Shrinkage

Is the new, smaller Rocky more "convenient" than ever, or a sign of an impending newspaper apocalypse?

I never even wanted to be an editor," insists the Rocky Mountain News's John Temple. "I just wanted to be a reporter." Today, however, he not only edits the Rocky, but also serves as its president, publisher and de facto promoter, ballyhooing every change at the tabloid with the sort of enthusiasm many journalists would be embarrassed to display. And when it comes to hyping his beloved paper's latest redesign, largely triggered by the decision to reduce the physical dimensions of each page, he's been pitching like he's never pitched before.

The salutes began in earnest on January 6, when Temple wrote a column lauding new presses at the Edward W. Estlow Printing Plant and teasing the "easier-to-handle" size of the revised Rocky, coming January 23. (Never mind that hanging on to the old paper hadn't been much of a problem in the past.) That was followed on January 20 by another column touting "a new, even more convenient size Rocky," plus a second item that attempted to gin up interest in "The Crossing," a mammoth, 33-part series set to debut, predictably, on the 23rd. Temple struck the convenience theme again on January 22 in "Good Things Coming Tomorrow." And on the big day, he presented two more pieces -- one, headlined "Welcome, Readers, To Your New Rocky," that equated the paper with high-tech doodads (he hoped folks would find it to be "fresh and excitingŠthe way a new cell phone or iPod might feel"), and another that guided readers to specific features in what he described as "a newspaper for the 21st century."

The pile of superlatives had grown so high by then that Rocky columnist Mike Littwin couldn't resist needling his boss in his own January 23 offering. Amid complaints about the fact that his salvos had been moved from near the front of the local news section to the paper's opposite end, Littwin wrote that Temple "has assured me this new column placement will make it even easier -- or, as we like to say in the new conveniently sized Rocky, even more convenient" to find his work.

This assertion is debatable, yet Rocky redux is no disaster. While some elements are a bit problematic, the renovation as a whole upholds the Rocky's tradition of first-rate design even as it serves to distract readers from focusing on the real reasons behind getting smaller. Simply put, Temple and his corporate masters didn't cut page size for the sake of convenience. They did so to save money at a time when newspaper revenues are falling faster than the ratings of TV shows airing opposite American Idol -- and, unfortunately, there's no guarantee the fiscal benefits generated by the move will do anything to dull the pain that will come with the inevitable transition from print to online.

Even before the joint operating agreement linking the Rocky and the Denver Post became official in 2001, representatives of the papers, as well as execs at the fledgling Denver Newspaper Agency, began looking for inefficiencies -- and printing proved to be a big one. Each paper had its own plant, presses and so on, and the outlays associated with supporting both were hefty. Everyone knew that combining the facilities would be difficult, but by mid-2004, the assorted stakeholders had found the right gear and committed to making an investment of time and money that eventually totaled 28 months and $130 million. Along the way, they realized that if pages were trimmed, costs would be as well, since newsprint is the average daily's second-highest expense, after personnel. The overseers at the Wall Street Journal reached the same conclusion, introducing a smaller edition in January.

Because the Rocky was one of the largest tabloids in the U.S., the decrease necessitated a redesign from the ground up. In early 2006, Temple formed a design team and charged members with giving the paper more of a magazine-like feel. Meanwhile, editorial staffers were formed into groups and asked to generate ideas about how to improve the Rocky in ten areas -- among them speed and ease of use. From these sessions came "5 Questions," which substitutes a quintet of questions and answers for the usual text-driven profiles.

Columnist Littwin satirized the sudden proliferation of this concept in his January 23 piece, even though he was on the committee that came up with it. Why? "We didn't recommend they use it sixty times a day," he says. "It was supposed to be five questions, not 300." But Temple is unapologetic. A five-great-things-to-do-this-weekend page was developed to open the Friday Spotlight section, and Temple says, "Frankly, my journalists didn't like it. But we showed it to a focus group, and it was 100 percent positive."

Another priority for Temple was clarity and, specifically, improving the Rocky's reputation for fairness. While the paper's editorial posture is generally conservative -- Temple refers to it as "center right or Western independent" -- some readers perceive a liberal bias in news articles because the paper's metro columnists (Littwin, Bill Johnson and Tina Griego) are of the progressive persuasion. "I hire columnists because I think they have a unique voice that connects with people, but I had created a situation where all of the people I hired were left, or really left, or really, really left," Temple says, laughing. So he proposed moving the Rocky Talk page, where the columnists appear, to the rear of the paper, just past the editorials, to further emphasize that the section is opinion-based. Temple tried to sell this shift by noting that Sports Illustrated's Rick Reilly and Newsweek's George Will occupy similar pages in their respective publications, but it didn't work. He concedes that the columnists don't like their new home -- although Littwin is taking it in stride. "The business of newspapers is in a dire situation," he allows, "so the most important thing for me is to keep making sure I'm getting a paycheck."

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