The Rocky Mountain News is going down

Singleton didn't cite this figure in a memo sent to his employees at the Post after the Scripps announcement, but he certainly didn't portray the Rocky as a plum, either. In his e-mail, which caused substantial anger among numerous Rocky newsroomers, he wrote that Scripps had notified MediaNews on November 19 that it planned to close the Rocky, which he characterized as "a serious drain on the performance of the Denver Post for years." Nevertheless, Singleton insists that he wasn't trying to maliciously undercut dreams of a last-minute sale. He just wanted to be straightforward with his workers, he says — and stresses that he takes no delight in the Rocky's plight.

"We entered the JOA fully poised to preserve two newspapers in Denver," he maintains. "That was our goal, that was our intention — and the economic model changed on us. It's really nobody's fault. It's not ours. It's not Scripps's. It's certainly not those that work at our newspapers. And I don't see it as us winning. There are no winners and losers in this story."

Boehne, speaking from Cincinnati following his brief visit to Denver, repeats a line he shared with Rocky staffers, maintaining that selling the paper, which Scripps has owned since 1926, was "unthinkable" prior to the recent economic downturn. Yet he admits that Scripps was mighty concerned about the Rocky long before the days of $4-per-gallon gasoline and the federal government's bailout of prominent investment banks a few months ago. He and Singleton confirm that executives at Scripps and MediaNews have been talking for the better part of two years about changing their combined business approach in major ways. "We looked and said, 'Ooof — the industry is changing, '" Boehne allows. "At the time, the economy was very strong. But even then, we would look and say, 'Are things going to hold up okay?'"

Rocky publisher John Temple believes someone will buy his paper.
Rocky publisher John Temple believes someone will buy his paper.

Obviously, they haven't — but the newspaper business was already taking on water long before the nation's financial system as a whole began its most recent plunge. Indeed, the industry's quandary is a decade or more in the making.

By the late '90s, press observers were already concerned about newspapers' aging audience. Simply put, the vast majority of people under forty — the most computer-savvy demographic — had decided that they didn't need to subscribe to a daily newspaper in order to stay informed. The typical editor responded by upping the youth-appeal quotient in order to make newspaper content seem more relevant to those in their twenties and thirties, who are among the consumers most attractive to advertisers. None of their efforts stopped the bleeding, however — and eventually, many managers chose to focus on serving their loyal if aging readership rather than spend time and resources on a demo with little or no interest in their product.

The Rocky appears to have chosen the latter course. During the past several years, the paper gutted its once-solid entertainment section (known as Spotlight) in a succession of cost-cutting moves, and devoted significant chunks of its dwindling news hole to ambitious multi-part narratives about incidents that took place in the distant past. The most prominent examples include two series by talented wordsmith Kevin Vaughn: "The Crossing," which dealt with a schoolbus/train accident that killed twenty children in 1961, and "The Crevasse," a mountaineering adventure tale based on a climb that took place in 1992. Tellingly, the Rocky's cover story on the day of the sale announcement focused on the thirty-year anniversary of a plane crash in Steamboat Springs, and boomer-centric references have popped up routinely since then. Take sportswriter Bernie Lincicome's December 8 column about the Denver Broncos. After referencing the 1972 hit "Your Mama Don't Dance," he offered "apologies to both Loggins and Messina [the song's performers], who could not have had in mind Brandon Marshall and Jay Cutler, since neither was born back when music was fun." That's the kind of line likely to irritate pretty much everyone born after 1980, and a good many of those who came before them.

Granted, the Rocky might have been able to survive for a longer stretch despite being rejected by younger generations were it not for another significant development: the rise of free online advertising sites. For decades, classified ads provided a huge chunk of the average daily newspaper's revenue, but that changed with the advent of Craigslist and the realization that no-charge ads were just as effective when it came to selling that old car or stereo as paying to have a notice appear in print.

This income loss was compounded by a slide in traditional advertising fueled in part by the aforementioned demographic shift and increased competition from television, radio and Internet operations. As a result, both the Post and the Rocky were in severely weakened condition even before the bottom fell out on Wall Street.

"In the last six months, things changed very dramatically — and that's not hard to do when you have a business that has a lot of fixed costs," Boehne says. "When you factor in the economic crisis and the housing crisis and the effects on the general economy, very quickly you don't have a discussion. You have a problem."

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