In the winter of 1907, Denver showed the rest of the nation how to fight a newspaper war. The Rocky Mountain News published an editorial alleging that Frederick Bonfils, the co-owner of The Denver Post, was a blackmailing rogue who used his paper to smear those merchants with the temerity to advertise in rival publications. Bonfils, gravely offended, decided the only reasonable response was to sneak up behind the News’s elderly publisher, Senator Thomas Patterson, and punch him repeatedly in the head. He did so in broad daylight, and as Patterson lay dazed in a weedy downtown lot, Bonfils stood above him, howling about the pain he would inflict if his name ever again appeared in the News. It was December 26: Boxing Day.
Three days later, Bonfils was arraigned for assault and battery, but the prosecutor tried the case as if the Post itself were under indictment. Patterson testified to the Post’s vicious, retaliatory business practices, and decried its many offenses against journalism. “I have had no question in the world but that Mr. Bonfils and Mr. Tammen have used the paper that they control for blackmailing purposes,” declared Patterson. The courtroom burst into applause.
Gene Fowler tells this story halfway through Timber Line, his riotous anecdotal history of the Post’s early years, and by then it’s clear Senator Patterson wasn’t the only Denverite who had been floored by the Post’s editorial leadership. Bonfils and his partner, Harry Tammen, purchased the newspaper in 1895. Over the next 12 years, through a mixture of gimmickry, hustle, bad faith, and criminal mischief, they built it into the dominant newspaper in Colorado, with a readership that eclipsed the combined circulation of its three closest competitors. A pandering, schizoid broadsheet that put the “yell” in “yellow journalism,” the Post was the newspaper the people of Denver wanted, though perhaps not the one they deserved.
Timber Line is a story about the most scandalous newspaper of its generation, and how its badness made it legendary. The Post pioneered the concept of the guilty-pleasure read. It took the yellow journalism popularized by Eastern papers like The New York World, made it half as smart and twice as loud, and refused to apologize for doing so. Every evening, the Post arrived as if shot from the barrel of a Remington revolver, aimed directly at whoever stood in its publishers’ way. Subtlety and moderation were foreign concepts. When an outlaw rides into town, he lets everyone know he’s there.
Today’s newspapers, losing ground to Internet outlets that are less thoughtful, less serious, and infinitely more popular, can perhaps empathize with the Post’s rivals, who fumed as the public rushed to embrace this lunatic newcomer. It’s not always clear what to do when faced with a competitor who plays by different rules, and so it’s understandable that the spectators in the Denver courtroom that winter’s day were enthusiastic about what appeared to be a chance to restore order to the city and hold the Post accountable for its crimes.
It didn’t work. The judge fined Bonfils $50 plus court costs, and left him and Patterson with some words of advice: “If you desire to place this community under a deep debt of gratitude, you can easily do so by placing in the columns of your great newspapers matters more beneficial to the community and interesting to the readers” than had lately been appearing. But Bonfils knew more about what the great mass of people in Denver wanted than did their senators and judges. The lecture went unheeded. Bonfils and the Post were just getting started.
Gene Fowler worked at the Post from 1914 to 1918, covering sports and writing features. A newsroom wit like his contemporaries Damon Runyon and Ben Hecht, Fowler fit a journalistic archetype that has been professionalized out of existence today. Various biographies are filled with stories of the boisterous, carousing Fowler blowing deadlines, devising pranks, and antagonizing his interviewees with impudent questions. (In his first month on the job, he so offended Buffalo Bill Cody that Cody tried to have him fired.)
He got away with it because he could write. Though wholly forgotten today, Fowler was considered one of the best journalistic storytellers of his generation. In his books, at least, he worked in the realm between fact and fiction, drawing vivid, big-hearted portraits of larger-than-life characters. Fowler did his reporting, then he buffed the truth into legend.