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What We've Lost

Sam Turner

At its best, the rapport between area readers and their hometown daily newspapers, the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News, is wonderfully personal. Subscribers may love them on some days and hate them on others, but their mere existence is reassuring, and what fills them matters in unexpected ways.

It's tempting to snicker at the 300-plus folks who recently wrote Post columnist Tina Griego to comment on her hairstyle, and to wonder why locals seldom react to stories about government corruption, police brutality or other pressing issues in similar volume. But at least they're engaging in a dialogue about something in their town, superficial though it might be -- and they're using a newspaper to do it. Which is why April 7 and 8, when the joint operating agreement between the News and the Post cut the number of weekend papers in half, was hardly a time to celebrate, despite a promotional blitz intended to convince the citizenry that the change represented good news.

For cynics and other shortsighted individuals, it might be. But even though the Denver dailies are too often cautious, edge-free and overly provincial, they're also a part of our lives -- or my life, anyway. Over the years, I've been most loyal to the News, in part because of its tabloid format, which I prefer over the Post's broadsheet approach (given my place of employment, that's not much of a shock). Even after the News went to its current sections style, I had no problem tracking down the stuff I wanted to peruse, and its layout and design made it much more readable and easy on the eye than the consistently homely Post. Moreover, the photography, from the vibrancy of the color reproductions to the rudiments of the images themselves, was almost always outstanding, and still is, as News photog Marc Piscotty's finalist status for the 2001 Pulitzer Prize demonstrates. (Pulitzer winners will be announced April 16; if Piscotty prevails, it will mark the second consecutive year that the News has earned honors in this specialty.) Of course, such attributes didn't prevent me from being angered by the occasional article or coverage slant -- but no matter how upset I was, I still started my Sunday mornings by flipping through the pages of the News, just like thousands of other Coloradans.

Predictably, then, I was distressed by aspects of the JOA that stuck it to the Rocky. Over the past couple of weeks, the paper's editor and president, John Temple, has appeared in virtually every local media forum that would have him, with the exception of this one (more on that later), and he has regularly emphasized that the News and the Post will split profits fifty-fifty -- the implication being that neither side has an advantage over the other. But that's a crock the size of Bill Clinton's libido. In truth, the agreement heaped at least three hefty indignities upon the News. First, E.W. Scripps, the News's parent company, was required to pay $60 million to MediaNews, the owner of the Post, before being allowed to play the JOA game. Second, the News was forbidden from publishing an edition on Sunday, far and away the most important day of the week in the newspapering biz. And while the News received a monopoly on Saturday, this was awfully poor compensation, because readership customarily plummets that day. Third, the JOA forced the News to publish Saturdays using a broadsheet, which undermines its tabloid identity and makes it far less distinguishable from the Post. This shift is the equivalent of a scarlet letter -- "L" for "Loser" -- the News must wear once a week.

Although the News's April 7 cover, which wrapped around the sports section, consciously evoked its customary tabloid opener, it was virtually the only nod to this design in the entire paper. In most other respects, the News was a standard broadsheet, albeit an especially attractive one; thanks to a clean, airy look that made inviting use of photos and graphics, the average page was simpler to survey than those in the typical Post. However, another reason for the lack of visual clutter -- a dearth of ads in the majority of sections -- carried with it the seeds of doom. The paper was much larger than the News's usual Saturday offerings, but if advertisers can't be convinced to run in it, either the Denver Newspaper Agency will have to prop it up financially, which is unlikely over the long run, or its size will shrink dramatically.

If the latter takes place, as seems more likely, many readers baffled by the way the April 7 paper was assembled may feel relieved. Indeed, "Helpless," the main headline, was an especially unfortunate choice for the broadsheet News's debut: While it referred specifically to the first part of a thorough, detailed exposé of the probate system by Lou Kilzer and Sue Lindsay, it also described how many readers felt after trying to navigate the issue's contents. For instance, the Kilzer-Lindsay report was located in "Insight," a new features section buried deep inside the Saturday bundle -- and those who turned to the cryptically written "Guide to the Weekend Rocky Mountain News" for help finding it could still be looking. Too bad they didn't also miss the day's main local story -- yet another profile of philanthropist Sharon Magness, in which writer James Meadow portrayed the "Colorado Queen" as being both (oh, my gosh!) rich and (can you believe it?) lucky. My guess is that execs at the dailies have a Sharon Magness hourglass: When the sand runs out, the next guy on the list gets assigned to write the latest glowing tribute to her.

Like Humpty Dumpty, the Saturday News was impossible to put back together once it was taken apart -- a genuine, if quizzical, engineering feat. Even invaluable News columnist Mike Littwin made sport of the mess in his April 7 column, referring to the edition as "the Saturday Rocky Origami News" -- a phrase Post columnist Chuck Green borrowed without attribution for his April 9 salvo, about the News's all-purpose suckiness.

News decision-makers were smart to let Littwin take his shots -- but in the end, no amount of self-deprecating humor could dull the sense that the News's individuality was under attack from within. In the weekday Rocky, local stories dominate the front portion of the news hole, thereby emphasizing Colorado coverage in a unique-to-Denver way; in the Saturday Rocky, most local news is relegated to a new Colorado & the West section that essentially duplicates the Post's long-running Denver and the West. In other words, telling the papers apart on the weekends just got a lot harder.

The April 8 Post carried with it considerably fewer surprises, just as the JOA intended: As the agreement's top dog, it didn't have to change anything. For the most part, it was its usual big, bland self, but a David Migoya investigative piece about the Denver fire department stood out, and a couple of new features showed promise -- specifically, a fictional serial, "Confluence Park," written by ex-Westword staffer Laura Watt, and the bow of freshly minted "Rocky Mountain Ranger" Ron Franscell, a veteran newsman turned novelist whose piece on Route 66, though conceptually familiar, was well written and unexpectedly engrossing, especially when compared with the work of his under-achieving predecessor, Mike Ritchey. Otherwise, it was pretty much business as usual, especially for Chuck Green, self-appointed general of the Post's nyaah-nyaah brigade, who marked the occasion by crowing about the return of Garfield to the Post's comic pages, even though the strip's one joke wore out its welcome during the Jimmy Carter administration. Green concluded with his version of a zinger. "If Jake Jabs thinks his ad rates are high, he should consider this," he wrote. "The owner of the Rocky Mountain News paid $60 million to have its editorial page published in today's Post."

Green didn't get off scot-free: In that day's Rocky editorial page, published in the Sunday Post under JOA rules, columnist Greg Dobbs took him to task for a previous mistake involving Jabs, recounted in these pages last week. (Dobbs was writing as one of the Rocky's new media watchdogs; the other is the Independence Institute's David Kopel. The notion of adding them to the mix is a good one, but their first efforts mingled criticism with too much one-dimensional ideology.) Still, Green has a point this time. For the papers to truly be on equal footing, the News has to make its Saturday paper as powerful as the Sunday Post -- and if that actually happens, knock me over with John Temple's ego.

Speaking of which: Temple has failed to respond to dozens of interview requests from yours truly during the past eighteen months or so, beginning long before the JOA. So when I heard him on April 6 speaking to KHOW talk-show host Peter Boyles, I called up and asked him on the air why he'd been dodging me. "I don't see the point of returning your calls," he responded, in high dudgeon. "You're free to write what you want, and I'm free to speak with who I want to speak with." He added, "You're in the business of snide commentary, ill-informed, and I don't have to participate in it. I have an easy way to communicate with a million and a half people. I do it whenever I want to..."

These answers represent a startling blend of arrogance and timidity, particularly for someone in Temple's chosen field. Journalists have traditionally understood that if they're going to dish it out, they've got to be able to take it; exchange and debate, heated or not, are key ingredients of great newspapering. But rather than respond to questions in this space, as virtually every other major media figure in the city has done, Temple prefers to take the gutless way out, writing unchallenged pap in his own paper (his April 7 introduction to the Saturday News was public-relations jabber) or giving sound bites to TV stations knowing that the tightness of time inoculates him against tough questions, thereby turning his appearance into unadulterated hype.

Had an elected official responded to a News request for an interview in a similar way, you can bet Big John would have thrown the Temple tantrum of all time. Yet since the passage of the JOA, Temple, who as the News's principal representative has a quasi-public role whether he likes it or not, has sounded more and more like a politician himself. Granted, an editor must have and exercise political skills in order to get the best out of the people under his command. But when these characteristics overwhelm journalistic instincts, credibility suffers -- and that's what Temple faces today. On the Boyles show, he expressed frustration when asked if he considers himself a JOA booster, saying he made it clear in his first column after the agreement was announced that a truce wasn't what he wanted. This claim is mostly accurate: In that piece, published on May 17, just six days after the JOA news broke, he wrote, "As a journalist I can't imagine giving up the fight," but noted that he was ready to make the best of the situation because "life is better than death." Since then, though, Temple has repeatedly accentuated the JOA positives, thereby wiping his once-voiced reservations from nearly every memory bank. In this respect, he's reminiscent of Jerry Brown, who, as California governor during the late '70s, opposed Proposition 13, an infamous government-cutting measure -- then implemented it so energetically once it passed that polls showed most voters thought he'd been in favor of it from the beginning.

Give Temple credit, then, for skillfully spinning the Denver media regarding the broadsheet News's launch. But don't be fooled into believing that the few extras you're getting outweigh the many things you've lost.


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