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No Bias

The rumor mill isn't renowned for its accuracy -- but every so often, gossipers stumble upon the truth.

That was certainly the case regarding Bias, a youth-targeted project founded last year as a joint venture of MediaNews Group (owner of the Denver Post) and E.W. Scripps (the Rocky Mountain News's parent company). Whispers about its failing health began circulating this spring, and a month's worth of inactivity on Bias's website supported the impending-doom scenario. When contacted for a July 6 column item about this prospect, Denver Newspaper Agency spokesman Jim Nolan, who was loaned by the DNA to serve as Bias's general manager, insisted that everything was jake and playfully chided me about the worthiness of my sources. Turns out they were pretty good, since Bias is now officially dead. The five-person staff was let go on July 14, and the current edition of Bias magazine will be its last. The ironic final headline: "Bias Gets Limber, Rested and Ready to Run a Marathon."

In fact, it was more of a sprint -- and Bias didn't finish.

The timing of the plug-pulling caught the Bias crew by surprise. After all, a new website had been launched in late June, hence the dormancy of the previous address. (BiasDenver.com will remain online until month's end before going dark.) A proposed collaboration with ManiaTV didn't come to fruition, but employees were optimistic about partnerships with new clients and philanthropic activities, including the assemblage of a Bias team to raise funds at October's Denver Marathon for the American Council of the Blind of Colorado.

The conventional tenor of this last event points to Bias's essential, and ultimately fatal, contradiction. MediaNews and Scripps wanted to reach club-goers and trendies who'd rather perform deviant acts with a Dodge Charger's exhaust pipe than read a daily newspaper. That's why the sample issue of Bias magazine shown to business reps in early 2005 featured self-consciously outré material such as a Denver murder map that directed readers to the spot where talk-show host Alan Berg was assassinated, not to mention a pledge to help advertisers "carve up your market like Jeff Dahmer at a Rohypnol party." In the end, however, the conservative culture of these media giants (and the firms expected to support the enterprise) clashed with the post-modern mentality, forcing edge-softening compromises. The result was an unholy blend that oozed phoniness, like an aging lothario hoping his comb-over won't scare off the hotties.

Former workers contacted by Westword declined to comment about the project's closure, leaving Nolan to spin positivity from Bias's demise. "Bias was formed as an incubator company to develop new ideas and ways to reach the 18-to-34 market," he says. "In that time, we derived a lot of knowledge from the experiment, and now it's time to move on and apply some of what we learned."

Lesson one: Don't build a sales strategy on Jeff Dahmer jokes.

Shrinkage: Of course, the real reason Bias entered the coffin is economic; it wasn't generating enough revenue to justify its existence. This same rationale will lead to changes likely to impact readers of the Rocky and Westword within a matter of months. Specifically, both publications will be physically smaller than they've been in recent years -- and it's possible that the Post may face a size reduction as well.

As DNA spokesman Nolan points out, assorted local publications have written about the plan to consolidate printing operations for the Rocky and the Post at a single plant. As part of this process, business-siders at Westword, which is printed at the Rocky facility, have been informed that the dimensions of the papers will be different once the transition is completed, probably circa the first quarter of 2007. Figures are still in flux, but odds are strong that the final size will be smaller than present versions by an inch, or perhaps a bit more, at the top and right-hand margin.

The only surprise about this move is that it didn't happen earlier. Newsprint costs have skyrocketed, yet the Rocky and Westword remain two of the largest tabloids in the country. Trimming the perimeters is guaranteed to pay off -- the New York Times predicts that a similar move on its part should save $12 million per year -- even if doing so will necessitate design tweaks. Although the average reader probably won't notice a huge shift (particularly those accustomed to perusing tabs in other metropolitan areas), the average Rocky and Westword page is almost certain to fit smaller art and fewer words. Lucky thing brevity is the soul of wit -- or so I've been told while prattling on endlessly.

The DNA would prefer not to trouble readers and advertisers with this subject right now. "It's too soon to talk about any product implications from this change," Nolan says. But behind the scenes the process is moving forward, and all parties agree that bigger isn't better.

At least in this case.

Burns from the magnifying glass: Rocky Mountain News columnist Bill Johnson has been attacked on numerous occasions by detractors who've charged him with assorted journalistic sins, and several of the accusations have stuck ("Tube Time," February 16). Still, the personal hostility one of these folks apparently feels toward him has complicated attempts to objectively evaluate his work and led one of his superiors to send an ill-advised e-mail.

The freshest gripe about Johnson surfaced after the June 14 publication of "3 Friends, 1 Bullet, a Million Tears," in which he dealt with the tragic slaying of a longtime friend, Roni Hardy, in Southern California, where Johnson lived prior to joining the Rocky in the '90s. Johnson wrote that Hardy had died in front of his house after being shot; he also stated that Hardy's home, which had been purchased for "relative pennies," was appraised not long ago "at more than a million bucks." In response, an anonymous e-mailer submitted an item from a Los Angeles Police Department blog saying that Hardy died at a hospital, not on the scene, and offered documentation showing that the appraised value of the house was around $438,000. "Only off by more than a half million," wrote Johnson's detractor. "Is there NO quality control on this guy?"

The last remark took on extra resonance when an e-mail comeback penned by Rocky assistant managing editor/news Jim Trotter, who edits Johnson, made its way back to the critic. "I just wanted you to be aware that your special friend is still with us," Trotter wrote. "Got to be your ex, or someone else who knew you very well in California days."

Does the tone of this e-mail suggest that Trotter dismissed the arguments above because the e-mailer's motives may not be entirely pure? Trotter says no. "I was just sending a note letting the person know, 'We think we know who you are,' which maybe wasn't too wise," he concedes. "But we checked everything out. We talked to the widow, and I feel very comfortable that Bill was accurate."

For his part, Johnson is offended that any question was raised. "Goodness, my friend is dead," he writes via e-mail, adding, "You and your correspondent, and I am certain I know who it is, should not be so ignorant to believe a home's assessed value bears at all on its market value, particularly in L.A. And yet you nitpick and bother me with such silliness, particularly on this story."

Trotter isn't nearly so strident. "I regret copying that message," he says, because "we fully expect Bill to be accurate. If this person has an ax to grind, they have an ax to grind. But when we get these things, we always investigate."

The necessity of doing so under these circumstances is unfortunate. Nevertheless, Johnson's dubious track record has made this the only rational course of action -- especially with so many people scrutinizing his every word.

Speaking of mistakes: When it comes to this column, there's one immutable rule: If I rib a news organization for a spelling error, I'll misspell something else in the same piece. This sorry situation returned to haunt me in our July 6 issue. Several paragraphs above a line noting that Aaron Spelling's last name was rendered as "Spellie" in a Channel 7 on-screen crawl, I left the last letter off station anchor Anne Trujillo's first name.

I come by this affliction naturally; shortly after my birth, hospital personnel put an identification bracelet on my wrist that read "Michelle." Which explains a lot, actually.


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