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American Journalism Review
Mountain Shoot-Out  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   April 1998

Mountain Shoot-Out   

Not many cities still have dueling dailies, but glitzy, tiny Aspen does.

By Sharyn Vane
Sharyn Vane has written and edited at papers in Colorado, Florida and Texas.      


COLORADO'S FAMOUS NEWSPAPER WAR is the one between the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News. But to the west in Aspen, amid the chic boutiques and bo?tes that make the tiny ski resort town famous, two small dailies are duking it out just as hard for readers and advertisers.

There's no sign of surrender for the Aspen Times and the Aspen Daily News, which have been rivals for the better part of two decades. Both tabloids claim about the same circulation (under 15,000). Both are free, so news-hungry Aspenites typically pick up a copy of each from adjoining boxes. And both ruefully acknowledge that the competition is here to stay--fueling a relentless determination to unearth new and different stories and slash advertising rates, keeping profit levels relatively modest.

First, a bit of history. The Aspen Times is the elder of the two publications, born as a daily in 1881, when the silver boom was starting in Colorado's mountains. It languished in the 1920s along with the town's economy, lapsing into weekly status, then regained its strength as Aspen reinvented itself into the glitzy resort it is today.

``For a long time, it was essentially the only paper in town," says Andy Stone, the Times' copublisher and editor in chief.

That changed in 1978, when Dave Danforth, then working as a stringer for the Denver Post and some national publications, began printing up a one-sheet missive and distributing 2,000 copies around town. ``It was typewritten, both sides, with a little band of ads one inch high, a free handout," Stone remembers. ``He had a taste and a flair for sensational journalism."

``What I came up with was a single sheet of paper on which I told nasty stories about City Hall shenanigans," explains Danforth, still the Daily News' sole owner, a Sunday columnist and the designated ``staff mascot" on the masthead. He has since expanded the free hard news daily concept to Conway and Berlin, New Hampshire, and Palo Alto, California. ``I did not imagine having a newspaper that was dynamic--I did not imagine having a newspaper. I just told stories. I guess Aspen was ready for something that came out every day."

He couldn't have picked a better place to experiment. ``We are a community of news junkies," laughs Aspen Mayor John Bennett. ``I have friends who will read, on a daily basis, both [Aspen] daily newspapers, the Denver Post, the New York Times and then they'll listen to National Public Radio's `All Things Considered' in their car."

Feeding such a news-hungry public, Danforth's fledgling paper blossomed. His advertising base expanded, and he got himself a printing press and hired a skeleton staff.

Still, Bill Dunaway, then the Times' publisher, considered Danforth's effort yet another in the long string of doomed-to-fail competitors. He resisted converting the Times back into a daily until 1988.

The delay, Stone says, ``turned out to be a very bad decision, because there were any number of years when he could have crushed the Daily News, since the Times was very dominant and prosperous." As a result of that reluctance, he adds, ``now we are locked in mortal combat."

Combat with a twist. For there to be two of anything that are both successful, they have to be substantially different. The Times prides itself on its healthy serving of hard news; it's the more conventional paper. The Daily News (motto: ``If you don't want it printed, don't let it happen") has, well, an edge.

``As much as I hate it, we're the establishment, and they are the scrappy underdog," Stone admits.

Ben Gagnon, a former editor of the Daily News who now manages four weeklies in Cape Cod, attributes the difference in style to the staffs. ``The Times has a lot more long term employees; they stay for a longer period of time and may be more rooted in the community," he says. ``The Daily News has more turnover, younger employees with less roots." As a result, he says, the Daily News tends to be ``a little more brash."

As an example, Gagnon cites the two papers' coverage of a proposed residential development in nearby Woody Creek. Housing is probably the hottest issue in Aspen, where it's not unusual to pay more than $1,000 for a one-bedroom apartment (the Times subsidizes housing costs for its reporters). While newcomers are anxious to get affordable housing built, longtime Aspen residents resist huge complexes and fight hard to preserve open space.

The Times, Gagnon says, has tended to give more ink to the Woody Creek Caucus, a group of residents opposed to the development, while the Daily News has placed more emphasis on the need for affordable housing.

Sound a little too genteel to be brash? There was also the piece in which then-Daily News columnist Dan Dunn suggested that town waiters spit in the food of rich, rude tourists. Published during the height of the Christmas ski season, the column damaged the Daily News' bottom line when several major advertisers organized a boycott.

No matter, though: ``It was a hilarious column," says Ross Furukawa, the Daily News' general manager and publisher. ``We've never been afraid of pissing people off."

Stone agrees that the makeup of his rival's staff has something to do with that viewpoint. He surmises that youth has made the Daily News just one step above a college paper, where office antics can sometimes bleed over into the publication. Someone once inserted a strategically placed ``D" into an ad for an international rug importer. And then there was the ``Wild Child."

This was a story, Stone says, ``about this crazed vampire woman loose in the bars who was giving people fatal hickeys. It was a joke and never meant to be in the paper, but because they don't have such things as real editors over there, it was somehow supposedly put in the set of files that are supposed to be in the next day's paper.

``Everybody loved it. It was reported all over the place. For better or worse, that would never happen here."

And it won't happen anymore at the Daily News, vows Carolyn Sackariason, who came to the paper as a reporter two years ago and was promoted to editor in October.

``I know what it was like before: It was pretty chaotic. A lot of mishaps happened," she says. Now, she says, the Daily News is ``kind of this adolescent that is starting to grow up and become a little more serious and professional."

Even so, there's still enough variety in the day-to-day content of the Times and Daily News to keep readers picking up both. ``Surprisingly enough, the two papers often manage to find totally different stories for their front pages," says Mayor Bennett.

On one day, for example, though both papers led with a story about a police standoff, the rest of their front pages were distinctly different. The Times had a feature about a group of Aspen men who tried to climb a mountain in Pakistan and a piece explaining how huge boulders were becoming a hot commodity in the landscaping business. The Daily News added some local comment to a wire story about ski resorts and told readers about an area ranch owner convicted of sales-tax fraud.

SACKARIASON CASTS THE DAILY NEWS AS MORE enterprising and investigative than the Times with its paper-of-record diet of meeting stories: ``Today we had a story about the pollution levels in the river that runs through town, which are way above state standards. They led with a planning and zoning meeting on night use of the gondola."

Stone, meanwhile, says the Times has a more serious tone. For example, although the Times and the Daily News both led with the New Year's Eve skiing death of Michael Kennedy, the Daily News ``ran a number of the more sensational details of the story that we refrained from running: reports of the family kneeling in bloodstained snow saying the Lord's Prayer. We just decided to pass on that."

(For her part, Sackariason, who wrote the Daily News' Kennedy story, says, ``I don't remember writing anything about the family kneeling in bloodstained snow. I might have run an Associated Press story about it.... I did put details in there that made the story a little more real, that the family was seen in the hospital, crying, huddled around each other. I felt that was something that made the story more personal.")

What's tricky is keeping the content different enough to pull in readers, but not so disparate that you're consistently getting scooped by the competition. Both papers try to avoid doing a story on a particular event just because the other paper's reporter was there.

Gagnon says he was happy to let the Times cover most of the council goings-on that his smaller staff couldn't handle, ceding to the competition the ``bureaucratic hiccup meetings." So who is winning the Aspen newspaper war? Daily News staffers think they've pulled ahead, citing a 1997 survey by the Roaring Fork Transit Agency that asked bus riders which paper they read most frequently. More than 60 percent named the Daily News their first choice.

Stone, not surprisingly, was less taken with the results. ``I am very certain that people who care about the news read our paper much more thoroughly," he insists. ``I know ours is broader, deeper and more accurate, and we've had a lot of feedback to that effect."

There are those who say the plus of being a two-paper town is that nothing happens that doesn't see print. With two staffs scouring Aspen for stories to fill empty white pages, it stands to reason that Aspen's readership is better informed than most, and there aren't any nasty little secrets festering uncovered down at the county commissioners' office.

There's a flip side, though. Some readers say stories are overplayed because there's not enough going on in a town of 6,000 permanent residents (the population swells to as high as 30,000 during the height of the tourist season at Christmas) to fill two papers every day.

``There's an issue that really should be on page five or seven that's on page one simply because there isn't any other news that day," Bennett says. ``It's like you've turned up the volume on a very minor issue and suddenly it's, `My God, did you see the front of the paper?'... It creates this sense of constant turmoil and contention that is somewhat exaggerated."

Even so, some stories aren't being told--at least not completely. Stone acknowledges that the competition doesn't allow him the luxury of letting reporters wait a day before making a few calls that might put into context that night's council meeting, ``I have to say, `You can make those three phone calls tomorrow and that will be your second story.' "

And Hal Clifford, a former Daily News editor who now writes a column for the Times, worries that the breakneck pace and stringent budgets created by competing free dailies don't leave time for enterprising reporters to write the stories that really matter.

``Neither of them is able to do really good journalism. No one is really able to say to a reporter, `You take a week and work on this story...,' " Clifford says. ``Both of them are charging a bare-bones minimum for their ads, and they can't afford to turn reporters loose. They end up with a lot of superficial writing that tends to be phone reporting."

But things are better in Aspen than in many other locales, newspaper war combatants say. ``What I think is that the average daily newspaper is underread and overpriced. We do not have these problems in Aspen," says Danforth. ``The [ad] prices are reasonable, the merchants advertise, and because they get more business, they grow. That's why the two papers are doing well."

Sackariason puts the Daily News' circulation at about 14,500; Stone numbers the Times' at between 12,500 and 14,800, varying with the flow of tourists. Both accept the competition as a part of the Aspen landscape, as intractable as the mountains surrounding the town. ``I guess we've sort of given up the dream of having them go away," Stone says.

And there's no room for complacency. Though the Daily News won big on the readership survey, the Times has recently scored scoops with stories about millionaire landowners abusing affordable housing regulations and the new owner of a troubled hotel.

``It's so cyclical between which paper is strong and which paper is weaker," says Times reporter Scott Condon. ``I've seen our staff, and myself included, get cocky about, `We're on a roll, we're the dominant paper now.'

``Those things don't last. There's just a constant ebb and flow."

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