Inside the Temple
For the first two years of this column's existence, John Temple, the editor, publisher and president of the Rocky Mountain News, was about as accessible to Westword as Osama bin Laden. He didn't return e-mails, he didn't return voice-mail messages, and he didn't return messages left with his secretary, who would occasionally chuckle when asked to pass along interview requests to her boss. After all, she knew that Temple was more likely to join the Taliban than to phone back.
More recently, the silence was broken not once, but twice. Last fall, Temple shared memories about veteran columnist Gene Amole, who had just announced he was dying ("The Subject of a Lifetime," November 15, 2001), and later he commented about the curiously timed resignation of the News's longtime international editor, Holger Jensen ("Three the Hard Way," May 16). Then, last month, he agreed to participate in a discussion touching upon a wide range of issues, among them the period before and after the 2001 passage of a joint operating agreement that chained together the business operations of the News and its rival, the Denver Post. (Greg Moore, the Post's new editor, also consented to a sit-down; his remarks will appear in an upcoming edition.) Another key topic was a just-completed redesign of the News, examined in a story on page 16.
The first of several conversations from which the following questions and answers were culled took place on July 18 in Temple's office at the Rocky, a sprawling space cluttered with newspapers -- stacks and stacks of them -- as well as mementos from his time at the paper. (He was hired as the News's metro editor in 1992, taking the helm as editor in 1998.) On display there are photographs of late colleagues such as Alan Dumas, a feature writer for the News (and a former Westword staffer) who died three years ago, plus a shot picturing the children of Greg Lopez, a gifted columnist killed in a 1996 traffic accident. Most prominent of all is a cap emblazoned with the words "Columbine" and "Kyle" -- a gift from the parents of murdered student Kyle Velasquez that Temple can't discuss without getting a bit emotional.
Clearly, Temple, who worked at the Albuquerque Tribune and the Toronto Star prior to joining the News, has a sentimental side. But he can also come across as passionate, sincere, highly motivating, combative, determined and prickly, sometimes in the same exchange. In short, he's a complex personality with a big job -- ensuring the long-term existence of Colorado's oldest daily even after it was defined as a "failing" newspaper in JOA documents. Temple scoffs at this tag, and he'd like nothing more than for every reader in Denver to do so, too.
Westword: When you arrived at the News, what were your first impressions?
John Temple: [Then-editor] Jay Ambrose was a very bright, driven guy who had a lot of ideas. But when you got onto the floor of the paper and you were working with people, it wasn't the most cohesive or energized newsroom. I came in from the outside with possibly different perspectives about how you could do things, how you could approach things. I knew there were really talented people in the room, but I also knew a level of distrust between editors and reporters was present, and that's not going to get you very far.
Were various elements of the paper pulling in different directions?
More that they weren't pulling in the same direction. There were great things happening, and there were great stories being done, but I just saw the opportunity to do more if we were more inventive, more aggressive. I think the paper was a little bit narrowly focused on the rat-a-tat-tat of the daily grind without really looking at the dimensions you could add to stories. But like I said, there were a lot of great people here, and it was really just a matter to me of talking with people and asking, "How can we put good stories into the newspaper?" And that's what we started to do.
What approach did you take to pull everything together?
I'm not sure if I really want to talk about how I do things, because I don't like to talk about personalities. But let me put it this way: How I view the world is, if you help people do work that they're proud of, if you help people accomplish stuff that they look at and go, "We really did something good. That's better than I did the day before," that can create a momentum and an energy. And I think reporters should rightly expect from their editors support and encouragement, but also standards and expectations. So what I tried to do was identify people who wanted to make a difference and to help them do it, so that they, by example, would lead the way. They were leading the way, not me.
Some editors prefer to take a more adversarial stance.
I don't do it that way. If somebody's not doing his job, you have to act. You can't just leave somebody sitting there. But there were good people here. To me, it was just an issue of, "Let's all get on the same page and set an example." Whatever you put in the newspaper is your standard, and I think you always want to set a high standard so you know what it is you're seeking to achieve. That way, even on a day when you don't get there, you think, "My God, we can do this. This is where we can be; this is where we should be. Let's do it." Really, it wasn't a matter of making personnel changes. It was just a chance to give people different opportunities. If you look at this newsroom, I'm still working with a lot of the same people who were here when I arrived ten years ago. So I'd rather focus on work, and find a common ground in work, and then see where that goes. That usually turns into positive values.
What was your progression toward becoming editor?
I was metro editor, and then Jay thought that we would be a better news organization if we treated business news with the same approach we were applying to metro. So then I became AME [assistant managing editor] of news, I think. And at some point, I also assumed responsibility for features -- and as managing editor, I worked to launch a lot of new sections: "Homefront," "Rocky Preps," "Motor Sports," "Books," a "Commentary" pullout. It was a very creative period, and we were doing a lot of things.
Somewhere along the line came the sectionalizing of the paper.
That came in the spring of 1993, and it was really needed, because we needed to take advantage of a new printing plant. When I came here, I told Jay that what he needed wasn't me; what he needed was an AME of design, because they were going from having a really poor reproduction quality and a standard pencil-and-paper layout to having the ability to utilize a wonderful plant. We had the opportunity to have runs of open color pages right in the front of the paper, and that summer -- the Summer of Violence -- we were suddenly running huge images of our community that people hadn't seen before, including one full-page photo of a kid in an open casket who'd been shot in gang violence. And the article with it was very lightly written. I think a lot of the enterprise journalism that had been going on in Denver had been very word-oriented, but this was much more impressionistic and experiential. It was putting people into the real world and into their community in ways they hadn't seen. That was the power of the printing plant.
I feel the Rocky's photography is superior to the Post's, and I'm guessing you agree.
I don't think there's any question that the quality remains superior. The paper won the Pulitzer Prize for news photography one year, and the next year it was a finalist for feature photography. It's a very strong visual paper. People who excelled for us, the Post tried to raid them, and they took what they thought were some of our best people -- at least two, I think. But I can only ask, "Has anything changed here?" Something's changed for them, but I don't see it changing here. And that's because I think there's a commitment here to photography.
When you became editor, the newspaper war was running very hot, and in all the articles about the News's circulation gains, and in the general way people were carrying themselves, there was the impression that everyone at the Rocky thought they were winning the war. Was that the consensus in the newsroom?
That was one of the reasons the JOA came as such a shock. The JOA in Detroit [formalized in 1989] had been such a disaster that it was hard to imagine anyone else would enter into another one. And the News had a lot of momentum. Whether we were deluded or not, that's for other people to decide, but I don't believe it. I believe we had a lot of momentum, but people in a different situation made a decision that the best solution was to go to a JOA. People here felt we did have the edge -- that we had it editorially and we had it circulation-wise, and we were getting it in other areas. And I think that was why, on one level, it was a very difficult decision to make. This was not a crippled newspaper. And I can guarantee you that no one felt like a loser...
Which was the way it was characterized in the JOA documents.
That's right. It's part of the legal structure of the JOA to designate a failing newspaper; you have to do that. But it certainly didn't jibe with people's feelings about themselves and what we'd been doing.
Did you feel that you'd been kept in the dark about things, and were you at all resentful about it when the word came down?
I recognized that in a public company, you can't share everything even with someone as senior as me; at that time, I was editor and vice president. That's a standard principle of business; it's not information you can share. But, of course, I felt anger and resentment, and those feelings were expressed and talked about. And we understood that I would feel that way and that others would feel that way.
How did you find out?
We had a meeting the day before the press conference, and the publisher at the time, Larry Strutton, who had given his life to this newspaper, a great guy who really cares about people, told the senior management of the paper. And even then we couldn't tell other people, because it was inside information.
What were the feelings expressed in that meeting? Was there a lot of emotion?
Yeah, there was. It wasn't news that anyone wanted to hear. We realized that these were not decisions that we get to make. But, yeah, people were upset.
How long did it take you to think through a strategy to deal with the JOA?
Something that was really helpful was that Scripps [E.W. Scripps, the Cincinnati-based company that owns the News] made it very clear they wanted me to stay -- that the JOA wasn't a vote of no confidence in my leadership of the newspaper or what we were doing in the newsroom. It wasn't like, "We're sick of you guys." They were proud of what people in the newsroom and at this newspaper did. The other thing was, I had worked in a JOA in Albuquerque, and although there were a lot of screwy things about this one -- a broadsheet Saturday and no Sunday paper -- the bottom line was, it was fifty-fifty, and it was in the mornings. So I started talking to our staff, and I tried to communicate my feelings as honestly as possible. I never pretended that I liked the JOA, that the JOA was great, that it's all wonderful. But I said to people, "Why did you get in this business? Was it to win a newspaper war?" And the answer, of course, was no, because no one got into journalism because they wanted to get into a newspaper war and put somebody else out of business. What they wanted to do was do meaningful work, accomplish something as journalists, tell interesting stories, meet interesting people, be on the scene of history and tell it in a way that no one else can. And I just said, "There's nothing stopping us from doing this."
How did that go over?
Most people understood, I think. In some ways, in fact, the JOA was liberating, because we're not part of the business imperative. Our imperative is to produce a good newspaper. I felt that personally, and I also felt that I had an obligation and a responsibility to the people in this newsroom. Look, there'll be people who'll disagree with me. They'll be mad at me, they'll be pissed off, they'll think I did this wrong or that wrong or whatever -- and that's fine. But I don't think they believe I don't care about this newspaper or that I don't want to try and help them do something. I wanted this institution to thrive, and I knew that was totally possible within the JOA. That's why I was really upset with people who were giving the impression this paper was going to die. It was up to us what to make of it, and I felt like I had a responsibility to get us on solid ground -- to get us to a clear future. And I think that's what's happened.
How would you characterize the morale of the staff at that point?
I'd say the staff was scared and angry and upset. And the other thing was, we were still in the dot-com boom, so there were a lot of predators, including the Denver Post, who were coming in and sowing seeds of doubt. Some people left.
From the business section, in particular.
The business section, yes, and there were a lot of other people who were raided. But I wasn't just going to leave those positions open. I wanted to find the kind of people who recognized what we can do here. And in fact, I would say there's never been a stronger business staff than there is today. We're stronger there, and throughout the newspaper, than we were pre-JOA. And we also changed certain things. We used to say goodbye to people, but we stopped saying goodbye. It was their issue if they wanted to leave. So instead of saying, "This week, so and so's leaving, and we're going to miss you," we said, "Godspeed, wish you well, but you know what? We've got work to do." And we started celebrating the people who were arriving. We had cakes and celebrated and introduced the new people. And we still do it.
Can you feel a tangible difference in the morale now versus two years ago?
I always tell people I'm the worst one to ask that, because I represent the institution. But do I feel there's a positive atmosphere in the newsroom? Yes, I do. That doesn't mean everyone is singing "Whistle While I Work." But is there a general, positive momentum? Yes. We've accomplished great things. And one thing that really helped us is that the JOA application was approved in record time -- because we had things to do. It was approved in January, and by April, we had to create a broadsheet version of the paper for Saturdays. So we had a lot more challenges than the Post. They didn't really have to do anything, but we had to create a new newspaper -- to go back and produce two formats instead of one. And that's energizing in and of itself.
[Post owner] Dean Singleton publicly said after the introduction of the Saturday broadsheet that it was the one part of the JOA that hasn't gone as he would have liked. Did you think the criticism was well-founded at the time, or did you feel it wasn't helpful or appropriate? And is the Saturday paper today where you want it to be?
I don't believe that creating a broadsheet on Saturday was a good idea. It never should have happened. It was an economically driven idea.
I've been told it isn't physically possible to print enough copies of a tabloid on Saturday.
That's true. There is a huge technical obstacle to printing a tabloid to serve as large an audience as we have on Saturday at the size the paper is Monday through Friday, and if they would have looked into it further, they would have found they couldn't do it. But they didn't consider the technical issues when they made the decision to go to a broadsheet. They just thought it was the right thing to do for economic reasons. The vast majority of revenue for a newspaper comes from Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and one of the reasons the News was at an economic disadvantage is, tab pages are smaller, and you sell ads by the inch. And you've got to remember, there are a lot of readers who read the Denver Post Sunday through Friday who don't view the broadsheet as a big issue. But I thought the Saturday paper, because of the format, alienated News readers. It was bad -- and afterward, Dean Singleton certainly told me that the Saturday broadsheet was his idea and that it was a mistake.
Dean Singleton told you he thought the Saturday broadsheet was a mistake?
He did -- but Dean's solution, and he floated it publicly, was to have two newspapers on Saturday. And that's not part of the JOA. It was a solution that had other costs and impacts and was not a good solution. So it's a mistake you live with. Sometimes the river takes a bend, and that's where you build the city. They knew what I thought; I thought a Saturday broadsheet was stupid. But so what? My job is to make it work, so I set out to make a great broadsheet. And I thought the hilarious thing was that we could use the Post's format one day a week and put out a better newspaper. That was certainly the goal -- to take their format and produce a better newspaper than they do, even though they're the so-called experts.
Do you feel your broadsheet is better-looking than the Post's?
The Denver Post is what it is, and they think that's where they should be. But I don't believe it's a handsome, energetically designed newspaper, and I think our Saturday broadsheet is a really strong broadsheet. But it's still a broadsheet, and that's a problem. So do I wish Dean hadn't said what he did? Yes, I do. I don't understand why someone would want to hurt what he actually benefits from. But that's his own choice, and he's free to share his views. My view is, that's behind us. Dean wants us to be successful on Saturday -- I recognize that. And I want him to be successful on Sunday. One of the ironies that's hard to get your hands around is, while we compete with the Post -- and it's very competitive -- it's important to us that the Sunday Post be very successful, because it's the single biggest revenue source, and if it's not successful, it affects the whole JOA. And it's important to the Post that the Saturday paper be successful, because we don't want to be the weak link. We want to be a JOA that avoids creating a weak partner. None of us wants to go there.
Some people at the Rocky believe the Post simply has more resources than your paper does. Do you believe that's the case, and has that changed from before the JOA to afterward?
Pre-JOA, the focus of the newspaper war was circulation and advertising, so the greatest financial commitment went into those areas. That doesn't mean the News wasn't well supported by Scripps. But both newspapers ran lean newsrooms for their circulation size. Then the JOA came along, and it was followed by a dramatic downturn -- the worst advertising climate since the late '30s. But despite that, Scripps and the Denver Newspaper Agency have been incredibly supportive and have maintained the staffing levels. Frankly, the staffing levels here are higher than they were in the mid-'90s, and they've always been roughly in the same range. We haven't tried to use attrition, even though we lost an entire edition [the Sunday Rocky], and the agency supported us by investing in technology to the tune of millions of dollars to provide us with a state-of-the-art publishing system.
Then why do a lot of your reporters feel you're outnumbered?
I think some of that perception comes from us putting emphasis in different places. For example, on chronic wasting disease and wildlife, I have three reporters; the Post has one. But on City Hall right now, they seem to be putting more reporters. The key thing, though, is for a number of years, the Post has been paginated and has had a more efficient production system. We've had a very, very antiquated, unstable, inefficient production system [prior to the recent installation of an updated publishing process at the Rocky], and my belief is we've actually had to put more people in that area to execute. And the other thing is, I think it's pretty apparent that the Post's emphasis is not on presentation, and the News has put more of an emphasis on that. We want to be more visually dynamic, which I view as more modern, and I think people enjoy that; they want a well-organized, well-presented newspaper. So we've invested more in that, while the Post has been investing in other things.
One of the things the Post invested in was more international coverage following 9/11, and I think everyone agrees it was an ambitious thing to do. But there's been debate over whether they provided something that was different and particularly important to local readers.
I have respect for all those people and what they did, and I recognized that they worked really hard. They have reason to be proud of what they did, and I respect them for it. That's not what I would have done, but that's the benefit of being in a two-newspaper town. They can be off on that mission, we can be off on another mission. You get more, you get different, and you can make a choice.
You've written about some of those differences lately in regard to coverage of the wildfires.
To me, the fire coverage shows how there's still incredible competition between these two newsrooms to provide the best, highest-impact, most authoritative reporting. Everybody expects us to cover the news; that's just a basic given. But what matters is how you go beyond "the fire hit this today," etc. The Hayman fire was the biggest fire in Colorado history, clearly a huge event for the metro area, and devastating for many, many people, and it was a very dramatic story. And one of the things we're interested in at the Rocky Mountain News is narrative. I believe people respond to storytelling -- so when they said the fire was going to be contained on a Friday [containment actually took place several days later], we were already working on a special section to tell the story of how the fire was fought, the inside feeling of it, how it was defeated and so on. Then we went to work and put together a twelve-page wrap on Wednesday and Thursday. People had to work late into the night, way past midnight, to do it, but that's what needed to be done, because we wanted to be very immediate and to really respond to reader interest.
The Post took a different approach.
Encyclopedic is how I would describe it: Here's what the four major fires were, here's a very definitive map. But I felt it was very late, and it was a very different type of section -- and I felt that in some ways it reflected the difference between the two newspapers. The Post fashions itself as the "voice of the Rocky Mountain empire," so it's going to lumber along and provide us with information whose time, frankly, I thought was a little past. And the News wanted to be there now, really responding to an interest and using much more storytelling and drama in its approach.
In one of your columns, you seemed to imply that the Post had gotten bored with fire coverage along the way.
I don't want to tell Greg [Moore] or anyone else over there how to edit the Post. They're good people, and they have their own ideas about how to do things. But I think if you look at the impact and the way the fires were treated in the News, I think there was a higher impact in the coverage of the Rocky. And I think we made a statement in the way we constructed the paper and organized the paper that we were responding to something really critical and important to the local area, and I don't think you felt that in the same way from the Post. I thought they had a distance. At least that's my perception.
You've had greater visibility in the newspaper since starting your column last year. Was Gene Amole instrumental in urging you to take a more up-front role?
Yes, he was. Gene loved this newspaper, and Gene and I had a special relationship, where we had a lot of trust and a friendship. And I didn't do everything Gene would tell me to do, but I recognized that he had a really good feel for the paper and for the community. And Gene's feeling was that this paper should have a human face and that I needed to do that. Other people had put it to me in a different way: I'd just become publisher, and they thought I should be more involved in the community and on boards -- a public figure in a different way. But that was difficult for me being the editor, because I could get into too many conflicts or awkward situations if I'm actually on boards.
You'd be in an untenable position if you were on a board whose decisions become newsworthy.
It would be very difficult. I'd have to be able to criticize them, because the editorial page reports to me. The editorial-page editor, of course, is responsible for the editorial page, but ultimately, I, as the editor and publisher, am responsible for what we say in the newspaper. So I felt that, rather than going in that direction, I would write a column that might give the community some feel for what this newspaper is, who the people who work here are, why we work here. And I've had a very, very positive response to that, because I believe people want to be talked to in a direct and friendly and honest way. Like, I wrote a clarification after we ran a front-page photo that people believed showed the scrotum of a man [Fred Finlay] whose home was burned in the Durango area. Some people might not have done that. They might have said, "Is there any legal exposure? Should we get behind a wall of silence?" But I feel I have a relationship with the readers in the area, so I just told them what happened. And then, because nobody believed that it was just a shadow -- because no one is willing to believe somebody if they deny something embarrassing -- I wrote a column about that, too.
For me, that was an odd column. I'm assuming that what happened wasn't terribly funny to you folks, but it was to just about everybody else. Yet while some of the column was light, other parts had a fairly heavy tone of disappointment over how people can no longer trust institutions, which I thought was a strange way of getting into the issue.
Maybe it was; that's a fair opinion, and you're entitled to it. But what struck me was, my own daughter didn't believe me. To me, it struck me that people have lied so often about embarrassing things that the basic expectation is that you're going to be lied to. I know this to be true: I would have told the truth if it was a scrotum. So what? You just move on. But the community wouldn't accept that until I posted the picture on our Web site [www.rockymountainnews.com] and let people vote on it and look at it. And that was a really fascinating experience. So I'm glad I wrote about it, and I'm glad I took Gene's suggestion to start writing a column, because since the JOA, the lines between the papers have blurred for advertisers and readers. They think we've merged -- and the reality is, we haven't. So the more I can do to differentiate the papers, the better it will be for both of us.
Since Amole's death, have you started looking for a new columnist?
After Gene died, we did a lot. We produced a book [The Last Chapter]. And for myself, personally, I feel that it's not something that I wanted to deal with right away.
Is it too soon?
It's too soon for me. It's not that I'm not thinking of it. But I'm a patient person, and I want to be very careful. I would hate to have anybody experience dealing with, "Is this the next Gene Amole?" Because no one will be the next Gene Amole, and it's really more what would help the paper and what would the community be interested in. I've felt it's best to take some time and think about it and go through my own mourning and loss, and the newsroom's mourning, and the community's, and not put someone in the position of having to be compared with Gene.
Last December, when a street was named for Amole, he was quoted as saying, "I'm pleased that this designation is next to the Rocky Mountain News, where I spent so many wonderful years." And you were quoted as saying, "The new street name will be especially meaningful to those of us who work at the Rocky, because it will be a permanent reminder of the writer who set the standard for Denver journalism." Then, a few months later, there's talk about selling the building. Does that sting a little bit?
It doesn't sting in one sense. Renaming the street was a wonderful experience, and it meant the world to Gene, and it was a wonderful event -- and the mayor and his staff were great. But I would have liked for the paper to always be on Gene Amole Way. Still, I'm a realist, and I realize that if I was running the Denver Newspaper Agency and I had my staff in two buildings six blocks apart, I'd look at the inefficiencies that creates, and how we're in an incredible real estate market where the rates are very low, the lowest in the country. They need to do what's right from a financial standpoint to make these newspapers as successful as possible. I worked in a JOA where both newspapers were in one building; it was no big deal. So I'll wait to see if we really move, and if we do, there'll be questions as to what we do with the street. But the reality is, the street will always be a reminder, even if it stays here, of a really special person, and it'll always be at the heart of downtown. And Gene would have probably laughed and thought it was funny anyway.
Would he had laughed even harder at the prospect of the building becoming a jail?
He would have thought it was very funny. He definitely would have written a column about that. I think he would have said he always knew he was in some kind of asylum, and now it's come true.
The JOA between the Post and the News is supposed to last fifty years, and some people have made sport of that number. In fact, there have recently been articles in journalism publications arguing that newspapers as we know them will be extinct in twenty years. So do you think the News is going to be here when the agreement expires? Or do you see historical forces not only working against two-newspaper towns, but working against daily newspapers as we know them today?
I'm a real optimist about newspapers. I believe there's something about the physical characteristics of a newspaper that people value and enjoy, and it's incumbent upon us to connect with them. And if we don't, is that their problem or our problem? I view it as my problem.
So you feel strongly that the Rocky will be around in fifty years?
I don't know if the, quote, Rocky Mountain News will. I don't know what market forces will occur. Will Denver have a newspaper? I think there will still be some form of newspaper. What it will be called, I don't know. But it's an old name, it's a great name, so I would hope it would be called the Rocky Mountain News. Because if you sit in this office as the editor of this newspaper, you have a responsibility to the institution, and my responsibility is to help maintain it. [Former News editors] Ralph Looney, Jay Ambrose and Bob Burdick all sat here, and somebody else will sit here. That's why it's important I give it to them in a shape they can do something with. There are people in this newsroom -- young people in their twenties --who could be the editor of this newspaper, and they'll do something different with it than I do. But what I'm trying to do is to make a newspaper that really connects with people. A newspaper is like a city: It has many neighborhoods and all kinds of aspects to it. And when a newspaper's at its best, it can be really important parts of readers' lives, and people will find real value in it. I think newspapers can survive a long time if they do that. If they don't, I don't blame people for turning away.