The Rocky Mountain News is going down

The unusual newspapering balance of power in Denver made overcoming these obstacles all the more difficult. Over the past half-century, the mammoth costs associated with print journalism led to a steady decline in the number of cities with competing dailies. As of today, only a handful of very large metro areas — New York City, Chicago, Boston et al. — have independent papers that go head to head, and plenty of others lost their second daily quite some time ago. For instance, Dallas became a single-newspaper town when the Dallas Times Herald shut down in 1992, and Houston followed suit three years later thanks to the closure of the Houston Post. Both of these papers had been owned by none other than MediaNews's Dean Singleton.

A highly literate citizenry and Denver's status as a regional hub helped the Mile High City retain two daily newspapers, as did the joint operating agreement between the Post and the News. Blessed by the U.S. Department of Justice, the pact let both papers consolidate business operations under the auspices of the Denver Newspaper Agency, thereby generating significant savings. But the DNA also spent big bucks on a pair of expensive projects: a new headquarters at 101 West Colfax Avenue for the agency and both papers (reported price tag: $88 million), and a high-tech press capable of printing both the Post and the Rocky (overall tab: $130 million-plus).

These ventures were set in motion during the early years of the JOA, when it was possible to interpret the burgeoning popularity of Craigslist and the like as complications capable of being overcome as opposed to potentially lethal gutshots. But by the time they opened for business — the DNA building was dedicated in December 2006 and the press, at 5990 Washington Street, began spitting out papers in September 2007 — plenty of people inside the newspapers and out wondered if the expenditures had been a good idea. Note that Scripps specifically mentioned "approximately $130 million in long-term debt resulting from a recently completed consolidation of production facilities" as one of the reasons it's selling the Rocky. Singleton isn't second-guessing the moves, though.

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

"The decision about the printing press was made based on economic savings for the agency, and it exceeded our goals," he says. "If we didn't have the printing plant, we'd be far worse off than we are today. The press wasn't bought for the sole purpose of improving quality. It was bought to save money, and going to new technology saved the agency more than $30 million a year." The tune is much the same in regard to the pricey new HQ: "We had to combine into one building, because neither of our old buildings worked. And the building costs us very little more than what the old rent cost. That hasn't affected us negatively, either."

What has, according to Singleton, is the Rocky's tabloid format, whose smaller size in comparison with the Post's broadsheet pages equates to less dough rolling in to the DNA. "Go get a paper, and you'll find 126 inches on a full-page ad in the Post and 56 inches on a full-page ad in the Rocky — and the inch rate's the same," Singleton says. "It's mathematics, simple as that." As such, he goes on, the Post is in better shape than the Rocky, which may sell a few more copies on a daily basis (something Temple emphasized in his December 6 column) but is poised to lose $15 million in 2008, according to Scripps.

These claims about the Post's relative health may be true, but there's no way to prove them. Scripps is a public company, so all of its financials are available for perusal — but MediaNews is privately held, and Singleton keeps the data to himself. That makes the Rocky story "a very difficult one for journalists to cover," Temple believes. "There's very little known about his financial resources. Only what he says."

Rocky business writer David Milstead knows what Temple means. Back in June, a Standard & Poor's analyst told him that MediaNews was in danger of defaulting on its debt by year's end and might be forced to renegotiate with its lenders, as it had the previous year. So how did Singleton counter this assertion? By telling Milstead, "That is their opinion."

As for the views of Rocky staffers contacted by Westword, they tend toward the theory that MediaNews Group is hurting every bit as much as is Scripps, if not more — but Singleton's simply better at bluffing. Hence reporter April Washington's rhetorical remark: "Why does Scripps always blink first?"

Boehne doesn't much like the implications of this question. "The idea that we blinked really comes out of trying to relive, or continuing to live, the newspaper war," he says. "Because economically, these two newspapers are joined at the hip, and we had to make what we thought was the very best decision for the Rocky Mountain News in the long term."

This statement only makes sense if Boehne truly believes that a buyer for the Rocky can be found. But Scripps's recent past argues otherwise.

Last year the company spun off its more profitable cable holdings, including HGTV and the Food Network, into a separate firm, Scripps Networks Interactive — a tactic that thrilled investors, who sent the new SNI stock soaring. Meanwhile, E.W. Scripps moved quickly to rid itself of its most unprofitable newspapers, including two that were part of existing JOAs. The Cincinnati Post had sentimental value, since it was based in Scripps's home city, but it had lost money for ages, and its partner paper, the Cincinnati Enquirer, had formally announced that it wouldn't renew the JOA, which expired at the end of 2007. For that reason, Scripps didn't go through the motions of announcing that the Post was for sale before pulling the plug, as it had with the Albuquerque Tribune. Boehne said nice things about the Tribune when the sale news was made public in late August, just as he's doing now when it comes to the Rocky. But no buyer materialized, and the Trib ceased operations in February.

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