The Rocky Mountain News is going down

Even so, Temple doesn't feel that "this is some bogus attempt to sell. The owners believe that erring on the side of seeing what is possible is a better way to approach things than not to do that." And notwithstanding evidence to the contrary, Boehne insists that Scripps wants to remain in the newspaper business. But right now, he says, "large metro markets are much more difficult than mid-size markets. There's more competition, so you might have a lower penetration rate, and you've got to cover a lot more geography with a physical product that you print and bag and deliver every single day."

Given that reality, who in their right mind would want to take a chance on the Rocky? While Boehne says Scripps has gotten offers for the paper in the past, he won't identify such potential buyers or say how long ago this interest was expressed. (Best estimate: a minimum of five years, and probably longer.) So he paints a picture of a "third party" with "a different view of the business or deeper pockets."

To most locals, the only Denverite who fits that description is billionaire Phil Anschutz, who parlayed railroad holdings into a media empire that includes assorted physical and online newspapers arrayed under the Examiner name. But the same day the for-sale sign went up on the Rocky, Jim Monaghan, speaking for Anschutz, who doesn't do interviews, denied that his boss might be convinced to invest. It was an assertion that Rocky reporter Jeff Smith juxtaposed with a statement by Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism organization, who said, "If you're interested, the best way to approach it is saying you're not interested."

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

In response, Monaghan declares, "I'm too old to play those contorted games. I always love experts who don't know anything about deals and talk hypothetically.... It's something we're really not pursuing."

For those who might think about doing so, Circuit Media editor Don Knox, who served stints as business editor at the Rocky and the Post, offers an idea about how the paper might be rescued. "Just do a bankruptcy for the DNA," he advises. "Change the equity and extend the lease payments. After all, it's got $300 million in revenue. That doesn't sound like a broken company to me. That sounds like a company with challenges — but in 2008, there are a lot of companies with challenges."

Trouble is, Singleton would have to go along with a bankruptcy plan, and he's adamant that he wouldn't do so. Moreover, the fine print of the JOA gives him the right to purchase the Rocky himself (a prospect he rejects) or approve of any potential buyer — and it certainly sounds as if no one could satisfy his criteria. "The bottom line is, to continue with two newspapers would mean the death of both," he says. In contrast, he thinks the disappearance of the Rocky would give the Post a fighting chance to outlast the current recession: "It would take the profit the DNA makes and fund one newsroom. So it would certainly make it viable — but not a cash cow."

The Rocky, for its part, seems bound for the slaughterhouse, and many of its employees wonder how long their superiors have known its fate. In early November, Scripps announced layoffs of around 400 workers, but the Rocky was exempted — something managing editor Deb Goeken mentioned to staffers shortly thereafter in an apparent attempt to boost morale. But less than two weeks later, unbeknownst to the main workforce, Media-News and Scripps executives huddled, and Singleton says he was told at that time that the Rocky would be shuttered. Boehne disputes this interpretation, albeit gently. "I guess his comments would suggest what outcome he would most desire," he offers. "But is that the clear conclusion? I think it is not."

Whatever the case, the Rocky now finds itself in limbo. New subscription sales will grind to a halt, and the advertising staff is sure to have a tougher time convincing businesses to put their money into the paper. To make things worse, reporters and staffers will double their efforts to find new jobs — and Temple doesn't blame them, as long as they are up front with him.

"I would never stand in the way of somebody leaving here if they thought they had a better opportunity," he says. "I might tell them what I think of the opportunity, and I often have. But if people find opportunity, God bless them. I'll support them, and we'll find a way to put out the paper. We can do that. I guarantee it." Likewise, he warns those who stick around that he won't relax his standards in light of recent events: "If people aren't going to work to pick up their load, I've got a problem with that, because it means somebody else is going to work harder. We have a responsibility. We're being paid. We're professionals. And we should do our best to live up to the history of this newspaper, and do our best to position us so that if it can have a future, we've done nothing to damage it."

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