On October 7, the Denver Post published a pair of articles commemorating the six-month anniversary of its joint operating agreement with the Rocky Mountain News -- and predictably, the pact, which combined the longtime rivals' business operations, was portrayed as a timely compromise. Staffer Kelly Pate's main report acknowledged that advertising rates and subscription prices have gone up, but implied that without the JOA (and the sizable personnel reductions that came along with it) the Denver dailies would have been forced to engage in massive layoffs of the sort taking place at newspapers big and small across these United States. Meanwhile, a second piece suggested that the only part of the JOA falling short of expectations is the Saturday Rocky, which Post owner Dean Singleton first publicly targeted in these pages ("Press for Success," August 2).
For many readers, then, the most surprising aspect of the spread was a graphic declaring that the Post's JOA-aided Sunday edition had the fifth highest circulation -- just over 800,000 -- of Sunday newspapers in America, trailing only the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune, and ahead of the New York Daily News, the Dallas Morning News, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Detroit News & Free Press and the Houston Chronicle. Given this company, one couldn't help but assume that while Denver's entry may be the country's fifth largest, it couldn't possibly be the fifth best.
Or could it? In an attempt to find out, I obtained the Sunday, October 14, issues of the ten newspapers on the Denver Post's list; nine of the ten are available through Denver news sellers, with the New York Daily News being the sole exception. Next, I compared them, page by page, for amount, variety and quality of coverage in subject areas ranging from hard news to entertainment -- and the results were intriguing. The papers fell into two broad categories, with the initial four standing head and shoulders above the next six, which frequently came across as flabby, obvious or bland at a time when groundbreaking reporting and effective communication are more vital than ever. The Denver Post ranked in the middle of this trailing pack, a couple of notches behind fifth place -- but the gulf between it and the papers occupying the upper echelon was a wide one.
Still, the news isn't all bad for the Denver Post. Its October 14 offering wasn't in the same journalistic league as the publications put out by the big boys; despite its notable size and heft, the paper frequently suffered from the dullness about which many area readers have griped for years. But of the second-tier papers, it was the only one that seemed to be making an overt attempt to improve.
Whether these efforts will eventually succeed in making it a truly top-flight newspaper is another question.
This judgment isn't a definitive one, and not just because it's based on newspapers published on a single day. For one thing, the New York Daily News's tabloid format is totally different from the structure of the other nine papers, all of which are broadsheets, making a balanced assessment difficult. For another, the copies of the Washington Post, the Dallas Morning News and the Houston Chronicle available in Denver are early editions. Known in the trade as "bulldogs," these are versions of Sunday papers sold in their respective locales on Saturdays -- and because they're largely assembled a day or more in advance, their news sections traditionally include a higher-than-normal number of wire-service stories with long shelf lives so that they won't be out of date by the time the paper hits the streets.
But although the October 14 Washington Post available to Coloradans contained a first-rate news section anyway, the same couldn't be said about the Morning News and the Chronicle. The former plugged local stories on its cover, yet it ran only two written by Morning News staffers in its opening 32 pages, with the first not appearing until page 23 -- and the latter published just three stories penned by Chronicle employees in its first 36 pages. Furthermore, the papers used a relatively modest amount of space for wire stories touching upon terrorism and war (the topics in which its readers are likely most interested), choosing instead to prominently play soft-focus filler like the Morning News's "Novelty Smokes Under Pressure From Legislators," from the Sacramento Bee, and the Chronicle's "Time to Decide Fate of Relics From Titanic," from the Norfolk, Virginia, Virginian-Pilot. Both the Morning News and the Chronicle touted the number of coupons they contained on their front covers, practically declaring that the editions are intended more for people who want to save money on their groceries than for those wishing to be informed. Talk about truth in advertising.
Overall, the New York Times was the clear leader on October 14. Rising to the occasion of the previous month's events, the paper seems ready to go on one of the more remarkable runs in journalism history. In addition to national and international coverage of uncommon thoughtfulness and depth, the paper presented its now-regular special section, poetically dubbed "A Nation Challenged." On that day, it featured a piece by Rick Bragg, "Shaping Young Islamic Hearts and Hatreds," that artfully captured the contradictions of the conflict in Afghanistan and beyond in ways that have escaped the vast majority of his peers. In other sections, the Times's writers used current events to add extra layers of depth to their presentations -- even in the travel section, which in most second-tier papers, including the Denver Post, reads as if the articles had been in the can for months. Also of note were the New York Times Magazine, the best Sunday mag by a substantial margin (the Denver Post doesn't even publish a magazine anymore), and a book section that left other competitors in the dust. Only the sports section, which was sizable but a bit staid and colorless, seemed less than outstanding.
Next up, in a virtual three-way tie, were the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. Each paper did good work in the news arena. The Post shone in the areas of basic information gathering and sported thoughtful local tie-ins about the readiness of D.C. physicians to deal with bio-terrorism and the challenges presented to regional airports; the Tribune came up with several unusual takes on terrorism-related matters, most of which were penned by its own international reporters; and the Times presented "So Many Warnings, So Little Action," an exhaustive study of clues overlooked and signals missed in advance of the terrorist strikes. Other impressive specialties included the Post's editorial and analysis pages, the Tribune's sports coverage and the Times's entertainment insert, "Calendar," which is quite simply the finest section of its type put out by a U.S. daily newspaper. Nothing else comes close, which should prompt entertainment editors at dailies elsewhere to hang their heads in shame.
The highlights were harder to find in the lower-rung papers, but there were a few. The October 14 Philadelphia Inquirer wound up toward the front of the trailing pack by virtue of a lively news mix, an above-average business section and entertainment pages that had their moments -- although the latter lost points for being built around "Bin There, Mocked That," a tepid piece about comedians trying to find humor in wartime. For its part, the New York Daily News, a tabloid that aims for the broad middle ground that separates the tony New York Times and the willfully unrefined New York Post, presented by far the finest sports section of the ten papers studied; it was passionate, argumentative and exhaustive, encompassing a staggering 45 of the 95 pages in the October 14 edition. The news coverage was significantly more uneven. The tearjerking portrait of a firefighter at ground zero, "God Willing, I Will Find & Bury My Son," was honest and moving. But this piece was juxtaposed with the blood-in-the-water prose of "Bin Laden More Likely to Be DOA Than POW," an article accompanied by a screaming sidebar, "The Fates of Mass Killers," decorated with photos of everyone from Adolf Eichmann and Slobodan Milosevic to Pablo Escobar and Carlos the Jackal. Awfully subtle stuff.
As for the Houston Chronicle, the paper celebrated its hundredth anniversary with sixty pages of often wonderful graphics and puffy, nostalgia-driven copy; the other sections seemed like a complete afterthought. The Dallas Morning News, lacking the excuse of a keepsake issue, was nearly as middling. And the Detroit News & Free Press, another paper that owes its hefty circulation to a joint-operating agreement, was utterly schizophrenic. Unlike the Sunday Denver Post, whose JOA fine print requires it to include just one page from the Rocky Mountain News, the Detroit offering is cut down the middle. On October 14, the Detroit News handled news and business, and the Free Press oversaw entertainment and a style section called "The Way We Live." With few exceptions, neither organization rose above mere competence.
And the Denver Post? Its front page on October 14 was dominated by "An Epidemic of Fear," a piece picked up from the Associated Press, and included "Al-Qaeda Broadcasts New Threats," an article by the New York Times's R.W. Apple Jr. that the Times itself placed inside its second section, where it probably belonged; Al-Qaeda and its supporters had been rattling sabers regularly by that point. There was also "One Sailor's Story," a collection of e-mails sent by Longmont's Jessica Garrison, a mechanic stationed aboard the USS Enterprise, to her mother in Colorado -- a typical tie-in to far-flung events whose contents ("Hey, Momma, not much is going on here. We are still just sitting around. Unfortunately!!!") didn't justify their space.
In addition, there was a trio of stories by Post reporters: "2 Cultures Growing Together" by Steve Lipsher, about the makeup of schools in Eagle County, plus "Every Illness Stirs Panic Over Shadowy Disease," reported by David Olinger from Boca Raton, Florida, and "Afghan Refugees Carry Hope, Pain to Pakistan," written by Gwen Florio, stationed in Peshawar, Pakistan. And inside the first section were two more tales by Post reporters overseas: "U.S. Sailors Told to Handle Mail Carefully," by Ron Franscell, the paper's "Rocky Mountain Ranger," onboard the USS Enterprise with mechanic Garrison, and "Mideast a Factor in Terror Fight," by Kevin Simpson in Jerusalem.
Keeping so many reporters on the road isn't cheap, and in this economic climate, the Post's willingness to do so set it apart from the second-string papers, none of which appear to have made the same financial commitment. But thus far, the strategy hasn't paid off in journalistic excellence. The stories by Florio, Franscell and Simpson are typical of those that overseas Post scribes have turned out over the past month. They're not bad -- the writing is earnest and professional -- but neither are they as in-depth, provocative and fascinating as those available from more established news organizations, whose international reporters have infinitely more experience covering the regions in the spotlight. In contrast, none of the Post writers has worked this particular beat in the past: They're starting from square one, which helps explain why they seem several steps behind their counterparts at, say, the New York Times. Indeed, many of their articles read like lesser variations on syndicated stories the Post printed several weeks earlier -- and thus far, none have contained anything like a major scoop.
That's not to say the Denver Post should call its people home and exclusively run wire copy, even if doing so might better serve readers in the short term. With another six months or a year under their belts, Post staffers on the international beat may be keeping pace with the veterans on the scene, thereby justifying their boss's investment. But they've still got a considerable way to go -- and if the Post keeps rotating reporters in and out of the area, as it's been doing lately, improvement will be that much tougher to achieve.
The race for the finest lead columnist will be even harder to win. The October 14 column by the Post's Chuck Green wasn't quite as atrocious as one a week later about a Diane Carman piece from the previous day's paper that he seemed not to have fully understood, but it came close. Green has spent most of his time since the World Trade Center's collapse rewriting George W. Bush speeches, and in "Voters Chose Wisely in 2000," he praised citizens for electing Dubya instead of that "phony," Al Gore. Along the way, he tried to demonstrate the superiority of the United States over Afghanistan by noting, "Afghan kids have no cars to wash, or lawns to mow, or newspapers to throw." They can't pick up porno rags at the neighborhood 7-Eleven, either, but mentioning that might have screwed up his thesis.
However, the plain truth is that several columns in the other top-ten newspapers on October 14 were even lamer than Green's. Take "Let's Fight War of Nerves Being Lost on U.S. Soil" by the Detroit News's Pete Waldmeir, which was as clumsy as its headline, and "Let's Show Afghans Heart, Soul, Beauty of America," in which Tribune Media Services vice president John Twohey, writing in the Chicago Tribune, listed cultural artifacts that might give civilians in Afghanistan a better opinion of America, such as "any 10 Calvin & Hobbes strips, except for the ones in which they conspire to keep Susie out of the treehouse." Green'll have to be on his game to do worse, but I have confidence he can do it.
In other respects, the Denver Post holds its own against the weaker half of the circulation leaders. The "Denver and the West" section: average. "Perspective": average. "Business": average. "Sunday Lifestyles": slightly below average. "Arts & Entertainment": slightly below average. "Travel": below average. "Sports": above average. In fact, the Post's sports coverage is more expansive than that of any top-ten paper other than the New York Daily News. And the Post is undeniably atop the heap in one category -- comics. If the folks on the Pulitzer Prize committee create a "best-funny-pages section" award, the Post is a lock.
Remaining in the top five for Sunday circulation has already proven to be more difficult. On October 29, the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the organization that tracks publication totals, issued final figures for the six-month period that ended on September 30, and they showed that the New York Daily News inched past the Denver Post, likely as a direct result of 9-11. A Daily News source says the paper's circulation, whose weekday sales in the last audit were just under 700,000, is now often more than a million, and once hit the 1.4 million mark on a single day.
But even if the Denver Post regains the position it briefly held, its decision-makers would do well to remember that the newspaper war may be over, but the fight to produce a world-class publication is not yet won. Size matters, but it isn't everything.
A Colorado life: Just when you think you've got Rocky Mountain News columnist Gene Amole pegged, he surprises you. For instance, those who see him as a simple nostalgist were likely floored by September 10's "WWII Had Its Share of Bad Boys and Brothers," in which he juxtaposed the rosy-colored Hollywood nobility of programs like HBO's Band of Brothers with wartime memories of a grunt who forced a German girl to perform oral sex on him in front of her parents.
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Amole, 78, was just as clear-eyed and candid on October 27, when he revealed on the News's front page that he is dying and will stop penning a regular column in favor of diary entries detailing his final months, weeks, days. "I am not retiring, just taking on a new assignment," he wrote -- and if the articles to come are anything like his most recent one, they'll be terrific. What a classy way to go out.
Unit of measure: On October 29, the day after Arizona Diamondbacks hurler Randy Johnson threw a three-hit shutout in game two of the World Series, most newspapers in the country made use of Johnson's colorful nickname, the Big Unit: Witness the Associated Press's "Big Unit Big Problem for Yankees." But not the Denver Post, which has a policy against referring to Johnson as a unit, big or otherwise.
Why? Post sports editor Kevin Dale was on vacation and unavailable for comment, but insiders say the phrase has been nixed because it "sounds dirty." By those standards, writers should stop scribbling about the pitcher entirely. After all, he is a six-foot, ten-inch Johnson.