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."

The salaries will continue flowing if the Rocky can attract people who aren't currently reading the paper, and Temple sees two groups as being particularly promising: "young, active people who rely on the Internet but still use print, and young, middle-income families." Nevertheless, the two main stories on January 23 seemed aimed at older audiences. "The Crossing," penned by staffer Kevin Vaughan, tells about a 1961 train-schoolbus accident that killed twenty children, and it's very deliberately paced; on day three, the train still had not reached the dreaded intersection. Likewise, a three-page spread about Holocaust survivors didn't exactly brim with youth appeal. Still, Temple thinks the tales send the message that the Rocky is "about storytelling. It's at the heart of everything we do."

The presentation of this material was strong, as is typical in the new-look Rocky. The photos and body type look sharp thanks to the new presses; that's especially true on the Spotlight and Sports section fronts, which feature full-page color images that overtly recall magazine covers. These spreads suggest less news, and so does January 25's Rocky Talk, which took two pages to display what used to fit on one, but Temple maintains that, because of "efficiencies in the way we package some things," the amount of copy evens out. Whatever the case, the layout is clean, if a little confusing at first because of section headers (like the one for the World & Nation pages) that are more subtle than they need to be. And despite type that's slightly smaller than it was previously, readability is good -- not that everyone agrees. During the January 23 edition of Channel 9's morning show, the sight of anchor Kyle Dyer squinting at Rocky pages spoke volumes.

As for Post business columnist Al Lewis, he ribbed the "incredible shrinking Rocky" in a January 24 blog illustrated with a mock cover of the "Rocky Munchkin News," only to acknowledge a few lines later that the Post will also be downsizing before long. (Westword, which is printed on the same gear, has already undergone the process.) Granted, the Post probably won't have to change as dramatically as the Rocky has because of its broadsheet approach -- but Temple prefers the extra work to the alternative. "One of the main reasons our readers like this paper is because of our format," he says, adding, "It's really convenient."

And he's going to make damn sure everyone knows it. Is the new, smaller Rocky more "convenient" than ever, or a sign of an impending newspaper apocalypse?

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