Susan Goldstein

That Old Fighting Spirit

You've been hearing it for weeks: The joint operating agreement that's set to link the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post will pour cold water on the competitive fires the papers have stoked for over a century. There's even fresh evidence to support this theory: On June 11, News sports columnist Bob Kravitz announced that he's leaving the paper for The Indianapolis Star, in part because the News will no longer have a Sunday edition -- its highest-profile battleground with the Post.

However, a recent incident in the Coors Field press box suggests that while peace may be at hand, at least two soldiers -- the Post's Mike Klis and the News's Tracy Ringolsby -- aren't yet ready to raise the white flag. Relations have been frosty between these veteran sportswriters since at least last August, when Klis authored a page-one story predicting the imminent departure of Rockies general manager Bob Gebhard. Ringolsby, speaking on AM 950/The Fan, criticized that piece as a rehash of rumors that had been circulating for months; then, following Gebhard's resignation a few days later, he implied in a subsequent Fan appearance that this apparent scoop was actually more of a coincidence than anything else ("Ball Carriers," September 16, 1999). Since then, Ringolsby and Klis haven't spoken, even though they both cover the Rockies on a full-time basis. "It's a big press box," Ringolsby explains.

Not big enough, apparently.

The latest conflict between the pair took place late on the afternoon of May 31, just prior to the Rockies' 8-6 victory over the Houston Astros -- but in the beginning, Ringolsby was on deck, while his News colleague, Clay Latimer, was at the plate. Specifically, Latimer was interviewing a Rockies staffer about star right-fielder Larry Walker, who'd been smacked by a line drive during batting practice. Klis barged into the middle of this chat (at which a scribe from the Colorado Springs Gazette was also present), and afterward, Latimer made what he characterizes as "a sarcastic remark" to Klis regarding the intrusion, a faux pas in the sweaty world of sports reporters.

Latimer subsequently returned to the News's designated space on press row and sat down beside Ringolsby, who was busy writing. Before long, Klis arrived at Latimer's side to continue the "conversation." But Ringolsby soon put a stop to it: "I said, 'Get the fuck out of our area. We've got work to do, and we don't have to listen to your bullshit.' And the next thing I know, he was on my back, pounding on my head."

Seconds later, Latimer and the Post's John Henderson pulled Klis off the object of his ire. Ringolsby, who says he didn't retaliate against Klis, emerged relatively unscathed. "No welts, no bruises, no anything," he says, adding (for maximum insult value), "I've had ex-wives who hit harder."

Within minutes, Denver police arrived on the scene and questioned everyone involved in the matter. Ringolsby, though, declined to press charges. "What good would come of that?" he says.

Ringolsby contends that the cops subsequently escorted Klis out of the stadium, but Klis says that's not quite right; he insists he was leaving anyway. As for his side of the story, Klis keeps most of it to himself. "Tension has been building for a while," he concedes, "but otherwise, what happened is between him and me. And it won't happen again."

Yet Klis hasn't rushed to smooth things over with Ringolsby. When he's asked if he'd like the two of them to clear the air, he mutters, "Not particularly."

That's fine by Ringolsby, who says of Klis, "He has his hangups, and I just ignore them." But he regrets airing his complaints about Klis's Gebhard article in public -- "I lost control of my emotions, and that was wrong" -- and sees physical confrontations as antithetical to his oft-published beliefs.

Latimer, for his part, admits that he's never seen anything quite like the Klis-Ringolsby dustup in his nearly two decades of sports reporting. But in some ways, he's not surprised that it happened. "Over the years, there's been a lot of attacks in person and in print that have been part of this overheated newspaper war," he points out. And he doesn't believe such rhetoric will vanish just because of a joint operating agreement. "It's just the nature of the beast that people in this business are very competitive, and I don't think you can deprogram yourself from that because there's a JOA."

If only that meant more newspaper scraps in the future. Wouldn't you love to see, say, Bill Johnson and Chuck Green in a fight to the death? That way we'd come out ahead no matter who won.

Speaking of Green, he attacked Westword in general, and yours truly in particular, in the June 11 Post via "Proud to Be Labeled 'Dogfather,'" another in a long line of jaw-droppingly ludicrous columns. He began with an example of his sterling research skills, claiming that this paper had labeled him the Dogfather of Denver "a couple of weeks ago" (actually, we did so on February 17 -- and some of his Post colleagues have been doing so for ages) and a "dog worshiper" (I actually referred to him as a "pet worshiper" -- meaning that in attempting to recount a two-word phrase, he could only manage to get one right). This was followed by a typically treacly salute to four-legged companions everywhere (a "lonely, one-bedroom apartment" can be made more livable by "a warm, cuddly ball of fur") that somehow led to the bizarre claim that Westword "doesn't give a damn" about "a kid or an old person." Betcha if he'd had more space, he would have written that we like to stomp on baby chicks, too.

Oh, yeah -- Greenie called me a "cowardly hack" for not asking him for a comment. Now, I don't doubt that investigating the origins of his mutt lust might be fascinating. Was a Saint Bernard his wet nurse? Did a Chihuahua once rescue him from a burning building, give him the breath of life and then announce, "Yo quiero Carlos Verde" (Green's loopy Latino pen name)? But the "pet worshiper" descriptive appeared in an item that only mentioned Chuckles parenthetically; it was about his ex-wife, Carol Green, not him. Asking him to expound on pooches in that context would have been like supplementing a story on Madeleine Albright's Middle East peace initiative with quotes from Bill Clinton about being a pussy hound.

Oops! Another offensive animal reference! Sorry!

Regarding Green's implication that I (and all other Westworders) despise canines, I must confess that while I had a dog as a kid, I don't have one now -- and I'm not thrilled when the neighbor's Lab sneaks into our yard and craps on the lawn. But the real anti-dog creature in my house is my cat, Stella, who regards woofers as slobbery, stoopid beings not worthy to sniff her kiester.

And you wouldn't insult her, wouldja, Chuck? After all, she's a warm, cuddly ball of fur.

At the time of last week's JOA-related column, no complaints about the proposal had been lodged with the Justice Department (the governmental body charged with giving it a thumbs-up or thumbs-down) -- not even by area unions, which would seem to have much to lose if the pact becomes reality. Since then, however, two objections have been raised: one by the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN), and the other by a former Westword staff writer.

The latter is Ryan Ross, who under the name Brian Abas penned such memorable features as "The Secret Story of the Rocky Flats Grand Jury," which appeared here in September 1992. Now a fledgling screenwriter, Ross filed an eleven-page brief that asks for denial of the application (or, short of that, a public hearing to consider it) based on a slew of factors that he sees as violating the Newspaper Act of 1970, which codified the JOA concept. Ross argues that "the News is not a failing newspaper, nor is it in probable danger of failing," since its ad lineage and circulation have been on steady upward tracks and its losses have come primarily from "unreasonable management practices" such as penny-a-day subscription offers that "make a mockery of the law and congressional intent." In addition, Ross believes that the News failed to provide the Justice Department with important information that might have weakened its application and has made previous proclamations about profitability that call the verity of its current claims into question.

As for AAN, whose current president is the editor of this newspaper, it approved an anti-JOA resolution at its early-June convention in Phoenix. (The document shouldn't be interpreted as the official position of Westword or its parent company, New Times, neither of which has announced a stand on the issue.) AAN's final draft accuses JOAs of leading to "reduced competition and increased monopolization of news and opinion" that make it "more difficult for other publications to enter and compete in the marketplace," and requests that the government turn down any future JOAs, including the one in Denver, and reject attempts by companies in existing JOAs to move to one-newspaper situations. Furthermore, it appeals to Congress to hold hearings in Denver, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., on "the impact of JOA publishing" and to "introduce legislation abolishing the Newspaper Preservation Act and restoring competition to daily newspaper publishing."

Tim Redmond, the executive editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, who co-wrote the resolution with the Guardian's editor and publisher, Bruce Brugmann, understands full well the impact a JOA can have. In 1965, five years prior to the passage of the Newspaper Act, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner (the first paper owned by William Randolph Hearst, who used it as the cornerstone of his media empire) formed a JOA that, in Redmond's view, has led to a steady deterioration in the two newspapers' journalistic value.

"There's no question that the quality went down, because there's no economic incentive for these guys to compete," Redmond says. "The pride in the newsrooms counts for something, but if one of them sells more papers, both sides get 50 percent of the profits [a key provision of the Denver JOA]. So what you end up with is lazy, low-quality journalism that's turned the two papers here into a kind of national joke."

He acknowledges that if the sales are eventually approved, "it'll probably be good for the Guardian, because the quality of journalism will suck even worse, and readers and advertisers will get even less than they do now -- and therefore, more people will go to the alternatives. So our position is actually counter to our economic self-interest. But we're talking about the public interest in good journalism, good debate and a better city -- and that's why we're opposed to JOAs.

The agreements "aren't good for journalism, and they're not saving newspapers," Redmond goes on. "It's a license not to compete, and it's a horrible example of corporate welfare."


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