Fowler has great fun drawing contrasts between the two very different partners, who resemble a power-mad Laurel and Hardy. Tammen, energetic and glib, cultivated an image as a lovable scoundrel; Bonfils, brooding and dyspeptic, loved dogs and money and not much else. God only knows why they decided to go into the news business. Neither was particularly interested in journalism, civic activism, or even reading. (One historian suggests that Bonfils was barely literate when he purchased the Post.) They were hustlers and con men, and the paper they created reflected that. As Fowler tells it: “From this friendship was born a blatantly new journalism, called by some a menace, a font of indecency, a nuptial flight of vulgarity and sensationalism; by others regarded as a guarantee against corporate banditry, a championing of virtue and a voice of the exploited working man. The important thing was that everyone would have some opinion of the product of this union.”

* * *

Bonfils and Tammen set about advertising the Post with tricks and gimmicks better suited to a traveling circus. (Later, Tammen actually purchased a traveling circus, and used the pages of the Post to build its business by viciously defaming its rivals.) They installed a gigantic, electric American flag outside the newsroom, and a siren on the roof. Pedestrians near the Post office would sometimes see Bonfils, “a sudden wild gleam in his eye, prancing on the balcony, reaching into cloth sacks and pulling out fistfuls of new pennies, flinging them to fighting gamins below and shouting: ‘Lucky! Lucky! The Post brings you luck!’”

The paper itself became a tribute to excess. It ran the biggest headlines, hired the loudest newsboys. It bought every comic strip and syndicated feature available, in order to keep them out of the hands of its rivals. Bonfils and Tammen staffed the paper with big names (Frederick W. White, the essayist and drama critic), fancy names (Lord Ogilvy, youngest son of the Earl of Airlie, who became their farm reporter), and funny names (sports editor Otto Floto, who was hired because Tammen found his name delightfully musical). They brought in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son for a month, paid him $1,000, and published none of his stories, instead selling his best work elsewhere for a $2,500 fee.

All this sound and fury helped the Post court the emerging readers whom Denver’s other newspapers had theretofore ignored. Populist when it was expedient, provincial by default, the Post promoted itself as “The Best Friend the People Ever Had.” “Write the news for all of the people,” Bonfils once instructed his reporters, “not just the rich and important or those who think they are. If you are understood by the busy, simple folk, everybody will understand you.” When a Post copyeditor balked at an ungrammatical headline reading JEALOUS GUN-GAL PLUGS HER LOVER LOW, Tammen refused to budge. “That’s the trouble with this paper—too God damned much grammar,” he said. It was less a retort than a statement of purpose.

The Post specialized in crusades and investigations, choosing its targets for maximum shock value and maximum financial benefit. When local coal dealers failed to advertise in the Post, Bonfils and Tammen leased their own coal mines and undercut their competitors’ prices, printing stories all the while that bashed the piratical “coal trusts.” When local retailers banded together to withhold their advertising, the paper retaliated with a series on how Denver’s department stores routinely violated child labor laws. (The retailers soon reconsidered their boycott.)

Crime was a popular topic. “When attacked in pulpits or women’s clubs on the ground of sensationalism, of catering to the mass moronic mind by playing up crime and criminals, the Post owners said they did this to show that ‘Crime doesn’t pay,’” writes Fowler. “They sprinkled little black-face lines of type throughout the paper, usually closing a tale of morbidity with the grace note: ‘Crime never pays.’” (The Post’s use of typography was consistently creative, deploying huge headlines, numerous fonts, and blood-red ink whenever something required extra emphasis. John Gunther, a latter-day observer, once compared its front page to “a confused and bloody railway accident.”)

Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.