Up Front

On May 17, the main news story plugged on the fronts of the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News revolved around a damning report about University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill -- but the papers' presentations were hardly mirror images. The Post printed a straightforward headline -- "Panel on Churchill: Fire or Suspend Him" -- above a large, extremely ineffective photo in which Professor Marianne Wesson, who chaired the committee scrutinizing the controversy-loving firebrand, stares blankly into the distance while holding her hand to her cheek; she seems to be more concerned about a throbbing incisor than alleged academic malfeasance. In contrast, the Rocky chose to feature an unrelated shot of Zion, a heroic yellow lab that had rescued a boy from a river (that's the kind of Zionism everyone can support). For his part, Churchill is seen in a smallish file photo alongside a single, supersized word: "Hammered." Since the Rocky has been hammering Churchill for over a year, this headline appeared downright triumphant. It was as if the paper had shouted, "Woo-hoo! Nailed the bastard!"

Stylistically, these strategies were as dissimilar as they could be. The Post's front page exuded sincerity and good intentions but was cautious and a bit dull, while the Rocky's cover was livelier and less predictable -- and these same descriptions applied to the rest of the papers' Churchill coverage that day. The Post's work was quite measured, with little that was unexpected along the way. The Rocky, meanwhile, juxtaposed sweeping (and unrelenting) Churchill reportage with a Mike Littwin column that claimed the entire matter had been ridiculously overblown -- a de facto criticism of his own paper's actions.

In this case, then, first impressions proved to be correct -- but that's no surprise. With rare exceptions, the front page of each Denver daily provides a very accurate sense of the pages beneath it.

An analysis of all the Post and Rocky covers published between May 6 and May 17 supports this conclusion, even as it reveals plenty about what types of stories the papers' editors think are important, whom they consider their audience to be, and how they believe they can best appeal to those readers, as well as to folks who aren't already on the subscription rolls. Such distinctions matter, since the dailies continue to drive public discussion here, thanks to still-sizable circulation, powerful websites and a multiplicity of media connections; for instance, the Post has a partnership deal with Channel 9, and the Rocky maintains a similar relationship with Channel 4. The differences between the Post and the Rocky are worth celebrating, as is their continued existence, which was in doubt when they entered into a joint operating agreement five years ago. Yet their individual quirks are still capable of inspiring head-scratching on a very regular basis.

The Post's 2004 redesign helps the paper put its best face forward. Especially effective is a space above the nameplate that's used to plug inside items with text and, often, accompanying art. For example, a May 12 tease of a Poseidon review placed the words "Better Effects, Crueler Script" in front of a giant wave. The writing can be punchy, too, as it was in a May 9 blurb -- "Does Sex Really Sell? Study Says Maybe Not" -- that may have actually convinced people who never bother with the business section to give it a try. The Post has also gotten better at using big photos or graphics above the fold, rather than dispersing the visual impact by scattering several smaller ones around.

As a result, secondary stories must be extremely compelling -- or made to seem that way -- in order to earn attention, and during the survey period, several failed to meet this standard. Lackluster headlines are a lot of the problem, with the May 9 issue offering some unfortunate examples. The main head, "Legislature: It's a Wrap," was less than stirring, but it was grabby as all get-out compared with "Border Debate: Many in Middle," a label that made the sizzling immigration controversy seem about as hot as Walt Disney's cryo-chamber, and "New Sign Pays Homage," a desultory lead-in to an emotional narrative about slain police officer Donald Young. Even worse was the May 11 headline "Phone Records of Millions Collected." The USA Today story below, about a National Security Agency program to examine the telephone records of average American citizens in the hopes of stumbling upon a terrorist, was a stunner that's still generating arguments. But thanks to the bland headline, Post readers may have missed it, and instead gotten stuck reading a lead article about the chances of United Airlines relocating its headquarters to Denver (those odds are "slim" and "none," respectively) or perusing a gaudy graphic that asked, "How Lasting is Liposuction?"

This last piece was among several Post front-pagers with dubious news value; even the broadsheet's Sunday showcase wasn't immune. On May 7, the Post offered a first-rate series about Manual High School that was promoted by an appropriately vivid headline ("Manual's Slow Death") and two dominating photos. But a week later, on May 14, the paper devoted its most high-profile real estate to a story about foreign-born doctors working in rural communities. Variations on this report have cropped up in many venues of late, and the Post didn't make its offering any fresher with another inspiration-free headline ("Foreign Docs Fill Gaps") and a photo of a mugging physician that could have come from a bad sitcom.

During this period, the Rocky consistently published more forceful headlines, as shown by the May 12 banner about the NSA telephone-records controversy: "Phone Firestorm." Such brevity is dictated by the Rocky's tabloid format, but even when the paper's secondary decks are as long as the Post's, they're typically stronger. That was certainly true on May 16: The Post's deck on a story about President George W. Bush's immigration policy, "Governors' requests would trigger deployment of 6,000 troops," was infinitely more passive than the Rocky's "Bush calls for 6,000 Guard troops in Œurgent' immigration plan." Granted, even the most vibrant headline can't make an overplayed story intriguing, as was demonstrated by "Mortgage Gamble Skidding to a Halt," a May 13 Rocky title about (zzzzz) adjustable-rate mortgage loans. But when given good material, the Rocky's headline writers enhanced it.

Likewise, the Rocky's front-page photos were generally more striking than those in the Post -- but when the Rocky missed the mark, it did so by miles. The Post's presentation implies that it's targeting well-educated, middle-class-and-wealthier readers. As for the Rocky, it makes regular pitches for other groups, including the under-thirty and over-sixty demographics -- but its efforts can be laughable. On May 8, it reached out to the younger set with a photo-illustration of video-game columnist Brian Crecente grinning maniacally as he peered into a glowing console; he resembled that guy in Raiders of the Lost Ark who beheld the Ark of the Covenant's majesty and then melted into a pool of goo. Then, on May 11, the paper went the other way, devoting most of its front page to a photo of Arthur Duncan, the tap dancer from the late Lawrence Welk's variety series, bucking and winging in front of an elderly orchestra. There's not enough Geritol in the world to make that shot tolerable.

Still, the sheer craziness of these decisions is as much a part of the Rocky's personality as its eagerness to figuratively burn Ward Churchill at the stake. Based on front pages from twelve days in May, the paper seems like a slightly off-kilter relative who's prone to the occasional rant but is seldom boring, whereas the Post comes across as a steadier, more solid member of the community, albeit one apt to drone on drearily at cocktail parties.

Of course, we all know that we shouldn't judge books by their covers. But newspapers are another matter entirely.

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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