures. To Dianna Kunz, president of Colorado's Volunteers of America branch, the arrangement benefited everyone. "The newspapers won because they were providing people with a convenient way to get their paper, and the homeless won because they were afforded the opportunity to make some money and help themselves."

Predictably, the dailies' articles about the Thomas bill contained comments from newspaper officials, who made their feelings abundantly clear. In the News's piece, published November 10, 1999, Linda Sease, the paper's vice president of marketing, said, "I don't think we should limit people's ability to improve their life just because it makes us uncomfortable...Are we going to ban selling newspapers at grocery stores because it clogs up the entrances? Are we going to not allow trucks to stop at boxes because they might pose a traffic problem? You can't restrict every risk in life."

The Post's take on the topic, published the previous day, listed several more pragmatic reasons why the newspapers didn't like Thomas's suggestion. Staff writer Susan Greene wrote, "The Denver Post and the Denver Rocky Mountain News employ hundreds of street hawkers, many of whom are transients, as foot soldiers in the city's fierce newspaper war. Although hawker sales aren't the mainstay of either papers' circulation, they're key in marketing strategies -- teasing motorists with headlines and luring nonsubscribers to easily pick up editions while idling at red lights." Greene quoted Post vice president of circulation Judd Alvord, who said a hawking ban "would hurt both papers' circulation efforts and numbers" and added that the Post would consider fighting the ordinance on behalf of free-speech principles. "There are protections afforded to newspapers under the First Amendment," he said.

Given such a blatant challenge from a well-heeled adversary, it's hardly surprising that the council committee displayed zero enthusiasm for the Thomas scheme. A byline-free postmortem offered by the News on November 11 stated that "other council members said they hesitated to infringe on homeless people's rights to earn a living" -- a fear that apparently troubles them no longer.

Because the council balked on the bill, hawking continued unabated. But things began to change the following May, when the News and the Post announced that they would merge their business operations. Because the JOA eliminated the need for these rivals-turned-buddies to best each other in a circulation pissing contest, both papers began looking for ways to cut costs long before the agreement's anticipated approval was made official -- and the hawking programs soon attracted their attention. The Post axed hawking in early fall, but in an October 25 News article on the topic, Rocky publisher Larry Strutton said his publication had no plans to do the same "in the near term." Wrong. The News informed the hawkers that their services were no longer required in early December, with Sease acknowledging in her paper on December 13 that the Post's move helped spur the decision.

Neither this policy shift nor the subsequent bill passage has eliminated lingerers on Denver medians. Many of the people who once sold papers are still there, but they're panhandling rather than offering the latest in news, weather and sports. The VOA's Kunz says the staff at the organization's mission, at 2877 Lawrence Street, is working with "several people who were actively involved in the hawkers program, and the cessation of it has been devastating to them. That was literally their job."

According to Sergeant Tony Lombard, spokesman for the Denver Police Department, ordinance violators face a maximum sentence of a year in jail and a $999 fine, although they're more likely to receive fines in the $50-$100 range, particularly for first offenses. But even if the punishment is comparatively light, the Colorado Coalition's Parvensky still believes the ordinance sends the wrong message. "I think the jury was still out as to whether the hawking program was the best way of helping folks," he says. "It did give them a positive opportunity to earn some income, but there are better ways of helping them, like expanding emergency shelters and rehabilitation programs and job programs that can lead to higher-paying jobs. I'd like to see more of a focus on those kinds of things and less on keeping them off the medians."

Thomas, meanwhile, feels a sense of satisfaction that the measure he first touted back in 1999 is in place -- and he's amused by what he sees as the blatant hypocrisy of the Post and the News, which stopped dispensing high-minded rhetoric the minute their interests were no longer threatened.

"When I came forward with this, they were apoplectic," Thomas says. "They said they were working at protecting the First Amendment and providing jobs for homeless individuals. But now that the newspapers are off the medians, the First Amendment issue is out the window. And do you know why? Because their ox isn't being gored."

The paper chase: As alluded to above, the JOA allowed the Denver dailies to forgo their bargain subscription rates, which at their low point allowed customers to buy a year's worth of the Post or the News for about what it costs to eat lunch at Arby's. Hence, circulation went into a freefall. During the first quarter of this year, the Post's numbers tumbled by 49,279 copies daily as compared to the same period a year earlier, with the News's totals nosediving by 79,966.

This decline was expected, and because most of the dropoffs represented papers that cost far more to print and deliver than they brought in, the result was a net-plus. But it's also led to fewer newspapers being collected by municipal recycling agencies. Julie Klein and Charlotte Pitt, waste-reduction and recycling specialists for Denver Recycles, which handles this chore for Denver residents, confirm that the combination of newspapers and mixed containers has fallen 12 percent in 2001's first quarter as judged by total weight. And Phil Price, recycling district manager for Waste Management Inc., the firm that winds up with items gathered by Denver Recycles, says that he's seeing in the range of 10 percent less newspaper at present than was coming in at this time last year.

Price isn't convinced that this deficit can be pegged entirely to fewer newspapers; he says the commodity stream throughout the Midwest is trending downward. But for Denver Recycles, this shortfall comes at an especially inopportune time. City recycling programs are traditionally loss leaders, but of late, rising prices have helped improve the bottom line. Last year, in fact, Denver Recycles nearly broke even, aided in large part by excellent prices for newspaper, which remain high to this day. Repeating that performance this year may be impossible.

"In recent years, with the markets becoming really strong, the higher-ups in city management have taken note that recycling can pay for itself," Klein says. "So there's definitely some concern."

Klein and Pitt emphasize that fewer profits from paper won't force cutbacks in service, and they hope Denver Recycles can make up for the downturn by boosting collection in other areas. They also try to remain focused on the big picture. "We're environmentalists," Klein says. "In general, less newspaper isn't all bad."

Especially in this town.

Riot? What riot? June 10 had to be the most painful day for staffers at the Rocky Mountain News since losing its Sunday edition. The night before, the Colorado Avalanche won the Stanley Cup, prompting pandemonium in the streets, but without a Sunday edition, the paper could only report about it on its Web site. The News did press 25,000 copies of a tabloid extra distributed near the Pepsi Center after the game, but these issues appeared on TV coverage far less frequently than the Denver Post's extra. More insult, more injury.

Meanwhile, TV stations repeatedly gave short shrift to clashes between revelers and police in favor of misty Ray Bourke moments. Sometime after 11 p.m. on Channel 9, for instance, helicopter reporter Tony LaMonica noted that the situation was deteriorating on the 16th Street Mall, after which co-anchors Adele Arakawa and Ward Lucas peppily thanked him for his efforts and signed off for the evening. The principal exception to this rule was KOA, whose correspondents were in the middle of the mayhem: At one point, Alex Stone was teargassed live -- "Can't...talk!" he gagged -- and a few minutes later, Jason Luber screamed into the microphone before declaring, "I've just been Maced!" Yet back at the studio, co-host Jon Caldara spent his energy praising the cops for their "restraint."

The media was restrained, too -- except when it came to gushing about the Avs. Shouldn't it have been the other way around?