By: Robert Neuwirth
It’s perhaps the last true newspaper war in the country. And it’s Dean Singleton’s flagship newspaper on the line. Yet the battle between MediaNews Group’s Denver Post and E.W. Scripps Co.’s own flagship paper, the Denver Rocky Mountain News, seems more about public relations and profit than news coverage. The Pulitzer jury, it seems, would do well to look elsewhere.
“The Rocky Mountain News wants to make less look like a little more. And The Denver Post seems set on making more look like a little less,” says a veteran journalist of both newsrooms, who, like most interviewed for this story, would not speak for attribution. “I’m not at all excited by the quality or energy of the journalism.”
Post reporters interviewed say the newsroom is generally a bleak environment, with much of the staff’s venom directed at Post editor Dennis Britton, who was recently dismissed (E&P, Sept. 4, p. 8). “He’s done nothing but destroy morale,” grumbles one veteran Post reporter.
The normally accessible-if-you-promise-me-anonymity newsroom staff is less forthcoming with comment about Britton’s successor, Glenn Guzzo, who is moving to the Post from Knight Ridder’s Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal. Post publisher Gerald E. Grilly says Guzzo was brought in as “someone that sits with me better.”
Meanwhile, at the Rocky Mountain News, editor John Temple claims his paper’s commitment to enterprise journalism is giving it the tactical advantage that will eventually lead to victory. “It’s the talent and energy that goes into your paper,” Temple says.
To support his contention that the News is the better paper, Temple avers that it has won more awards than the Post. The Post counters that the News was the only entrant for some of those awards, so the fact that it won is meaningless. Nonetheless, Post staffers recently received a memo outlining the many awards they could apply for.
It is not only the rival newsrooms that hurl self-aggrandizing superlatives at one another. On the circulation front, the Post claims more readers. But, the News, noting audits, says it thrashes the Post in the key Denver metropolitan market. The Post responds that the News is boosting circulation through massively discounted subscription rates. Singleton claims the News’ penny-a-day subscription campaign is a sign of desperation, yet, oddly, the Post matched the penny rate for six weeks last year. Singleton dropped the deep discount after doing market research.
Though Scripps’ top executives won’t reveal how many copies the News is selling at the penny rate, they stand by the campaign as a “tried-and-true strategy.” But that the paper is losing circulation revenue on each of those subs is undeniable.
The two papers are also slugging it out for public favor. A few years back, when the News changed its telephone number for classified advertising, the Post snapped it up. After the News came became the “official newspaper” of the Colorado Rockies baseball team, Singleton rolled out an ad campaign dubbing the Post the official newspaper of the fan.
There’s also a war of words over advertising lineage. Linda Sease, director of public relations and marketing for the News, says her paper’s ad sales are surging. Singleton responds that the News must be giving the ads away, since the increased advertising doesn’t show up as increased revenue in E.W. Scripps’ federal financial reports.
Singleton says the Post is profitable with an income of $28.3 million on $218 million in revenue in 1998, a 13% profit margin. Though Scripps will not release numbers on the News, Alan Horton, senior vice president for Scripps’ newspapers, says the paper is “cash-flow positive,” even though the paper was in the red for the first half of 1999.
“The trends, both on the advertising and circulation sides, are in our favor,” Horton says. Singleton, predictably, disagrees. “We will win the newspaper war here,” he proclaims confidently. “I can’t tell you when. I can tell you we will.”
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(copyright: Editor & Publisher September 18, 1999) [Caption]