Rockies Score Front-Page Saturation

On October 2, five workers at an Xcel Energy power plant in Georgetown died following a chemical fire that broke out while they were 2,000 feet underground. But even though this misfortune generated major headlines across the country, it wasn't the first story that greeted subscribers to the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News the next morning — because articles about it were cloaked in special sections previewing that afternoon's playoff match between the Colorado Rockies and the Philadelphia Phillies. The Post's version cited Georgetown coverage in a narrow gray strip above an enormous photo of the Rockies' Matt Holliday labeled "Slugfest '07," while the Rocky relegated the tragedy to a modest above-the-flag tease overshadowed by a dopey picture of Todd Helton and an even dopier banner reading "Wait Lifter."

No one should begrudge the dailies for creating revenue-generating extras to fete the Rockies' return to the post-season after a twelve-year absence. They can clearly use the dough: As noted in the October 1 Rocky, revenue at the Denver Newspaper Agency, which handles business matters for the dailies, tumbled by over $30 million during a one-year period beginning in June 2006. Besides, the ballers would have deserved to be on page one anyhow, had it been a slower news day. Yet the events in Georgetown raised uncomfortable questions about how many deaths it would have taken to convince supervisors that the baseball section belonged on the inside of the paper, not the outside. Ten, perhaps? Twenty?

Of course, sports got the cover treatment plenty of times before the Rockies swept the Phillies. Between April and September, at least eighteen sports- or recreation-oriented articles were published on the Post's first page — and that's excluding crime crossovers such as reports touching upon the murder of Denver Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams or onetime University of Northern Colorado punter Mitch Cozad's trial and conviction.

Of that number, five appeared in the Post's signature Sunday edition, which is overseen by Kevin Dale, who was the broadsheet's sports editor before taking over as assistant managing editor/Sundays in mid-2006. But most of these articles were enterprise pieces that went beyond scores and stats, exploring their subjects with welcome depth. A good example was "Glory Fades," a September 2 feature by Terry Frei that documented the chronic pain and debilitating injuries that afflict many former Broncos.

Dale doesn't want to leave the impression that he grades sports stories on the curve when determining each week's roster. "One of the things I wanted to do when I took over Sunday was to work with each of the departments, find interesting stories they were working on and bring them to page one," he says. "There's no greater emphasis placed on sports than that. I do the same thing with features and business." But he recognizes that "sports readers are very loyal readers and Denver's a great sports town. When you've got a good Broncos story, it only makes sense to give it some prominence. We're trying to give people reasons to read the newspaper."

Does that mean that sports cover stories attract more readers than newsier fare? Dale insists that the evidence is inconclusive. He says he's informally tracked weekly circulation numbers in an attempt to determine if certain topics boost single-copy sales, "but I couldn't really find a pattern. For a while, I thought education did, because every time we had education stories, we were up 1,000 copies or so. But the next two or three times, education didn't move as well."

In contrast, Rocky editor/publisher/president John Temple openly acknowledges that sports page-ones can be big draws, which helps explain the presence of the Broncos on most Monday fronts during football season; he calls sports "the principal driver" of that day's paper. And unlike Dale, who contends that the sports section at his paper has suffered as many cutbacks as other divisions in the wake of the recent buyouts and budget reductions at both dailies, Temple concedes that "sports has certainly been among the least affected departments," in part because he can use more non-staffers in that area than in, say, the metro section. "We have shrunk sports," he allows, "but probably not as much, because we have really good freelancers available to us."

Still, Temple says he wants to retain a balance when it comes to sports-dominated page ones. "We'd look foolish if we had it on the cover every day to drive up sales," he argues. "That's a shortsighted way to run a newspaper. But you want to reflect the exuberance and excitement of the city, and there's excitement right now over the Rockies."

No doubt about that, particularly given the squad's opening-round triumph, and the Rocky has gone to extremes to embrace it. Even though the October 3 edition boasted the aforementioned Rockies wraparound, two of the first four main pages of the news section — the ones immediately following coverage of the Georgetown calamity — were filled with rah-rah ephemera about the Colorado-Philadelphia match-up. The worst moment came courtesy of "Going Toe-to-Toe," an incredibly embarrassing pop-culture face-off between the cities that seemed to (incorrectly) predict a Phillies victory — unless you're the one person who thought Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead was a better movie than Philadelphia. But rather than learn from this mistake, editors devoted a full page of the October 9 paper to an even weaker faux-showdown between Colorado and Arizona, whose respective franchises take the field for the National League Championship Series on October 11. And that's not to mention the page of the October 6 Spotlight section designed to be folded into a rally cap that resembled the world's tackiest fez.

The Post hasn't done anything quite this wrongheaded to date. Indeed, the October 7 Mark Kiszla column about the sons of Mike Coolbaugh, a minor league coach in the Rockies system who was killed by a foul ball in July, which made page one the day after the Phillies fell, was the single finest piece of writing to emerge from the team's current run. The staggeringly moronic Woody Paige effort from the same issue resides at the opposite end of that scale.

Unfortunately, subsequent signs haven't been as encouraging. Consider October 9's "Rivalry on Deck?" The question mark in the offering's headline hints at internal doubts about whether an article concerning a nonexistent blood feud between the Rockies and Diamondbacks was a story at all, let alone something significant. But what page was it on? The first one.

Thank goodness ten or twenty deaths didn't knock that off the cover.

Word power: Almost lost amid the Rockies hoopla was the resolution of the tale that occupied this space last week: the controversy stirred by the Rocky Mountain Collegian, the student newspaper serving the Colorado State University campus, after the publication of a September 21 editorial reading "FUCK BUSH." On October 4, CSU's board of student communications formally admonished David McSwane, the Collegian's editor, for this abbreviated salvo, but let him remain in his position.

McSwane was happy with the decision, in part because he was able to put the board's action in context. "Was admonishment really a punishment for us using our First Amendment rights?" he asks. "I don't really think so. I think it was just a finger wag from the university. It was their way of saying, 'We didn't like that.'"

In his opinion, the repercussions of the editorial have produced more positives than the mainstream media has reported. He notes that the backlash against him stirred numerous college newspapers across the country to take bold stands in favor of free speech — among them the University of Oregon's Daily Emerald, which published an October 1 editorial labeled, "Fire this... FUCK CENSORSHIP."

Nonetheless, he remains concerned about financial matters at the Collegian. TV stations and newspapers have floated advertising-loss figures ranging from $30,000 to $50,000, but McSwane says, "The media really screwed that up." The firmest amount he's heard is $10,000, and because, according to him, the operation ran a $192,000 surplus last year, the paper's hardly in danger of shutting down. But he emphasizes that "we've got to bring back some of those advertising dollars," and he hopes to do so by meeting directly with businesses to "let them know why we did what we did, why it was important, and who we are as people."

Coverage of McSwane has slowed since the ruling, but it hasn't vanished completely, as witnessed by October 7's "Audacious. Profane. He Won." a point-missing column by the Post's Diane Carman. (By coincidence, Carman's impending departure from the paper was announced internally the next day.) Read McSwane's take on this piece and other comments about coverage at our blogs.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts