Post Seeks a New General as Rocky Retreats  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   March 1996

Post Seeks a New General as Rocky Retreats   

By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.     

In the rock 'em, sock 'em Denver newspaper war, the truth can be elusive. Especially when the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News are reporting on the latest battlefield developments.

The News announced in January that it no longer aspired to be a statewide paper and would instead concentrate its circulation and marketing efforts strictly in the Denver metro area. The decision meant dropping distribution in 48 Colorado counties and four neighboring states.

The Post, which played the story on the front page, portrayed the move as a great victory for itself and a humiliating defeat for the News. "If Colorado has really witnessed a 'newspaper war' for the past decade," wrote Post Assistant Editorial Page Editor Bob Ewegen, "then the decision of the No-Longer Rocky Mountain News to halt distribution in 48 of the state's 63 counties is the journalistic equivalent of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow."

The News, for its part, tucked the story inside the paper on page 33A and presented the decision as simply a smart business strategy. It said two stock analysts "praised the move, saying it will improve the bottom line while allowing the newspaper to focus on serving its core readers and advertisers."

Patricia Calhoun, a longtime Denver newspaper watcher and editor of Denver's alternative weekly, Westword, saw some merit in both views. "I think it's a pretty drastic move," she says. "From a psychological vantage, it's a retrenchment for the News that gives the Post a big image boost and the News a big morale bust. But it might just save the News and be a smart business decision."

Many likened the development to a similar, although more gradual, retreat over the last decade by Iowa's Des Moines Register. But the Register is in a monopoly market, not locked in a heated, neck-and-neck battle with a bitter rival for readers and advertising dollars.

Sue Decker, publishing analyst for Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette Securities Corp. in San Francisco, says the News' decision shows that parent Scripps Howard views the paper's position as very strong compared to the Post, particularly in the metro area. "Long term it should reduce the Rocky's costs, and it won't negatively impair advertising," she says.

News Publisher Larry Strutton says the News' decision was made to strengthen the paper's circulation position in the Denver area, where it currently holds the lead. The paper also hopes to increase advertising revenue, according to Strutton, because approximately 70 percent of the state's population live in the area that will make up the paper's new boundaries as of March 1.

"What we did is rethought our business strategy," he says, adding that "you have to get over a huge ego trip when you cut circulation." He says rising newsprint prices and the high cost of delivering the paper in outlying areas played a role in the decision.

Some analysts say retreating in the midst of a newspaper war is misguided (see "The Business of Journalism," page 52). There's the danger that if the Post becomes the top paper in overall circulation (the News leads during the week, the Post on Sunday), advertisers will focus their spending on the top dog. There's even more likelihood of this if the booming Denver economy slows down. But others say that scaling back, along with cutting costs, could pay dividends for the News.

When Post staffers heard about the News' decision, they were overjoyed. "What we were saying is they blinked in the stare contest," says Post Assistant City Editor Dan Meyers. "They were not doing well in a growing market where they should have been doing well."

But the euphoria was short-lived. Soon after the News' announcement, the Post had a bombshell of its own: Executive Editor Neil Westergaard told the staff the paper's publisher, Ryan McKibben, was launching a nationwide search for an editor-in-chief who would be Westergaard's boss.

McKibben, who was immediately flooded with calls from interested editors, says he wants to find a leader who can help the Post "reach the ranks of the nation's top newspapers." Asked if he thought Westergaard wasn't up to the job, McKibben declined to comment.

Many at the Post say that while the paper regained the Sunday lead under Westergaard's direction, he lacks the dynamism of his predecessor, Gil Spencer. Westergaard, who joined the Post as a reporter in 1982 and became executive editor in 1993, says he is "extremely disappointed in the decision because we've made extraordinary gains at the Denver Post in the time I've been in this position." While he concedes that McKibben clearly had the right to make such a move, he adds, "I disagree with it."

Ironically, the Post's improved performance may have played a role in Mc-Kibben's desire for a new newsroom chief. The Post leads on Sunday (456,391 to 436,079), and while the News is still number one during the week (331,044 to 303,357), the gap has been narrowing. Perhaps the Singleton-owned Post's management feels a high-powered new editor in chief could push the Post over the top.

"People at the paper are concerned that we don't lose our momentum because of this," Meyers says. "The publisher has told us we won't, but a lot rides on the decision of who McKibben chooses to bring in."




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