AJR  Features
From AJR,   October 1995

Showdown in the Rockies   

Dean Singleton's Denver Post and Scripps Howard's Rocky Mountain News are locked in an old-fashioned newspaper war. The Post has moved ahead on Sunday; the Rocky hopes a new editor will give it needed momentum.

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

Related reading:
   » The Singleton Saga

Things were looking grim at the Denver Post in early 1987, reporter Lou Kilzer thought. He was sure the paper was on its last legs. Paranoia was high and the competing Rocky Mountain News was way ahead in the circulation war.

Having snagged a Pulitzer in 1986 for a series on missing children, he figured he'd find another job. Why not take management up on its buyout offer?

"I took it on the last day and with only five years at the Post," says Kilzer, 44. "But I boogied. It sure looked like the Post was sinking quickly. I just took a gamble that I'd find work."

He did. Kilzer was snatched up by Minneapolis' Star Tribune, where he won a second Pulitzer in 1990 for exposing fire officials involved in the arson business.

But now Kilzer is back working as investigations editor at the paper whose obit he'd mentally typed. His predictions of the Denver Post's death were premature. Rather than perish, the moribund Post shook off the tough times and has risen once again, like some kind of ink-stained Phoenix, to duke it out in one of the last fierce newspaper battles in American journalism.

"Everybody expected the demise," says Kilzer, "and here we are charging ahead."

The Post is charging ahead under the aegis of owner William Dean Singleton, the wealthy media mogul who buys and sells newspapers like others acquire and unload cars. Having folded the Houston Post last April, seven years after selling the Dallas Times Herald, Singleton has turned his attention to the Denver Post, making it the flagship of his 80-newspaper, 12-state empire.

In April, for the first time in six years, the Post surpassed Scripps Howard's Rocky Mountain News in the ever-important Sunday circulation – selling 453,032 copies, about 3,500 more than the tabloid Rocky, according to unaudited figures. The Rocky still has the daily lead by 55,000 copies, less than half its margin five years ago.

"But it's a very fragile situation, so you can't rest on your laurels at this joint," says former Post Editor F. Gilman Spencer, who retired in 1993 after reinvigorating the paper and whose wife, Isabel, is the Post's managing editor. "The Rocky was burying the Post. They were sending ad people out when I first got there in 1989 saying the Post will be dead in six months."

But it wasn't.

For over 100 years, the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post have done ferocious battle, each at some point coming close – but never close enough – to knocking out its opponent and grabbing the other's advertising dollars and readers.

The war between the two papers is right out of Hollywood: Just when it seems resolved, the unexpected happens.

For decades the Post held the lead. Who would believe a coked-out scion of the Scripps Howard chain would push the Rocky ahead in daily circulation in the late '70s? Who knew that switching from p.m. to a.m. would cost the Post so dearly in circulation? Who could predict an expensive new printing plant would produce barely readable newspapers and rampant cancellations?

Each time it seems assured one paper has won, the other ascends. The turnabout often is due not only to the dazzling skills of the underdog, but also to the boneheaded mistakes of its rival.

"In the history of this great newspaper war," says Rocky Mountain News reporter John C. Ensslin, "there's always a great lummox who comes along. It's like they are all ready to blow the other guys away and then they find out they have no bullets."

With a history like that, it's not wise for either side to feel assured that victory is at hand.

The first time Lou Kilzer laid eyes on Michael Howard, he was passed out in the men's room at the Rocky Mountain News. Kilzer figured some wino had managed to get into the building. But it was Kilzer's boss – the editor of the paper and a man who at the time had a serious alcohol and cocaine problem. Kilzer tried to quietly step around Howard.

Say what you will about Michael Howard, whose family is the Howard in Scripps Howard, he is largely responsible for taking the Rocky out of a decades-long slump and turning it into a kick-ass newspaper.

"If you look at Colorado journalism in the 1960s and 1970s, you have a real cliché," says Sue O'Brien, who left her journalism teaching post at the University of Colorado in September to become the Post's editorial page editor. "You had this scruffy, scrappy morning tabloid that was a stepchild even in its own corporation. It was not always one of Scripps Howard's prize possessions. The Post was an afternoon broadsheet that owned every columnist and cartoonist of quality. It was fat and complacent and the voice of the establishment."

Then along came Howard, who began working at the Rocky in 1965 as a reporter and whose grandfather was Roy W. Howard, a cofounder of the chain. The Post was the dominant paper and had 60 percent of the advertising (today it's split 50-50). In 1974, when Howard was 32, he took over as editor.

Aside from his extracurricular activities, Howard received a lot of attention for his bold challenge to Denver's establishment over trying to lure the 1976 winter Olympics to the city. Convinced the Olympics would hurt the state and fetch few dollars, Howard ran coupons in the paper asking readers for their thoughts. Over 35,000 people responded, many saying the Olympics were a bad idea for Colorado, recalls Howard. The Olympics didn't come to Denver.

"Michael was doing the hard-hitting, scrappy, hold-the-establishment-accountable kind of journalism," says O'Brien, a close friend of Howard. "From the '70s on, the Rocky was doing bomb-throwing, attention-getting journalism. It had never been done before in Denver."

The unconventional Howard refused to play by the rules. "The editor of the Denver Post had been president of the Rotary Club," he says. "I didn't even know where the Rotary met."

In May 1980, Howard was en route to a newspaper meeting in Florence, Italy. Between flights he was hanging out in the TWA lounge when the telephone rang. It was astounding news. For the first time ever, the Rocky's daily circulation had surpassed the Post.

"We had turned it into a great paper," recalls Howard, who has recovered from his drug and alcohol problems. "The editor might have been a leading candidate to be floor supervisor at a mental hospital two out of seven days a week, but we had a great staff."

Shortly after that victory, Howard, who was down to 120 pounds and near death, left the paper. Now his only connection to the Rocky, he says, is through blood and money.

A historian might credit Howard for the Rocky's revival. But even he acknowledges the Denver Post, then owned by the Bonfils family, was vulnerable. It still had the Sunday lead. But the Post was sinking fast. Morale was poor. The presses were outdated. Profits were dropping. Top reporters were fleeing. The Rocky was on the rise.

Enter Times Mirror, owner of the Los Angeles Times, which bought the Post for $95 million in 1980.

Times Mirror also owned the Dallas Times Herald, and it decided to replicate what it had done in Texas. It brought in a management trio from the Times Herald, and started overhauling the Post overnight.

"Obviously Times Mirror blew it," says Neil Westergaard, who came to the Post in 1982 as a reporter and now is its executive editor. "They came in believing that Denver was like Dallas... But they weren't plugged into what people were thinking."

They soon moved the paper from afternoon to morning – too quickly, in the eyes of many. "It was ridiculous how fast they switched to a.m.," says Westergaard, who was hired by Times Mirror. "There was a great deal of arrogance." In June 1982, just after finishing the conversion, the Post raised the price from 15 cents to a quarter.

The new management gambled on the sudden shift to the morning and lost. In the first year, Post circulation dropped 6.5 percent, and in late 1983 it lost its Sunday lead. "In the early '80s, the RMN circulation was growing," says Howard. "But they didn't know how to go for the kill."

They didn't have to. The Post continued to be problem-plagued. Desperately in need of new presses, the company spent $77 million on a 42-acre printing plant. The first papers rolled off the presses in August 1986. Standard production problems associated with new presses added to circulation woes.

By 1987, the Rocky had a commanding lead over its once mighty rival. Times Mirror decided to cut its losses.

The company virtually gave the Post to Singleton in September 1987 for $95 million – the same price it had paid seven years earlier, but it was throwing in a $77 million printing plant.

Times Mirror was at a point, says Singleton, "that they didn't want to do long term battle anymore in Denver... They believed Denver was a long term project that wouldn't throw off appreciable earnings for a long time. In 1980 that was OK. In 1987 it wasn't OK."

But it was OK for Singleton, 44, who now owns the Denver Post debt-free with his partner, Richard B. Scudder, 82. Together they've made the paper profitable and increased its circulation and advertising share.

In 1986 and 1987, after years of buying small newspapers primarily in the Northeast, Singleton and Scudder's privately held MediaNews Group jumped into the big time. In 1986, they bought the Dallas Times Herald from Times Mirror, selling it two years later when they realized it was a losing proposition. In the fall of 1987, MediaNews Group stunned the newspaper world by buying the Houston Post and a week later the Denver Post.

Singleton, the acquisition ace, is more involved in the business side while Scudder, whose family owned the now-defunct but once widely respected Newark Evening News for five generations, is a newsman who stays in the background. In the last decade they've created the nation's 15th largest newspaper group.

But it is Singleton who gets the press – much of it negative, portraying him as a cutthroat entrepreneur who cares only about the bottom line and doesn't think twice about slashing staffs, freezing wages or burying a century-old newspaper.

"Dean Singleton is a businessman," says Kathy Kiely, who headed the Houston Post's Washington bureau before Singleton folded the paper in April. "He is not a newspaperman. A newspaperman would have to have an irrational, sentimental tie."

Singleton, a baby-faced, slightly chubby man who wears monogrammed shirts, readily admits he's no sentimentalist. If a newspaper isn't profitable, he believes, it won't stay in business.

"If I had my choice between pleasing one banker or 1,000 journalists, I'd rather please the banker," says Singleton. "You can't run your business over what the newsroom thinks. You just can't worry about that. I'd rather be demonized and be successful than be the most wonderful guy in the world and go down. You don't like to read that people think you are a demon or something, but you can't worry about that."

Many in Houston were upset that Singleton rejected a final commemorative edition of the Houston Post before selling its assets for $120 million to Hearst, which owns the Houston Chronicle. Final editions, he concluded after looking at the swan songs of the Washington Star, Cleveland Press and Dallas Times Herald, "are pathetic."

Singleton is a newspaper owner for the '90s. Gone are the days when venerable newspaper families operated their holdings with a sense of noblesse oblige. Witness the evolution of Times Mirror, still family controlled, which recently closed New York Newsday and embarked on a series of cuts at the Los Angeles Times that would have been unthinkable in the past (see "The Shrinking L.A. Times," page 22).

In September, Singleton's MediaNews Group took control of the 103-year-old, Miller family owned Berkshire Eagle and three sister newspapers (see page 68). The new owners promptly slashed the news staff of the highly regarded Eagle from 42 to 34.

"The fact is the Miller family had insulated people from the cutbacks and stringent cost controls that the rest of the industry was facing," David Scribner, the Eagle's editor, said before the cutbacks were announced.

"Dean may be attracted to the business for its romance," says Kiely, now the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's Washington bureau chief. "But he's a bottom-line guy."

Singleton wouldn't dispute that. He says there'll be no welfare among his papers. The Houston Post, he now admits, was a bad acquisition, one he uncharacteristically bought for emotional reasons because it was a Texas newspaper and he comes from the Lone Star state.

When newsprint costs soared, Singleton got out. "If a newspaper doesn't support itself, it goes," he says. "We will not shore up one paper with the profits of another."

But he does believe in newspapers sharing resources – a strategy he is using in an effort to rescue the Oakland Tribune from its many near-death experiences. Singleton bought the Tribune in 1992 and now says it's profitable because he's combined operations with the five nearby suburban newspapers, which he bought in 1985. The newspapers, the Alameda Group, share an accounting department, composing rooms, advertising sales and some sports and news coverage. "The Oakland Tribune is safe and sound now," Singleton says.

But it's the Denver Post, many say, that's Singleton's favorite. After years of being a small-time owner, he's hit the big leagues and seems to want something he hasn't quite gotten yet – the respect of his peers.

"This is the place where he's putting professionalism back into a newspaper," says one Post editor who asked for anonymity. "I think he has to have one paper he's really proud of."

"He really loves the Denver Post," says Westergaard. "He says he wanted to own the Denver Post since he was 19 years old."

While his rival, Larry Strutton, publisher, president and CEO of the Rocky Mountain News and a native Coloradan, acknowledges Singleton's business acumen, he is skeptical about his sincerity.

ýI remember when Dean bought the Dallas Times Herald," says Strutton, who used to work for that paper's onetime parent, Times Mirror. Ò 'I'm moving my corporate headquarters to Dallas. I'm a Texan,' he said. 'I'm going to raise my family in Dallas. I'm moving here to make a difference. I applied for a job as a reporter at the Dallas Times Herald. They didn't hire me. So I came back and bought the paper.' It made great copy."

Then Singleton bought the Houston Post and moved his headquarters to Houston. Same speech, different city. "Now he's moved to Colorado and now he's a Coloradan," Strutton says. "I think it's fine that he moved here. But it's the same story in three different cities."

Of course, Strutton's comments must be taken in the context of a spirited newspaper war. Both sides are constantly attempting to discredit the other.

For example, Singleton tells a reporter, "I'm quite sure the Rocky hasn't made a profit since 1989." Strutton says his paper is profitable; owner Scripps Howard, which bought the Rocky Mountain News in 1926 for $750,000, won't provide individual figures for its 18 daily papers.

Statistics are the weapons of choice to prove who is winning this war. "I've never read a comic in my life but they own a lot of them," says Singleton in an interview with AJR. "But it lines up with their demographics," Post Publisher Ryan McKibben, 37, interjects. "Look at high school dropouts. We laugh. But this is who is reading their paper. They have 66.2 percent more high school dropouts than we do."

The Post will tell a reporter that a higher percentage of its readers make $50,000 or more than the Rocky's.

"That's true," says Strutton, who was president of Baltimore's Sun before coming to the Rocky. "But we have a lot more readers. A simple example would be if you had 10 apples. Five are red. You'd say that 50 percent of your apples were red. If I had 100 apples, 40 of them are red, I'd say that 40 percent of my apples are red. The difference is I have more red apples. That's exactly what the Post does."

(Last March's Audit Bureau of Circulations figures show the Rocky with a daily lead of 342,291 to 287,462).

Strutton's first paycheck from the Rocky came in 1964, when he worked in the composing room. Unlike Singleton, he graduated from college. But he did it at age 31, going to school at night on a Scripps Howard scholarship when he had a wife and two small kids. Although he wears crisp white shirts and suspenders, he says he's still a machinist at heart.

The Rocky, while a tabloid, more closely resembles Newsday than the New York Post. It's a serious newspaper that competes with the Post on the same type of stories, with neither paper dramatically superior to the other. Each paper has about 200 editorial employees.

"The Rocky Mountain News," says tab veteran Gil Spencer, who once competed with it, "is a solid, well-edited, cleanly handled, good newspaper. I wouldn't really call it a tabloid."

There is speculation that Strutton, 55, may be the latest fall guy for the Rocky's loss of its once-commanding lead. When he arrived in 1990, the Rocky was ahead in daily and Sunday circulation. Its daily lead has narrowed from 115,613 in 1990 to 54,829, according to the most recent audited figures.

In 1990, things looked good on paper, says Strutton, but the Rocky was in trouble. Changes were needed.

The renovations the Post was forced to make a few years before now had to be made at the Rocky. The changes ultimately cut into the Rocky's lead. Strutton promptly signed off on plans to build a new $150 million printing plant. Then he revamped the circulation department, switching from kids to adult carriers and changing the payment system, moves the Post had already made.

In 1992, when the first papers began rolling off the new presses, Strutton wrote in a column that readers could count on getting the late Denver Nuggets basketball scores reliably by 6 a.m. Turned out they couldn't.

"Part of the problem was that we couldn't get the paper printed on time," says Strutton. "When it was printed on time, the quality was horrible. So the ad sales staff wasn't able to sell ads. They spent all their time apologizing for the quality... It probably hurt more than we thought."

Circulation figures started spiraling downward while the Post's were inching upward.

"The key to problems this paper had were largely circulation and production, not editorial," says Clifford May, a former New York Times reporter who is now an associate editor of the Rocky. "We had some real problems getting the paper out on time. People in this community won't accept a paper that's late or not on their doorstep."

Singleton's first years in Denver were also rocky. The atmosphere inside the newsroom was tense and resumé services were doing a booming business. Who knew if Singleton would last? Editors and publishers were coming and going through a revolving door.

"The early years of Dean's ownership were just wild," Westergaard says. "He ran the whole shebang. He would just lurch from one thing to the next."

James Barnhill, brought in from Yakima, Washington, by Singleton to become Post publisher, left before he started. During a disastrous get-acquainted visit, Barnhill turned off the staff by calling one woman a "gal," saying he didn't like unions (the Post newsroom has one), and talking about his practice of using "happy face" cartoons to signal upbeat stories.

Barnhill was followed by Moe Hickey, a longtime Gannett executive who was terribly unpopular at the Post, but gave it the jump-start it needed. "He forced the old system at the Post to deliver the paper at 6 a.m. and take advantage of its color capability," says Sue O'Brien, who wrote a story on the history of the Post for its centennial in 1992. "He was mean, opinionated, unapproachable and terribly erratic. But it took someone like him to kick the Post in the ass and make it the competitive paper it is today."

By 1989, Hickey was gone. His first editor had left after less than a year, his second lasted only a few months, and his third, Robert Ritter (now editor of Gannett News Service), survived for about a year. "I thought I was crazy to come here in 1989," says reporter Patrick O'Driscoll, who had been at USA Today.

But things changed dramatically late that year. Gil Spencer, a hugely charismatic man who'd worked for three competitive tabloids (and recently had left the New York Daily News), flew out to Denver and at age 68 became editor – without ever having seen the newsroom.

Shortly before Spencer arrived, Singleton plucked Canadian Don Hunt from his perch as publisher of the Houston Post and brought him to Denver to do the same job.

"Dean hired these two old men to fuck up his newspaper," says Spencer, who retired in 1993 along with Hunt. "The only order I was given was to settle it down and do my own thing. No question about it, they had a problem."

Spencer was just what the Post needed. "He was a capital 'J' journalist," says O'Brien, who once worked briefly as an editor at the Post. "From the outside, you could watch the newspaper turn around."

"What turned things around at the Post was Gil Spencer," says Post reporter Kilzer, who returned last year. "You are not going to do market surveys and focus groups with Gil Spencer."

Spencer believes journalism ought to be fun, or why do it? He had tons of confidence and communicated that to the staff. They gobbled it up. A prank in late 1989, while it did nothing to boost circulation or ad revenue, is illustrative of morale under Spencer.

Post reporters O'Driscoll, Jim Carrier and Jennifer Gavin didn't much like it when the Rocky outbid the Post for "Garfield." To rub it in, the Rocky built a 12-foot-high wire mesh Garfield and his dog-friend Odie on top of its building.

It was too smug for the Posties. O'Driscoll's artist wife Paula Pence fashioned an eight-foot by four-foot rolled up Denver Post. Wearing coveralls and carrying a ladder, O'Driscoll and Carrier bluffed their way into the Rocky and got on the roof. For about an hour, Denver morning commuters were treated to Odie grinning with a big Denver Post jammed into his mouth.

"That thing did so much for morale in the newsroom," says O'Driscoll. "We were heroes."

Meanwhile morale at the Rocky declined as the paper stalled. It wasn't helped much by Rocky Editor Jay Ambrose, who first joined the paper in 1977, left for the El Paso Herald-Post in 1983 and became the Rocky's editor six years ago. He left abruptly in July to write editorials for Scripps Howard's news service.

Ambrose, 51, was a stickler for rules. He insisted the tabloid adhere to a rigid format. Jumps were rarely allowed, and if they were, they couldn't be more than a few pages away.

"We've had all these mindless rules," says Christopher Broderick, a Rocky education editor. "Ambrose's philosophy was he wanted a quick read... You had to get the managing editor's permission if you wanted to jump a story."

And Ambrose apparently lacked the people skills that made Spencer wildly popular. Ambrose would walk around rather than through the newsroom.

"I consider Jay a good friend," says Strutton. "Very bright. Very well-read. Managing people is not one of Jay Ambrose's strengths. Jay got off on the wrong foot with a lot of people. Jay made some mistakes early on as editor in people decisions. With some people he could never recover. But the Rocky Mountain News is a much better paper than it was five years ago."

In the last year or so, there'd been a lot of hangdog faces at the Rocky – despite the fact that the paper is still number one in daily circulation. Many blame Ambrose, who declined to comment.

Within days of his July departure, Rocky Managing Editor Robert W. Burdick was named editor and John Temple was promoted to Burdick's old spot. The elation was palpable.

The Rocky threw a party the day the announcement appeared in both papers and hosted an open bar that night at the Denver Press Club. "There's definitely a certain energy that I haven't felt in a long time," police reporter John Ensslin said that night at the bar. "The buzz in this room is different. People feel excited. What's interesting to me is they feel excited about people who've been here for a while."

Brian Weber, another Rocky reporter, said he heard Burdick use a word during his speech that night that Ambrose never uttered: fun. "There's a word I haven't heard in five years," Weber says. "Let's have some fun and not worry about the fucking format." Says Kevin Flynn, who covers city hall for the Rocky, "At least we have a chance now."

Burdick, a hands-on editor and by all accounts a people person, came to the Rocky last fall from the Los Angeles Daily News, where he was editor for seven years. "I'm a straightforward guy," says Burdick, 47. "I think the sun rises and sets on local news. I love competition. That's one of the reasons I'm here."

Burdick's competitive drive is all too familiar to some at the Post. He was that paper's assistant managing editor for business and special projects in the early 1980s. Post reporter Kilzer worked for Burdick there.

"There's a sense that things are going to be up again at the Rocky with Burdick," says Kilzer, who seemed a bit glum about the prospect. "Bob was a pretty fierce competitor back in those days."

One trick both sides use to see what the other has at the earliest possible minute is to head for the loading docks and sweet-talk a circulation guy into turning over an advance copy under the pretext of screening the help wanted ads. (It's for that reason that when one of the papers has a hot scoop, it sometimes keeps it out of the first edition.)

Late one night years ago, Kilzer and colleague Nancy Weaver wanted to make sure they had an exclusive on a big story that was going into the Post. Burdick, Weaver and Kilzer all sidled up to the Rocky's loading docks for a peek. "That's pretty aggressive for an editor to sneak over there too," says Kilzer.

While Burdick's ascension has energized the Rocky, the Post, in the words of one of its staffers who insisted on anonymity, has slipped into a "leadership vacuum" in the post-Spencer era. Says Post business reporter Janet Day, who used to work for the Rocky, "I think we all miss Gil's presence and his management style."

Maybe with Burdick and Temple the Rocky will rebound and steal back the Sunday lead. For too long people have been saying Denver can't handle two newspapers – very few cities can these days. Some worry that Singleton, given his track record, will fold the Post the minute it starts losing money. Others, sure the Rocky is losing money, wonder how long Scripps Howard will shore up its tabloid.

Ultimately, the local economy may make the call. For now, it's booming and Denver is in growth mode. Advertisers are thrilled at rates 20 to 25 percent below what they'd pay in other major markets. And readers get fat Sunday newspapers for 50 cents.

"The next recession," says media analyst John Morton, "may tell the tale." l