"The gauntlet had been thrown. And now the town was to see an interminable newspaper war, with attacks, journalistic screams, fisticuffs and gunplay. Meanwhile, the people of the city read this whirlwind paper in increasing numbers. It became known everywhere -- and feared." -- Gene Fowler in his classic account of the Denver Post, 1933's Timber Line
The start of this past Sunday, just like all those other Sundays stretching back for decades, was signaled by that reassuring double thump on the doorstep, the sign that Denver's two daily newspapers had arrived. But already that double thump is echoing into memory.
This Friday, the Department of Justice anti-trust division investigators currently evaluating the joint operating agreement application for the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News will give their recommendation to Attorney General Janet Reno.
By all accounts, which range from whispers in Washington to gasps in other newspaper-war-torn cities to brags in local bars, the Denver application is moving right along, encountering few (if any) of the obstacles that blocked and bloodied the way in Detroit, and Seattle, and San Francisco. Those cities' applications inspired large files of letters from citizens and community groups complaining to the Justice Department that a JOA would ruin their town -- if not truth, justice and the American Way.
The most significant item in this city's puny file is the surprise endorsement of the JOA by the affected unions, which alone may be enough to seal the deal. Sure, there's a protest from animal-loving (and bulk-advertising-buying) Jake Jabs, worried that he'll be bitten by increased rates -- but Jake had better get out the Bactine, because like it or not, the thirty-year-old Newspaper Preservation Act essentially endorses price-fixing. Under the alleged logic of the act, that's a fair trade for saving a failing newspaper and rescuing an independent voice that otherwise would be silenced. And there's a lengthy treatise from former Westword writer Ryan Ross, pointing out that Scripps-Howard has blown numerous chances to make the News, once its flagship, a profitable paper again. But while Scripps-Howard has clearly made boneheaded decision after boneheaded decision, the $123 million loss the company claims to have incurred over the last decade is hard to argue with, particularly since there's nothing to guarantee that the company would keep pouring in cash if the JOA application is rejected; after all, there is no law that boneheads must continue to publish newspapers, whether they make money or not. And there's a letter from Westword, asking for a hearing on the application because the public simply has a right to know.
But it now appears that the public doesn't have a right to know much. The public is privy to what's inside those two newspapers that land on the doorstep every Sunday, but not what's behind them. And so while the News, which has labeled itself the "failing newspaper" in the deal, has to bare its soul and balance sheet, the Justice Department has determined that certain financial records pertaining to Post owner Dean Singleton's ever-expanding newspaper empire can be kept confidential. He's the winner of this war, after all, as his own paper proclaimed in announcing the JOA deal (a boast the News protested, in a last gasp that seems sadder every day).
If on Friday, Justice investigators recommend approval of the JOA application -- and while officially they cannot comment, I've got a second-in-circulation daily newspaper in a medium-market town I'd like to sell you should you think the JOA won't be approved -- the public will have another thirty days to comment. After that, Janet Reno can approve or deny the application that took Denver by such surprise just over three months ago but has been decades in the making.
"The newspaper lads were smoking and playing cards, their feet on derelict desks. They didn't pay much attention at first to the newcomers. 'Don't let us disturb you,' Tammen said, 'but we've just taken over this paper.' The card-playing ceased. Feet came down from desk tops. If husbands are the last ones to hear of their wives' amative strayings, newspaper men are the last to learn of the sale of a paper over their heads. And the eventual revelation seems to carry the same shocking quality in either case.
Bonfils called out in his best military baritone: 'Go ahead and just keep on working.'" -- Timber Line
To keep on keeping on is easier said than done, of course. When Frederick Bonfils and Henry Tammen bought the then-Evening Post in 1895, the paper was just three years old, a baby compared to the venerable Rocky Mountain News, Denver's first newspaper, which made its debut the afternoon of April 17, 1858 -- and soon bought out the competitor that started later that evening, in "the city's first newspaper merger," according to Fowler.
If the early days of Denver's newspaper war were filled with fisticuffs and gunplay, its middle and later periods were just as hard-fought, if a bit less colorful. Scripps-Howard bought the News in 1926; fifty years later, under scion Michael Howard, it was breaking stories and making major circulation inroads on the Post, which had become the staid paper of record while owned by the foundation Bonfils had created. Even ownership by Times Mirror wasn't enough to liven it up. And then came Dean Singleton in 1987, fresh from buying -- and shutting down -- major dailies in Dallas and Houston. He cut a great deal to get the Post, then went to war. For this round of the battle, though, the ammunition wasn't sensational stories and cheap gimmicks, but cheap classified deals and sensational circulation offers.
That Scripps-Howard was tiring of the fight was apparent to Singleton long before it was to reporters at the News itself, who, when they heard a JOA announcement was imminent, simply assumed they were working for the leading paper. After all, they'd hit record circulation figures just the month before -- and corporate headquarters had encouraged them to think that their paper was the winner.
And for a day or two after the announcement, News employees managed to hold their heads high. But in the weeks since, they've been leaving so fast -- and sometimes so furiously -- that management no longer orders the traditional Scripps-Howard farewell sheet cakes to see them on their way. The JOA may save the News's independent voice, but it's been sadly muted by the circumstances of the deal. A penny for your thoughts on how badly the News's penny-a-day deal backfired.
"Yet the bulk of Denver's citizens read the Post, and while many of them swore at it on occasion, they had to swear by it, insofar as news and features were concerned. Underneath all their circus-like activities, the Post owners were shrewd business men. They made sure of giving the sucker more news and more excitement and more features than it was possible for any competitor to do. That practice guaranteed circulation, and circulation guaranteed advertising." -- Timber Line
Soon that double thump will disappear forever. All too often, those dueling Sunday dailies were a lot of false advertising -- how many supermarket fliers did you have to wade through before you found a nugget of news, a snippet of stylish writing? -- but it was still a privilege to live in Colorado, and so be able to read two competing dailies. As the trend to single-newspaper towns rolled out across the country, Denver survived as a two-newspaper town much longer than anyone had a right to expect. Given economic realities -- an increasingly archaic technology competing with too many advertising alternatives -- the end had been predicted for years, even if it suddenly seemed to come overnight. And it was fun while it lasted, especially watching from the cheap -- make that free -- seats.
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But over it is. Even the newspaper hawker at King Soopers seemed to recognize that on Sunday, when he offered up a free copy of the Post in exchange for buying a yearly subscription to the paper for $9, which gets you every day but Saturday.
As proposed under the JOA application, Saturday will belong to the News, which, in the ultimate humiliation, has even agreed to publish that day in a broadsheet format. The Sunday paper will be published by the Post: To the victor go the spoils.
"We believe that a dictatorship of Denver's newspaper field by the Denver Post would be nothing less than a blight." -- Scripps-Howard quoted, but not recently, in Timber Line