On March 11, the Rocky Mountain News published a story about two (very fast) moving violations racked up by Denver Nuggets forward Kenyon Martin and the less-than-draconian punishment that came his way afterward. Following separate 2006 incidents, Martin was ticketed for exceeding the triple-digit mark — once in a 30 mph zone in Cherry Creek, according to the Daniel Chacon-penned piece. But he avoided losing his license in both cases thanks to the intervention of prosecutor Russell Stone, who improved on at least one previously arranged plea bargain. Stone subsequently served a three-day suspension without pay for his actions, which gave the appearance of preferential treatment in the eyes of his boss, Vince DiCroce, the article said.
The evident inequity, coupled with Martin's celebrity status, convinced the Associated Press to make a more succinct variation of the story available to news agencies that subscribe to what's anachronistically referred to as its wire service. The AP version, sourced to the Rocky, soon popped up on web addresses across the country, including sites affiliated with every major Denver-area television station except for Channel 7. In a lengthy report broadcast on January 29, Channel 7 correspondent John Ferrugia revealed the very same information that eventually surfaced in the Rocky.
Under ordinary circumstances, the AP might simply have missed Channel 7's efforts. But in this instance, Arthur Kane, a onetime Denver Post journalist who's now a 7News producer, had personally sent the wire service's Denver branch a text version of the Martin material around the time the Ferrugia package aired. When the story didn't make it to the wire the next morning, Kane contacted Jim Anderson, the branch's news editor, to express the station's displeasure. Anderson now calls the 7News offering "a bang-up story," but the AP still didn't circulate it and only stamped the subject with its imprimatur after the Rocky took up the cause.
Ferrugia was irked by this turn of events, which reflects a larger pattern, he says. As he puts it, "This is one of a number of times when we have broken a story, a very high-profile story, and it doesn't appear on the wire. But then the story appears in the newspaper and does appear on the wire — and the story is credited to the newspaper."
Disputes like this are more common than many media watchers realize. From the earliest days of journalism, news organizations have chased stories first reported by rivals without publicly admitting it under the theory that fessing up gives aid, comfort and positive publicity to the enemy — and TV-newspaper partnerships further complicate matters. Because the Rocky has a cooperative arrangement with Channel 4, articles with CBS4 reporter Brian Maass's byline regularly show up in the paper the morning after his latest broadcast airs, and the Denver Post coordinates in a like manner with Channel 9. In contrast, channels 2, 7 and 31 have no such pipeline to print.
This setup gives a built-in advantage to channels 4 and 9, and that nettles Ferrugia when he feels promotional goals outstrip journalistic judgment. "You'll see another station do a minor story that's played as big news in the newspaper because of the marketing agreement," he argues. "And because Channel 7 doesn't have a marketing agreement, it tends to get less play in the newspapers even when we do a major story."
Of course, the AP doesn't require a report to appear in a traditional print publication before it can be placed on the wire, but Ferrugia says he's seen evidence of favoritism. He cites a series examining accusations of abuse at the Air Force Academy that the station ran in early 2003, two weeks after a Westword cover story by ex-staffer Julie Jargon on the topic. (Channel 7, which conducted its investigation during the same period as Jargon, didn't name-check Westword in its reports.) Ferrugia recalls that after the AP initially passed on the story, which went on to win a prestigious Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Broadcast Journalism award, a 7News staffer contacted the local office, "and we actually got a response from a senior night-side person. That person is now gone, but his response was, 'We didn't see anything in the paper about it.'"
If such a pro-newspaper bias exists, the Associated Press's Anderson, a well-traveled veteran of the organization who took charge of the Denver operation just under a year ago, wants to squelch it immediately. He points out that AP staffers monitor as many news outlets as possible, including television stations, in search of intriguing items, and when stations like Channel 7 proactively inform them about an impending blockbuster, it makes everyone's job easier. "This is a cooperative, and we encourage all of our members to share their content," he says.
So what happened with the Kenyon Martin scoop? Anderson isn't quite sure. After his conversation with Kane, he promised to be more receptive to Channel 7 stories, and in the month-plus since then, the AP distributed a couple of pieces produced by the station, including one about three-year-old Joslyn Asberry, who died just three weeks after a caseworker's visit; the February report was part of a nine-months-and-counting exploration of alleged irregularities at Denver Human Services. But for whatever reason, the AP steered clear of the Martin story until the Rocky weighed in, and the Press minion who picked it up either didn't know or forgot that 7News covered the same territory first. After Kane again called to complain, Anderson attempted to make amends with what's known as a write-through — an update of the original noting that Channel 7 first reported about the ticketing shenanigans in January.
By coincidence, Channel 7 had a followup on the topic scheduled for March 11 (the very day the Rocky piece arrived), saying that to prevent another Martin-like deal, Judge Andrew Armatas had asked other judges to only accept plea bargains in writing from now on rather than considering oral arguments of the sort prosecutor Stone presented on the baller's behalf. The Rocky reported the same thing on March 13, and this time, it credited Channel 7, too — a belated attribution likely motivated by one of several possibilities. Paper reps might have learned about the story from watching TV and decided to sit on it for a while to make it seem as if they'd unearthed the revelation independently; perhaps they got a heads-up from someone at the AP; or maybe someone in editorial read the first comment posted on the March 11 article, which stressed that 7News had gotten there first and included a link to the station's website.
The Associated Press passed on the most recent development, thereby limiting the amount of attention Channel 7 will receive the second time around. Then again, representatives of at least two other stations don't see such credits, or a lack thereof, as being all that significant in the overall scheme of things. Channel 31 news director Brad Remington says failing to get a nod from the Associated Press for every significant story it's broadcast "isn't a burning issue for us." Meanwhile, Channel 2 news director Carl Bilek confirms that he's occasionally phoned the AP to let them know a credit was improperly left out, and he's found the personnel there to be receptive. But unless omissions are particularly egregious, he generally accepts them as a part of journalism's culture.
Not so Ferrugia, who emphasizes that his complaints aren't ego-driven: "It really has nothing to do with John Ferrugia getting his name in the paper," he insists. Instead, he's concerned about maintaining equal status among Associated Press contributors, and he believes that his job becomes harder every time the AP gives props to other news purveyors that Channel 7 deserves. "When a story gets picked up, we start getting more calls from people saying, 'Let me tell you something else about this,'" he allows. "That's how you advance information and move public policy, which is really my interest in terms of being a reporter. And it's not fair for someone to see a story in the paper and call the Rocky because they think they broke it and we're the ones who actually did."