The cover illustration for August's Toilet Paper seems calculated to offend as many constituencies as possible in the free monthly's Colorado Springs base of operations. Labeled "The Fashions of the Christ," the drawing (by an artist who calls himself XT) spotlighted a "Commando Crusader" series of refrigerator magnets built around a ripped-looking Jesus wearing camouflage-pattern briefs and brandishing a holy hand grenade. That's an explosive image for born-again Christians and Army inductees alike. An accompanying "Hillbilly Heaven" fridge set tweaked local yokels, too, via an overalls-clad JC holding a jug of moonshine and a banjo. Deliverance, anyone?
Goring sacred cows like these in a such a conservative community seems akin to business suicide -- but, paradoxically, this tack has turned into the Paper's saving grace. Editor and founder Noel Black's first issue, dated October 2004, was a black-and-white eight-pager that didn't seem to portend greater things. The pending September edition, in contrast, is a color-splashed offering that's slated to clock in at forty pages -- its longest to date -- and Black has some ambitious expansion plans. Right now he's churning out 5,000 copies per month for readers in Colorado Springs and Pueblo, with a few stacks winding up at Denver enterprises such as Wax Trax and Twist & Shout. Things are going so well, however, that the print run will quadruple in November. That same month, distribution is set to increase in the metro area and extend to Boulder, Fort Collins and Greeley.
Sassy sacrilege may not sell as well in these locations as it does in the shadow of Focus on the Family, but Black isn't worried. He sees his creation, accessible at www.ToiletPaperOnline.com, as an attempt "to reinvigorate the classic college-humor paper" by putting items that boldly take on the big topics of the day side by side with examples of flat-out irreverence. For instance, "Soul Search" focuses on religious debates co-starring Rob Brendle, the associate pastor at the Springs' enormous New Life Church, while "Churchwhipper" stars a naked dudette who's photographed literally lashing out at places of worship.
Clearly, it's her cross to bare -- but Black argues that there's more important stripping to do. "It's our duty to start pulling the thread in the sweater of bullshit to unravel it once and for all," he says. "And the last means we have available to us is our sense of humor."
Black, 33, came of age in the Springs as part of an unlikely military family: "Both my parents were gay," he reveals. After his high school graduation, he attended Chicago's Lake Forest College and spent a year-plus in South America before relocating to San Francisco and writing for the Bay Guardian, an SF weekly. He returned to his home town in 2001 as the entertainment editor for the alternative Colorado Springs Independent, but he became restless after a couple of years. "The Independent is incredibly stale and panders to a mediocre, middle-class demographic," he declares. "I tried to convince [Indy editor] Cara DeGette that there was a demographic of young people in the city interested in more exciting editorial content, but she didn't share my enthusiasm. She said to me, 'If you want to write those things, start your own paper.'"
He took this advice last fall and hasn't had kind words for the Independent since -- yet DeGette doesn't rise to his bait. "The Colorado Springs Independent safe?" she asks. "I know plenty of people who would have a nice, hearty laugh about that. But I'm not going to get into an argument with Noel over what we did or didn't do while he was here. I wish him the best of luck."
Such politeness doesn't sit well with Black. He's actively sought out contributors unafraid of affronting the powers-that-be, including original punk-rocker Richard Hell, who writes a regular column, and cartoonist Johnny Ryan, whose "Comic Book Holocaust" strip specializes in tasteful sequences such as one in which Jughead, of "Archie" comics fame, describes having sex with school principal Mr. Weatherbee, using terms like "dolphin snot." But Black is interested in more than shock value. An unabashed liberal, he thinks the Paper's boisterous rudeness makes a political statement.
"Satire has always been an especially vital tool in times of repression," he says. "With satire, you can get to the truth a lot quicker without having to show your credentials every step of the way. You get to address what people know to be true, and at the same time, they get a chuckle out of it."
By sticking to this philosophy, Toilet Paper has rolled up plenty of fans thus far, and Black is confident it won't be going down the tubes anytime soon. "People have responded to it like crazy," he says, "because they've needed to feel there was some sort of voice crying out of the wilderness, or maybe crying out of the strip mall. And we just sort of pounced on the zeitgeist."
Spoken like a true commando crusader.
Downs and ups: Ah, the conundrum that is the Denver Post. As the leading-circulation daily in a strong news market, the Post is blessed with tremendous resources, and it occasionally makes fine use of them. Reporter Eric Gorski's excellent coverage of the many sexual-abuse accusations targeting former Catholic priest Harold White is a case in point. Yet, far too often, even the Post's marquee Sunday editions are forgettable, and the recent attempt to enliven them by adding a new feature called "Colorado Sunday" was underwhelming. Rather than establishing its own identity, it borrows liberally from other portions of the paper -- Style, A&E and more. Take a segment called "Out There," which happens to be the same name as a Travel section column by former Westword-er Robin Chotzinoff. Do Post employees bother to read their own paper?
Nevertheless, one addition to the broadsheet -- the hiring of Rich Tosches to serve as the paper's "Rocky Mountain Ranger" -- looks to be a winner. The Ranger, who's charged with roaming the West in search of stories, has a long history at the Post, but former editor Glenn Guzzo's attempt to revive it faltered. Upon Guzzo's 2002 departure, Greg Moore, his successor, says, "We put the Rocky Mountain Ranger on the shelf, but with the intent to revive it if the right person came along."
Tosches qualifies. He was a much-loved columnist for the Colorado Springs Gazette until fall 2003, when his column was taken away in a move that caused an uproar among readers, and convinced him to split. He moved on to the Rocky Mountain News the next year but departed a month later when he found himself mired in a general-assignment mode: "I wound up covering parades," he says. He then jumped to the aforementioned Colorado Springs Independent, which, unlike Black, he speaks about in glowing terms. Nevertheless, the Ranger gig was impossible to resist, and since his first piece, a July 19 gem about cleaning Mount Rushmore entitled "Up Lincoln's Nose With a Rubber Hose," he's brought humor and a fresh eye to an assignment that's worn down many before him. He's got just one complaint: "I want a horse, and they haven't given me one yet."
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Maybe not, but Tosches is back in the saddle anyway.
Down for the count: Like it or not, spinning is an important part of public relations -- and PR types lose their credibility fast if the answers they provide wind up having little or no relation to reality. This seems like a simple lesson, but an August incident suggests that the embattled mouthpieces at the University of Colorado-Boulder still haven't committed it to memory.
"Failure to Communicate," an August 18 piece about CU's public-relations stumbles, cited a November 2004 report that predicted out-of-state enrollment would be down as much as 20 percent for the fall 2005 semester. When contacted about this projection, CU spokeswoman Pauline Hale said that final data wasn't in, but the percentage would almost certainly be less than half that total. Days later, the Post reported on the figures, and guess what? Out-of-state enrollment declined by 17 percent, a number a helluva lot closer to the original forecast than the erroneous estimate tossed out by Hale.
If CU types think this is the way to improve their reputation, they need to hit the books again.