As anyone who’s read about 19th century U.S. journalism already knows, old-timey newspaper circulation wars between rival papers could get pretty ugly. Yet even in those two-fisted times, when battles over readership sometimes turned into literal battles, the century-long struggle between the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News was something else. “I can’t imagine being in a competitive environment where I have to watch over my shoulder just to make sure I’m not clubbed or maybe shot by a competitor,” said Pittsburg State University professor Ken Ward.
Ward, who spent much of his youth in Colorado, was so fascinated with the Post/News rivalry that he wrote about it for his doctoral dissertation. That served as the foundation for his first book, “Last Paper Standing: A Century of Competition Between the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News.” The project, which took about six years to complete, chronicles not just the two publications’ cutthroat struggle for supremacy, but how the fallout from that battle forced the two to come together in a joint operating agreement. And the lessons their strategy for survival might hold for other publications.
How did you first connect to this story?
I grew up on the on the Eastern Slope of Colorado, in the town of Hugo and I saw this competition play out as these two newspapers just beat the snot out of each other. So, for me, it was a personal story. Not because I was involved in any in this competition, but because, while growing up, I had seen and been fascinated by these enormous newspapers. They were showing up as far as 100 miles away from the cities in which they were produced. As a Ph.D. student at Ohio University looking for a research project, I just wanted to know why they competed in these outlandish ways, and to what end.
Places like New York City and the West Coast were always hotbeds of newspaper competition in the 19th and 20th centuries. Was the flavor of the competition in Colorado different?
When it comes to journalism history, the coasts are where everybody looks first. But that story has been told very well very many times. People need to pay more attention to cities like Denver, in the center of the country. Because you can actually learn a lot about what was going on in places like New York by looking at Denver first. A lot of the techniques of what came to be known as yellow journalism, which was popularized in New York and San Francisco, were in fact done in Denver in the 1890s. And we can look at Denver to try to understand the history of the development of newspaper competition. Not as a story based solely on the coasts, but as an organic story in which what happened in the country’s interior also influenced the coasts, and vice versa.
The logistics of running a big paper in a relatively compact, urbanized place like New York City was (and remains) tough. What was it like for the Denver papers, which covered a much larger (and less developed) geographic area?
The geography is really vast. Especially if you take the approach that the Post did in the mid-20th century, under the leadership of a “modernizing” publisher by the name of Edwin Palmer Hoyt. His whole idea was to create a sort of “Rocky Mountain empire,” with the Denver Post serving as a sort of information hub for a geographic region that (in Hoyt’s mind) stretched as far north as the Canadian border and as far south as New Mexico, and from Kansas City all the way to Utah. He wanted the Post to be the voice of this vast area, and they actually wanted to execute on this idea and deliver newspapers to the far reaches of this empire. This went from the 1950s to the 1970s and beyond. I remember as a kid that the Post still aspired to this. They had a distribution network that stretched for hundreds of miles. I know for a fact that they were delivering newspapers up into Wyoming. They had this system where they would deliver newspapers to railroad stations, and kids up in, say, Sterling, Colorado, would pick up bundles of papers and start carrying them around town. However, the Post started losing ground to the News in the 1980s, when they decided they wanted to transition to an all-adult delivery workforce. The transition wasn’t handled very well and it cost them a lot of circulation. The Rocky Mountain News was able to capitalize on the situation pretty efficiently. It set up the vicious competition between the two papers during the ’90s.
There was actually a price war at this time, wasn’t there?
In the late ’90s these papers were selling for such outrageously low prices that, if you were a subscriber, you could get a copy of the paper for a penny a day. It was in the fall of 1997 that they started rolling out the “penny a day” model. You couldn’t do it for seven days a week, but you could get around circulation rules by offering this deal for six days a week. It was madness. You would have people standing on highway medians hawking both newspapers. People were calling the state offices in Denver, complaining about the papers’ advertising practices. Because they wouldn’t stop calling people’s homes, trying to get them to sign up for these ridiculous deals. It just got absolutely out of hand.
Did this competition have a certain “Denver” flavor to it that was different from newspaper wars on the coasts?
I think one of the key differences between the two papers, and the reason their rivalry carried on as long as it did, was that they each had a different, very specific idea of who their ideal reader was. The Post and the News looked completely different from each other during the second half of the 20th century. They read completely different. And the papers and the readers liked it that way. The News was defined by its tabloid format and style. It became a tabloid during the 1940s, because newsprint became extremely expensive due to war rationing. The News exploited this format with a very visual, in-your-face style, and they went after a more conservative, working class readership. Whereas the Post remained a traditional broadsheet. It was staid and stodgy, claimed to be the voice of the Rocky Mountain empire, and wanted to be the paper of record. It went for a more elite, very business-oriented readership. There was a very purposeful differentiation between the two products, and because different groups of people were hungry for both of these very different papers, they could both survive even when they both weren’t necessarily thriving.
Considering their longstanding rivalry, how were they able to merge operations in 2001 in a joint operating agreement?
The joint operating agreement allows newspapers (unlike other types of businesses, where it’s prohibited) to enter into noncompetitive agreements that under normal circumstances would be antitrust violations. This happened in Denver because the ridiculous extremes of their 1990s competition broke the financial backs of the two papers. Scripps-Howard owned the Rocky Mountain News at the time. They were doing okay financially as a whole, but Denver was just killing them. So, they joined forces on the business side.
What about editorial?
Editorially they stayed completely separate. Talking with reporters and managers for this book, they kind of expected there would be less competition after the joint operating agreement. But the opposite happened. On the business side, the JOA was kind of a money printer. But on the editorial side, it cranked up the competition even more, because now the Post and News both wanted to prove that they were still unique, independent, individual newsrooms. It really was, for eight or so years, a beautiful thing for those two newspapers, though not necessarily for the advertisers in Denver. They’d say, “They’re gouging us on prices because they no longer have to compete.” But there’s no doubt that in terms of editorial diversity in Denver, having a joint operating agreement preserved two different voices in newsprint.
So they both survived the 1990s, only to have the Internet and Craigslist hit them in the 21st century, essentially drying up the advertising revenue pool to such a degree that survival of two newspapers was impossible?
Yeah. One of my reasons for writing this book was to understand whether or not the reasons given by Scripps Howard for closing the Rocky Mountain News just two months before its 150th anniversary were in fact true. Essentially their argument was that the business model changed. Circulations have been struggling since the ’90s, and now the Internet had come along and just clubbed them in the knees. It’s impossible to financially support two individual newsrooms at this point, and therefore one of the two papers has to go, and we’re going to be the ones who go. I wanted to know whether or not Scripps Howard was being upfront when they said that, and insofar, as I can tell, there is no bombshell at the end of this book that shows they weren’t.
Yet it didn’t have to be that way. Not necessarily. The Internet happened. Craigslist shows up and steals away all this classified advertising, and something did have to change. Now, did that change have to be the closure of the Rocky Mountain News? I argue that there are lots of much more creative things that could have been done, and there were people at the papers with ideas of how to keep both newspapers, at least editorially, alive. John Temple, the last editor at the News, had some very clear visions on what that might’ve looked like, based on other papers with joint operating agreements. Ultimately, Scripps Howard wasn’t interested in those things, or at least wasn’t able to come to terms with the owners of the Post. And so those things just didn’t happen.
When you started working on this, did you think this would be a huge project or pretty straightforward? What did you want it to be?
Newspaper biographies are kind of a genre. There are a lot of people who have written the histories of these two newspapers, and that was true of both the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News. But as I read the histories that had already been written, they came across as very two-dimensional and cartoonish. They treat the early stages of the development of the Rocky Mountain News almost like an episode of “Gunsmoke.” It was so simplistic, it drove me nuts. And so I really wanted to look at the story anew from this perspective of competition, and instead of trying to find heroes and villains, look at these really interesting people as real human beings who are making real business decisions, trying to make money, and trying to do right editorially for their communities.
What’s the most interesting thing you discovered that you didn’t know about this story beforehand?
Fred Bonfils and a partner bought the Denver Post in 1895, and they completely turned it around. Previously the Rocky Mountain News had been the leader in Denver. Bonfils revitalized the Post, turning it “yellow” and leaning really hard into populism and crusades. It’s a fascinating story. But before I started my research, I did not really understand how dirty Bonfils’ background was. He had had a bad reputation in Denver, but in previous biographies and histories everyone kind of winked at him maybe being a blackmailer and maybe leaning really hard on advertisers. When I got into the research and looked in some archives, plus articles written by Rocky Mountain News reporters who were digging into Bonfils’ background, and heard about the witnesses testifying to things that they said Bonfil had done, I was blown away.
It’s not a question as to whether or not this guy was gross. His hands were so dirty. Historians have handled that with kid gloves, and I understand why nobody wants to go out on a ledge and say just how bad things were. But boy, he played dirty. It seems very clear that he was blackmailing Denver advertisers. He was, before he got the newspaper game, involved in some capacity with an illegal lottery. He was involved in a land swindle in Oklahoma during the land rush down there. He just has this history that is outrageous, and that hadn’t been, I thought, told in its full glory yet.
How hot could the Post/News rivalry get?
On the morning of the day after Christmas, 1907, Thomas Patterson, recently retired United States Senator and current owner of the Rocky Mountain News, was walking to the paper’s offices when he heard someone come up behind him and say something to the effect of, “Hey you.” When Patterson turned his head to see who it was, he was punched in the side of the head, and then punched again. He fell to the ground as the assault continued. Somebody was just beating the snot out of him. Finally, the attacker stepped back and said, “You have had this coming for a long time, and if my name appears in your paper tonight, tomorrow, or a month from now, I’ll shoot you.” And the guy standing over him was Bonfils, the publisher of the Post. He was mad about something Patterson put in his paper about the libel battle the Post and News were having at the time. Patterson just got up after the encounter, cleaned himself up, went to the Rocky Mountain News and got back to work. The two immediately put their own spins on the attack, and on the court case that resulted.
Is there anything from the Post/News rivalry that other papers in other cities can apply to their modern travails?
The one thing that just stares the reader of this book in the face is that you have to find a way to differentiate your product from your competition. Even if you’re both trying to operate in a similar market, if you can convince your audience that what you have is different from what the other person is offering, then not only will you find an audience, but advertisers will need you because of your access to those readers.
This story stresses that product differentiation is still fundamentally critical to success. Because the only reason that these two newspapers were competing until 2009 instead of 1999 or even 1949, is that they set themselves apart editorially. They tried to have a different tone, they tried to have a different look, and they pursued a different audience while still maintaining their journalistic integrity. And that’s the other important thing. It’s really easy to assume that what we should have is one outlet playing MSNBC and the other copying Fox News. But that’s not what I’m saying at all. Because both of these newspaper reported fact-based, verified, high-quality information. They just packaged it differently.
Do you have an idea for another book?
I live in Pittsburgh, Kansas, and there was a newspaper in a nearby town called The Appeal to Reason. It was a socialist newspaper that had a circulation in the hundreds of thousands. It was the biggest socialist newspaper in American history. And it was published from, I’m telling you, the middle of nowhere. It’s like two hours from Kansas City, and that’s the nearest city. Yet they managed to publish this leader of socialist thought in the late 1890s and 1900s. This has been explored by a few researchers, but boy, it’s such a good story. It deserves more space. It’s what I’m looking at right now.