The Rocky Mountain News is going down

The Rocky Mountain News began marking its sesquicentennial months before the actual date — April 23, 2009 — with the launch of a planned 150-part series spotlighting its coverage of notable historic events that took place during its life span. But the paper has also been embracing new technology even as its basic business design — printing information on paper that's then transported at great expense to the mailboxes and driveways of subscribers who are often many miles away — becomes more and more antiquated.

This collision of the past and the future took on a special poignancy on December 4, when video journalist Sonya Doctorian captured newsroom footage of John Temple, the Rocky's editor, publisher and president, and Rich Boehne, president and CEO of its parent company, Cincinnati-based E.W. Scripps, telling the paper's staff that the tabloid had just been put up for sale. That video was then loaded on the Rocky's website, along with the rest of Boehne's comments, as the paper tried to cover itself like any other story.

Neither man described the development as fatal, even though Scripps has given itself only a little over a month to find a buyer smack-dab in the middle of the worst newspaper market in the history of the industry. But the expressions on the faces of staffers such as Tina Griego, Gary Massaro and Mark Brown imply that the end is near.

The Rocky Mountain News announces it is for sale.
The Rocky Mountain News announces it is for sale.
MediaNews Group CEO Dean Singleton
MediaNews Group CEO Dean Singleton

It's too bad, then, that Doctorian's camera didn't capture a much less glum episode that happened shortly after the meeting broke up. Columnist Mike Littwin re-enacted a speech delivered by John Belushi's Bluto Blutarsky in the 1978 movie Animal House. In that scene, when the residents of Delta House learn that they've been expelled, D-Day (Bruce McGill) mutters, "War's over" — to which Blutarsky responds, "Over? Did you say over? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell, no!"

In his column the next day, however, Littwin wasn't nearly as cocksure. He joked that the first thing he and his 231 newsroom colleagues will say on their next job is, "Do you want fries with that?"

Not that such a fate is likely to befall Littwin. Should the Rocky collapse, there's a good chance the Denver Post will hire a handful of marquee writers from its longtime rival, and he's the biggest potential catch. (Look for our shopping list on page 19.) Still, the vast majority of the Rocky journos who chose to bet their livelihood on the survival of the paper rather than taking buyouts or jumping ship over the past couple of years will be looking for work — and since precious few newspapers are hiring these days, most are likely to find employment in different fields.

The impact on the community will be harder to measure but every bit as significant. The Rocky became Colorado's first newspaper when it was founded in 1859, seventeen years before statehood, and its readership battle with the Post is rightly remembered as one of the country's last great newspaper wars. That scrap came to an end from a business perspective in 2001 with the institution of a joint operating agreement, a fifty-fifty business partnership between the papers that is overseen by the Denver Newspaper Agency. (For more on the way the JOA muddies a potential Rocky closure, see page 20.) Most observers expected the journalistic competition to end as well. But the Rocky stayed as scrappy as ever, winning a fistful of Pulitzer Prizes, and helped make Denver a more interesting place to live.

That won't change prior to mid-January, at which time Scripps execs say they will consider "other options" in the absence of a buyer. Temple thinks such a person might actually exist — or at least he's not ready to write off the possibility. "Sitting here on my desk is a poster from 1993: 'Save the New York Post,'" he says. "The Post was in much more dire circumstances than we are today. It was on its deathbed, and along came Rupert Murdoch. He bought it, and fifteen years later, it's a vibrant part of that community. I'm not saying the identical thing is going to happen here. But we'll see."

Of course, any fantasy that casts Rupert Murdoch as a white knight and the New York Post as a paragon of lively journalism has credibility issues from the get-go — and Dean Singleton isn't buying into it. The publisher of the Post and vice chairman and CEO of MediaNews Group, a nationwide newspaper chain based in Denver, Singleton doubts that the Scripps crew expects Murdoch or anyone else to show up with a checkbook. "I think if somebody walked in and wanted to buy it, they'd sell it," he says. "But I don't think even they think there'll be a buyer."

If that's true, they're not alone. Few major newspapers have been sold of late: Singleton's 2006 purchase of the San Jose Mercury News is among the most recent. Besides, there's a glut of other name properties available for purchase that are attracting little or no attention from serious firms, including the San Diego Union-Tribune and the Miami Herald — and the December 8 announcement of a bankruptcy filing on behalf of the Tribune Co., owner of the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, underscores the illness of the print-journalism trade as a whole. So does the condition of the Rocky, which is reportedly $11 million in the red over the past nine months.

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