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The Message

So great was the destruction caused by the December 26 Asian tsunami that even Americans who previously didn't know Sri Lanka from Casablanca were riveted by the catastrophe. No wonder overseers at the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News immediately scrambled to figure out how best to handle the topic. Their eventual decisions seem similar, but to date, one paper is outdistancing the other by virtue of an angle that's unexpectedly fresh, despite a flood of coverage by the international media.

The most cost-effective tack would have been for the dailies to spend their resources covering area fundraising appeals and leave on-the-scene reporting to national syndicators. Yet the Post and the News chose a riskier course, sending reporters halfway around the globe to generate original material, even though neither paper has much experience in the region, and the outfits against whom they're competing are blessed with more personnel, deeper pockets and a considerable head start. According to Post managing editor Gary Clark, corresponding by e-mail, the scope of the devastation helped drive his publication's choice: "The disaster was so massive, and the human tragedy so far-reaching, that a case could easily be made to expand coverage beyond that being provided by the wires." Adds News managing editor Deb Goeken, "Once this happened, every news organization was wondering, 'What can we contribute?'"

The Post charged reporter Jeremy Meyer and photographer Helen Richardson with answering this question, and the mandate they were given prior to departing for Thailand was quite broad. The plan called for a large package of stories intended to give "readers a much better sense of the enormity of this disaster," Clark notes. He encouraged the team "to look for and report on people from Colorado or the West who were either victims or near-victims of the tsunami, or who rushed to Thailand or Indonesia to help." The Post made contact with home-towners who fit these categories, but Clark didn't want the package to be "too parochial. So our team was also told to look for special scenes or moments -- the best story they came across on any given day -- that would help humanize the story."

The results, which began appearing on January 6, featured consistently striking snapshots and strong writing about Thais pulling bodies from a reservoir and elephants that trumpeted before the tsunami struck. But with the exception of occasional local mentions, like those in a January 9 article that centered on a Christian group with offices in Colorado Springs, there was little to differentiate the pieces from other media accounts. Indeed, the narratives were as relatively standard-issue as those penned by Post scribes ordered to Afghanistan and Pakistan after 9/11. Back then, the Post's willingness to wade into war zones was a way of demonstrating that the paper was ready for the big leagues -- something that Clark stresses isn't the case this time around. Instead, he hopes the items "signal to readers that we recognize and will staff truly historic events."

They've certainly done that. Still, the Rocky's contributions, which began running on January 15, went a couple steps further. The stories, written by David Montero and featuring Judy Walgren's photography, focus upon the Dalit Freedom Network, an association of doctors, nurses and dentists based in Centennial whose members have been providing medical care for the Dalit -- the lowest caste in Indian society -- since 1999. The Dalit, who are regarded as untouchable by most other Indians, have been widely excluded from receiving foreign aid in the tsunami's wake, and because they're charged with burying the dead, they're especially at risk for contracting diseases. Nevertheless, the Western press has taken little notice of the group's plight. By winning permission to shadow the Dalit Freedom Network in the hard-hit Indian community of Pondicherry, then, Montero and Walgren, who's visited India on several previous occasions, scored a double coup. As Goeken puts it, "We've had the opportunity to shed light on a part of the tragedy people don't know about, through the eyes of Coloradans helping them."

That's a distinctive way of making a splash.

Add it up: Starting in October, Marie Kurth, 81, began receiving a free Denver Post every Sunday -- and she wasn't happy about it. In "Your Daily Paper, Courtesy of a Sponsor," a report by Jacques Steinberg and Tom Torok that appeared in the January 10 New York Times, Kurth said she phoned the Denver Newspaper Agency and told them to knock it off. But more startling than this demand was the article's next revelation: "On an average Sunday, more than 100,000 copies of the Post -- more than one out of every eight printed -- are delivered to homes in Colorado that did not request or pay for them." Instead, they were purchased by advertisers who choose the areas in which the papers are dropped.

Prior to 2001, so-called third-party sales didn't count toward a newspaper's circulation as calculated by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, an industry arbiter. But thanks to rule changes instituted that year, the Post can use such freebies to keep its numbers looking healthy -- a nice adjunct to its stated goal of expanding readership. The Post's circulation would have tumbled by around 78,000 copies, or approximately 12 percent, sans third-party sales; with them, the total slipped by roughly 12,000 copies, or less than 2 percent.

On the surface, this technique smacks of the sort of subterfuge that was common in the days leading up to the announcement of the joint operating agreement that links the Post and the Rocky. In 2000, both papers put out memos that accused rivals of dumping papers counted toward circulation totals at apartments and businesses all over town. Schools, too: One teacher revealed that after ordering the Sunday Rocky, papers started arriving on other days of the week -- and when she asked for them to stop, they began appearing even more often. Only the JOA brought an end to this sort of book-cooking.

The Times opus makes third-party sales seem like the same technique under a different name. After all, Andrew Zuppa, marketing director for American Furniture Warehouse, was quoted disputing a DNA claim that his company had ponied up for third-party papers via "a cash transaction" -- a response that made it seem as if American hadn't paid for them at all. Zuppa, who was "livid" about the article, believes this passage twisted his words. Third-party sales are covered by American's $1 million-plus contract, Zuppa says, and he thinks the investment has helped business. "I anticipate that we'll continue to do it," he says.

DNA president Kirk MacDonald says Zuppa's reaction is typical of firms participating in third-party sales. He refers to the program as part of "a conscious strategy that's designed to do two things. One is to give advertisers a way to extend their reach to desirable geographies in which they may have store locations, and the other is to increase readership."

Third-party papers aren't simply being tossed, insists DNA vice president of circulation Judd Alvord, who cites internal surveys showing that they're read only a bit less often than subscriber copies. That's because "people get a letter notifying them in the mail in advance that they'll be receiving a sponsored copy from the advertiser for eight weeks and giving them opt-out language and a number to call if they don't want to receive it," he says. "And they get another letter around week four, reminding them they can opt out." Alvord says no more than "3 to 4 percent" of homeowners contacted say they don't want the paper.

John Murray, vice president of circulation marketing for the Newspaper Association of America, a trade group, is among those who see third-party sales as an innovative way for businesses to put ads in front of more eyeballs; he says over 2 percent of total daily circulation falls into the category. By this measure, the Post's third-party sales are more than five times above average. Even so, MacDonald chafes at what he sees as the Times article's attempt to equate the practice to the circulation-inflation scandals that arose last year at publications such as the Chicago Sun-Times. "Sponsorship copies have absolutely no relationship with circulation fraud," he says. "We report them in audits, and we feel strongly about the benefits to advertisers and readers."

With the exception of Marie Kurth.