Inside the Temple

The Rocky's leader believes his paper is a survivor.

For the first two years of this column's existence, John Temple, the editor, publisher and president of the Rocky Mountain News, was about as accessible to Westword as Osama bin Laden. He didn't return e-mails, he didn't return voice-mail messages, and he didn't return messages left with his secretary, who would occasionally chuckle when asked to pass along interview requests to her boss. After all, she knew that Temple was more likely to join the Taliban than to phone back.

More recently, the silence was broken not once, but twice. Last fall, Temple shared memories about veteran columnist Gene Amole, who had just announced he was dying ("The Subject of a Lifetime," November 15, 2001), and later he commented about the curiously timed resignation of the News's longtime international editor, Holger Jensen ("Three the Hard Way," May 16). Then, last month, he agreed to participate in a discussion touching upon a wide range of issues, among them the period before and after the 2001 passage of a joint operating agreement that chained together the business operations of the News and its rival, the Denver Post. (Greg Moore, the Post's new editor, also consented to a sit-down; his remarks will appear in an upcoming edition.) Another key topic was a just-completed redesign of the News, examined in a story on page 16.

The first of several conversations from which the following questions and answers were culled took place on July 18 in Temple's office at the Rocky, a sprawling space cluttered with newspapers -- stacks and stacks of them -- as well as mementos from his time at the paper. (He was hired as the News's metro editor in 1992, taking the helm as editor in 1998.) On display there are photographs of late colleagues such as Alan Dumas, a feature writer for the News (and a former Westword staffer) who died three years ago, plus a shot picturing the children of Greg Lopez, a gifted columnist killed in a 1996 traffic accident. Most prominent of all is a cap emblazoned with the words "Columbine" and "Kyle" -- a gift from the parents of murdered student Kyle Velasquez that Temple can't discuss without getting a bit emotional.

John Temple at home in the Rocky's newsroom.
Larry Winter
John Temple at home in the Rocky's newsroom.

Clearly, Temple, who worked at the Albuquerque Tribune and the Toronto Star prior to joining the News, has a sentimental side. But he can also come across as passionate, sincere, highly motivating, combative, determined and prickly, sometimes in the same exchange. In short, he's a complex personality with a big job -- ensuring the long-term existence of Colorado's oldest daily even after it was defined as a "failing" newspaper in JOA documents. Temple scoffs at this tag, and he'd like nothing more than for every reader in Denver to do so, too.

Westword: When you arrived at the News, what were your first impressions?

John Temple: [Then-editor] Jay Ambrose was a very bright, driven guy who had a lot of ideas. But when you got onto the floor of the paper and you were working with people, it wasn't the most cohesive or energized newsroom. I came in from the outside with possibly different perspectives about how you could do things, how you could approach things. I knew there were really talented people in the room, but I also knew a level of distrust between editors and reporters was present, and that's not going to get you very far.

Were various elements of the paper pulling in different directions?

More that they weren't pulling in the same direction. There were great things happening, and there were great stories being done, but I just saw the opportunity to do more if we were more inventive, more aggressive. I think the paper was a little bit narrowly focused on the rat-a-tat-tat of the daily grind without really looking at the dimensions you could add to stories. But like I said, there were a lot of great people here, and it was really just a matter to me of talking with people and asking, "How can we put good stories into the newspaper?" And that's what we started to do.

What approach did you take to pull everything together?

I'm not sure if I really want to talk about how I do things, because I don't like to talk about personalities. But let me put it this way: How I view the world is, if you help people do work that they're proud of, if you help people accomplish stuff that they look at and go, "We really did something good. That's better than I did the day before," that can create a momentum and an energy. And I think reporters should rightly expect from their editors support and encouragement, but also standards and expectations. So what I tried to do was identify people who wanted to make a difference and to help them do it, so that they, by example, would lead the way. They were leading the way, not me.

Some editors prefer to take a more adversarial stance.

I don't do it that way. If somebody's not doing his job, you have to act. You can't just leave somebody sitting there. But there were good people here. To me, it was just an issue of, "Let's all get on the same page and set an example." Whatever you put in the newspaper is your standard, and I think you always want to set a high standard so you know what it is you're seeking to achieve. That way, even on a day when you don't get there, you think, "My God, we can do this. This is where we can be; this is where we should be. Let's do it." Really, it wasn't a matter of making personnel changes. It was just a chance to give people different opportunities. If you look at this newsroom, I'm still working with a lot of the same people who were here when I arrived ten years ago. So I'd rather focus on work, and find a common ground in work, and then see where that goes. That usually turns into positive values.

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