America's Last Great Newspaper War Ends in Truce

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The 108-year war between the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News has been a classic Wild West affair in Hearstian yellow, stretching from penny-a-day subscription offers in the last decade back to a 1907 streetfight between the papers' editors. Now the bean-counters at the papers have called a truce, entering into a joint operating agreement (JOA) that will merge the Post's and News' circulation and advertising departments into a single entity. And though the agreement keeps the two editorial departments technically distinct, TIME Denver bureau chief Richard Woodbury says it looks like Denver is not long from becoming, like nearly every other city in the country, just another one-newspaper town. "Historically, these agreements tend to eventually mean doom for the weaker paper, which in this case is the money-losing News," he says. "People here are already looking ahead fearfully to the day when there's only one distinct voice in the morning. We liked to feel that we were something special here." They were. New York, Chicago, Boston and Washington, D.C., are now the only towns left with truly competing newspapers. And Woodbury is correct about the effectiveness of JOAs — in the late 1970s, 28 cities had two papers joined at their wallets via JOAs; today, only 13 do. "It's one of the great mysteries of newspaper economics," says Woodbury. "Denver is a boom town, going high-tech and attracting a lot of transplants. Part of it might just be bad management at the News." Part of it also might be that those tech-savvy transplants are content to hit the newsstands in cyberspace and read the Times from L.A. or New York online — at zero dollars a day — rather than get the local news on their front stoop for a quarter. Newspaper wars have traditionally been fought on the streets, with big headlines and eye-catching subscription deals, for the hearts and coins of the masses. Ripening economies like Seattle's and Denver's might just be outgrowing local ink. And the last great newspaper war in America is slipping into legend.