The Message

The creative forces behind Bias, a proposed multimedia venture aimed at young adults, seem convinced that there's nothing more hilarious than homicide. Among the first items in a sample issue of Bias magazine that's been shown to potential clients in recent months is "Drink to the Lost," a feature urging readers to "Find your luck in living with this fun murder map!" An accompanying street guide of downtown Denver spotlights locales where prominent slayings took place, along with toasts to the victims. Guzzlers are encouraged to laud assassinated talk-show host Alan Berg with this remark: "If we're all to be mowed down for the shit we talk, then the devil's got a full clip for each of us." The salute to Li'l Bit, a diminutive, crack-addled prostitute who was offed in 1994, overflows with even more mock profundity: "Let it be said that you were a hooker. Yet we all serve that which we abhor. Let it be said that you were a midget, or a dwarf. Yet we all stand small next to death."

Awesome, dudes, but not as self-consciously scandalous as a line promising that Bias "will help you carve up your market like Jeff Dahmer at a Rohypnol party." While inserting such images into an advertising pitch may not guarantee a lot of business (unless those hearing it are into slaughtered children, cannibalism or date rape), it obviously took a lot of effort. You deserve a toast, too!

Such prose is intended to be outrageous, but for the most part, it's less startling than stale -- an attempt to convey a post-modern sensibility that founders on its own desperation. Besides, what's being said isn't as surprising as who's paying for it. Bias, which will allegedly supplement its mag with a highly interactive website, a text-messaging component, event sponsorship and attempts to use flashmobs for commercial purposes, is tentatively slated to debut before the year is out under the auspices of MediaNews Group and E.W. Scripps, respective owners of the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News.

This kinship comes as a shock, since the Post and the News have long prided themselves on being family-friendly and have a history of conservatism when it comes to content and language. In 2001, for instance, the Post twice printed the word "sucks" as "su---" in articles about a verbal altercation that pitted then-Denver Nuggets coach Dan Issel against an angry fan. More recently, the News published several pieces about a Denver cop who threatened to arrest a woman for having what he regarded as an offensive bumpersticker on her car. The slogan in question was printed as "F--- Bush," and since reporter Katie Kerwin McCrimmon, who witnessed the incident, is a former National Spelling Bee champion, it's unlikely that she forgot the missing letters.

Nevertheless, MediaNews and Scripps are fifty-fifty partners in Bias, which is described on a promotional folder as "the no-walls, interactive media & marketing experience that connects young, info-savvy communities with each other and with the advertisers who crave them." To Kirk MacDonald, president and CEO of the Denver Newspaper Agency, which handles business operations for the dailies under a joint operating agreement, it's an idea whose time has come. "We're trying to create streams of non-traditional revenue, and this is one attempt at doing that," he says. "All media is facing shifting consumer habits, so we're trying to develop products that we feel will resonate with different segments of the audience that are valued by advertisers."

MacDonald is familiar with Bias because it was originally a DNA scheme. The men charged with putting it together -- copywriter Nathan Warren and youth-content editor Eric Elkins -- have agency backgrounds, and DNA spokesman Jim Nolan was directly involved in hyping the concept. As of late January, anyone who dialed Bias's main number heard a voice-mail greeting that ended with Nolan, a straitlaced veteran newspaperman, trying to relate to the kids with the word "Peace." Somehow he resisted the temptation to refer to himself as a "homeboy."

More recently, however, Bias staffers moved out of the DNA to separate offices, and a new firm, Bias Media LLP, was formed. When asked if this switch had anything to do with wanting to create distance between the mainstream dailies and Bias magazine items like a dating-advice column called "Dear GangBang," MacDonald gives a simple answer: "Yes."

Even so, the split is less than total, as evidenced by the statements, or lack thereof, from Bias principals contacted for this column. Neither Warren nor Elkins responded to multiple phone calls and/or e-mails -- something MacDonald correctly predicted about the pair, whom he calls "two of our best and brightest." In addition, Bruce Erley of Creative Strategies Group, a sponsorship and event-marketing agency hired to consult on Bias, and Tim Stautberg, spokesman for Scripps, suggested that inquiries be directed to Nolan, who deferred to MacDonald. Only MediaNews head Dean Singleton tackled the question directly, albeit briefly. Via e-mail, he wrote, "We don't comment on products before they're publicly launched," adding, "MediaNews is launching many niche products in all of our newspapers. This is where most of our growth is coming to offset core product maturity."

As this last chilling phrase implies, many observers fear that traditional newspaper circulation is close to topping out, if it hasn't already done so. To build revenue, then, firms must rely on other products that will appeal to the younger demographic they're not reaching. One popular approach involves establishing or acquiring free papers intended to grab the teens and twenty-somethings who are more likely to join the Marines than subscribe to a paper. Locally, Scripps and the Boulder Daily Camera assembled a youth-oriented paper whose name, Dirt, plays the same counterintuitive note as Bias's moniker. Further afield, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times unveiled dueling giveaway dailies, RedEye and Red Streak, more than two years ago, and last month the parent company of the New York Times ponied up for Metro Boston -- a decision that spawned bad press following the revelation that a Metro exec had uttered a racial slur at a 2003 event. Another of the Bias murder-map items flirts with similar tastelessness; the toast to an unknown Chinese immigrant who died at the hands of a mob in 1880 ends with this aside: "Just don't expect your laundry in the morning."

The Bias material is aggressively au courant, yet it embraces one of Madison Avenue's oldest maxims: Sex sells. The cover of its promotional package sports photo-booth-like shots of a palpitating couple practically gumming each other alongside slogans that mate commercial instincts with horniness. One reads, "So close to your market, you'll need CONTRACEPTION." Another declares, "We share stories. And fluids." Inside, "Bias Infection Case Study #648: Knucklehead Meets Bimbo" explains how Bias intends to worm its way into the lives of its targets. Both the website and Bias magazine are set to spotlight writing by readers and recaps of Bias parties announced via text messaging. The assumption is that oodles of Bias fans who receive such a message will spontaneously descend on a nightspot or venue, flashmob style, to party up a storm in plain view of signs, placards and so on associated with advertisers.

To get on board, patrons are asked to pony up big dough -- $100,000 to become a "presenting sponsor" on a year-round level, and $25,000 to be listed as a "supporting sponsor" for a single event, with other options available at lower but still hefty price tags. Couple that with the mag's fairly puny anticipated circulation (15,000 copies on a bi-weekly basis), and it helps explain why two prospective advertisers who listened to a Bias presentation told Westword that while they found the notion interesting, they didn't open their wallets. The DNA's MacDonald remains optimistic, however. "We think it's a very exciting project," he says, "and we're looking forward to seeing if it takes hold in the marketplace."

He's clearly hoping it will be a killer.

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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