Q&A with former Rocky Mountain News editor turned blogger John Temple
After the closure of the Rocky Mountain News in late February, Rocky editor, publisher and president John Temple stepped away from the spotlight he'd been in since the December announcement that the tabloid was being put up for sale. However, he's recently resurfaced via "Temple Talk," a new blog accessible at JohnTemple.net.
In an April 21 conversation, Temple talked about his new creation and plenty more amid his most wide-ranging interview since the Rocky's closure. He discusses potential Rocky purchasers who surfaced even before the sale announcement; the point at which he realized the paper wouldn't be sold; the necessity of keeping some information secret from his staff; the production of the final edition; his reasons for turning down a job offer from former Rocky owner E.W. Scripps; the debate about whether Scripps actually won the Denver newspaper war by surrendering; the future of print; his attempts to educate himself about Facebook, Twitter and other new technology -- a major motivation for starting the blog; his reasons for not signing up with INDenver Times, a project assembled by former Rocky journalists that's expected to make an announcement about a full-scale launch tomorrow, on what would have been the Rocky's 150th birthday; and other projects he may launch while on what he refers to as a career "sabbatical." Not that he plans on retiring. As Temple points out, he recently ordered new business cards that read, "John Temple: Journalist."
To read the interview, click "Continue."
Westword (Michael Roberts): Following the announcement in December that Scripps wanted to sell the Rocky, you were among the most optimistic that a sell might actually take place. I remember you talking about how everyone had once written off the New York Post before Rupert Murdoch purchased it. At what point did your optimism begin to wane?
John Temple: Really only about three weeks before -- and I think "optimism" is really an overstated description. What I would say is I did not want people to discount the possibility that there would be a buyer for the Rocky. Number one, I knew there had been serious interest expressed in the Rocky in the very recent past, prior to the announcement of the sale, and that it had gone very far down the track. And that it had been conceivable that the Rocky would have had a new owner without any announcement of a sale. So I knew there were serious people who were seriously interested. But I also knew that there were very challenging problems related to the JOA, as it relates to a sale.
But I didn't want people -- people were just wrong to discount the possibility of a sale, and I felt it was very important for people to understand that. And the truth is, Brian Ferguson's group, which emerged in the post-sale announcement period, and was the group that expressed an interest in buying the Rocky, was very, very serious. But the problem was, when you examined the entirety of the situation in Denver, it was not a workable deal. And even then, I knew it was still possible. Scripps didn't have to sell or close. There were multiple options. So I wouldn't describe myself as optimistic about a sale as much as arguing that there was a realistic possibility that there would be interested parties, and that possibility was being too easily discounted.
WW: Has the identity of those potential buyers who surfaced before the sales announcement been revealed?
JT: It never has, and it never will be. It was all under a confidentiality agreement.
WW: Is there any way to characterize them?
JT: I would say "serious."
WW: Were they folks who were already in the media business?
JT: I don't want to go further than that. But I'm very comfortable saying there was reason to believe that serious people would be interested in the Rocky Mountain News.
WW: I've spoken to Brian Ferguson, and he certainly conveyed his seriousness in exploring a purchase of the paper. What do you think stopped him? Was it the entanglement caused by the joint-operating agreement?
JT: You know, when you look at the economics of Denver, there are some really, really serious problems. And then a JOA and a 50-50 partnership makes addressing those problems more complicated than a sole ownership.
WW: You wore numerous hats at the Rocky Mountain News - editor, publisher and president. I wondered during the period between the sale announcement and the closure announcement if, as the editor, you sometimes wished you didn't know some of the things you did as the publisher and president when it came time to communicate with folks in the newsroom.
JT: No. I've been in that role for a long time. I was fine. I'd always rather have more information. So I didn't spend my time wishing that, no.
WW: Were there times you had information in your role as publisher and president that you knew you couldn't share with the troops?
JT: There always has been that. Ever since 2001, when I became the top executive in Denver for Scripps, clearly I was privy to confidential financial and other information. It was an accepted part of the job that, in my view, I wore two hats. I always tried to operate as if I were the owner of the property, and I was working in the best interests of the owner when it came to the property -- and that I had a responsibility to the community. People can argue about whether I acted properly or improperly, or whether I handled that well. But it wasn't new that I had confidential information. It wasn't a new experience circa late 2008. That was the case from 2000 on.
WW: When the closure announcement was made public, I think most observers were very impressed with how the staff at the Rocky reacted, not to mention the quality of the final edition. I know you'd been planning for the 150th anniversary edition. Was that a great help when it came time to put out the last issue on February 27? Or was that paper put together pretty much from scratch?
JT: No, it was from scratch. You know what? The trick was, though, it gave me a cover in the newsroom, because all of my conversations were about the 150th. And, frankly, I kept the final edition planning and discussions -- I held it until very, very late. We didn't start working on that until very, very late. That was very private, and I kept it within a very, very small group of people. It did help in the sense that Mike Madigan, who wrote the "Rocky@150" series we were running at the time the paper closed, and he had a tremendous knowledge of the paper and was able to put together for me on a confidential basis a history. So I was able to commission that. But other than that, we had time to think about it -- I had time to think about it.
WW: Were you as pleased with the final result as most readers were?
JT: I was. I was very proud of our staff from the announcement date of the sale through the very end. I feel they lived up to the proud tradition of the paper and a very challenging situation. They upheld very high standards of professionalism, they worked hard. I think we adopted a good attitude, and what I think was a healthy attitude -- which is let's not go gently into the good night, and let's make sure we do things we care about and that matter, and let's have an impact. You can see that in the special report we did that you noted on your blog, I think, about the whole unemployment situation in Colorado. That was a conscious effort to reshift our enterprise priorities to short-term enterprise, and to do stories we really cared about that we could do in the short term. Because we had no idea what our future was. We had absolutely no idea.
What if a buyer had come in and said, "Run this newspaper, but you can only have 75 people"? It would have been a very different newspaper, and we had to be prepared for any eventuality. So I was very proud of the final edition. I was very proud of what we did on the website. And I was very proud of the video. It was perceived internally by the core team as a combination effort. In every medium, we were going to go out at the top of our game.
WW: At the press conference on February 26 press conference, it was made clear by the Scripps executives that you had a job with them if you wanted one -- and in this journalism market, most people would have leapt at that opportunity. And you didn't leap at it. What was your reasoning?
JT: I've worked in Denver for seventeen years, and I've been the editor of the Rocky Mountain News for eleven. That's a long time. My children are grown and I feel I have a lot to offer, and I'm not afraid of the current economic climate. I recognize that it may be difficult in the short term. But I'm ready for new adventures and new challenges. In fact, I wrote people at Scripps my new contact information this morning, and I thanked them very much for the support they've given me over the years. I feel very grateful for what they gave me -- but I also feel that there are things I want to do, and things that may require me to either work with new people or work outside of the corporate environment.
WW: I had a conversation with [Rocky Mountain News business writer] David Milstead after the closure, and he characterized Scripps as a relatively small newspaper company now. The perception, at least among some observers, is that Scripps overall is becoming less and less interested in the newspaper business. Is that your view? And if so, was that at all a factor in your decision not to sign on with them?
JT: That's not my perception. I think they made a very rational decision in Denver, which was the losses in Denver, and the grim prospects for years to come given the JOA structure and what was happening with the economy were such that they threatened the larger enterprise and they needed to do what sane people are doing in this environment, which was living to fight another day -- making sure they survive. And I think Scripps is very committed to newspapers. I don't know of anything that indicates otherwise. But as you've seen, they've gotten out of all their JOA markets. Cincinnati expired, so that made sense. Denver and Albuquerque are over. And now they're in markets where they control the publishing entity, and they can experiment with their idea of a local news organization. So that didn't factor into my decision. It was really just time to move on. I thought, okay, this is what I'm going to do.
WW: You mentioned that Scripps' decision in Denver struck you as a rational one - and I've had some journalism observers in Denver tell me the decision was much more rational than MediaNews' decision to stay and fight it out. In fact, I've had people suggest to me that Scripps actually won the newspaper war in Denver by leaving it. [Temple laughs.] Do you have any take on that?
JT: My take is that you have two very different owners. Dean Singleton [of MediaNews Group] has, rightly, tremendous pride in the Denver Post. He came here in the '80s, saved a newspaper that was in danger of closing. He invested a tremendous amount of energy and personal drive into that newspaper. He lives here. He's made this his base. His headquarters is here, and his home. He is a very optimistic believer in the newspaper industry, and he wants to make a stand in the place that he lives, and the place that he loves. And I respect that point of view as well. All credit to him. It's just a very different perspective.
WW: Are you optimistic that the print newspaper will exist for the long haul? Or are we winding down in terms of print, and the transition to online journalism is going to come sooner than some observers think?
JT: I wrote a blog post this morning: I thought it was just outrageous that [columnist] Michael Wolff was saying that 80 percent of American newspapers will be dead in eighteen months. It's a totally ignorant point of view, and it's driven by the big-city perspective that ignores that most newspapers - and there are about 1,400 of them -- are in smaller communities, and although they're being hammered by the recession, of course, they're still very good businesses in many ways. It's dangerous to make these sweeping generalizations that are not, to me, supported by the facts. That said, there's no argument from me that digital is the future, and the portable and the mobile, in particular -- smaller devices -- are the future. But I don't think that precludes a place, a very important place, for print or print-like products. If there's reader, an electronic reader of some type, is developed that's adequate to the challenge, I could see that hastening the switch to digital. But print drives a huge percentage of revenue. It's still a strong part of the business.
I see some form of paper continuing. Perhaps not seven days. I don't think seven days is how you'd start a local-news business now. You only print one day a week, and that's very effective. But you have a website that is live seven days a week. I think that's more representative of what the future business might look like. Varied products, more experimentation, with even printing in the home. I don't think paper is gone. It just might look different and be different. And frankly, I think there's a place for it to be different. Newspapers are still struggling, for example, to figure out what their Sunday newspaper is and how to make it as compelling as it could be.
WW: Tell me about your motivation for starting the blog, and the idea behind it.
JT: My motivation for starting the blog is, I wrote a blog and I wrote a column at the Rocky Mountain News. And of course, in the first few weeks after the closure of the paper, I had many things to do, and I was also very tired. But I very much care about journalism. I want to stay involved in journalism, and one way to do that is to share my thoughts and participate in the discussion about the future. And one way to do that is with a blog. That's the simplest way in today's world. I'm still actually working; I'm employed through the end of the month and I am doing things for Scripps in that time. But one of the thing I'm enjoying doing with my spare time is improving my technical skills and my understanding of different things related to the digital world. So I bought a URL and I created a blog and I worked more in terms of linking it to Facebook and Twitter, and playing with these things. And I bought a video camera I've done some things with. I'm playing with technology in part to improve my own skills.
WW: I gather that the blog isn't the only thing you're interested in doing after you formally end your relationship with Scripps. Do you see it as a component of things you'll be doing in the future?
JT: I do. I'm taking a sabbatical. That's what I'm calling it. I've worked as an editor for twenty continuous years, and it's very, very demanding. There's many things in life that I'm interested in, and I want to have time to explore some of those things. So I am taking some time for myself. But while I'm doing that, I want to stay very connected to journalism and to the issues I care about, because as I go forward, I'm either going to work in a leadership position in a news organization that I want to be part of, or a media company I want to be part of, or I'm going to cobble together a life as a sort of writer, teacher, consultant, blogger, whatever. And I'm exploring different ways of doing that. I'm very interested in the free press and spreading the idea of the free press internationally, and there's a lot of programs to do that. I'd like to be able to participate in those kinds of things. So I'm exploring all kinds of options. But I just produced a new business card yesterday, and it says, "John Temple: Journalist." And that's how I see myself.
WW: You mentioned the word "teacher," and academia is a place where a lot of folks like yourself have gone in recent years. Is that something you'd consider doing fulltime?
JT: I'm not ruling out anything. Under the right situation, I might. But I just don't know. It's really early in my process. I was on the phone this morning with Cincinnati working on something, I worked on things yesterday. I'm not fully separated yet. I haven't broken this bond yet. And it's quite unsettling. There's no question that this has been a very difficult experience that we've just gone through. It takes some time to sort of recover and work through that experience. And I'm not even free from the paper yet. So I'm looking at as being very patient - but the reason I use the word "sabbatical" is that it denotes intentionality. I'm not just hanging around. I'm actually doing things that I think are valuable for me in terms of growth and learning more and exposing myself to different things. I'm exploring those kinds of options. So I'm very open. I use the term "free agent" and people laugh, but I really am a free agent. I can do what I want after the end of this month.
WW: I've had some journalists suggest that your lack of involvement in the INDenver Times project is a statement about whether you think it has a chance of success...
JT: No, that's not fair. That's not fair at all. I am really impressed with the energy and vitality of the staff working on that project. They came to me before they ever went public with their press release and talked it through and explained what they were doing. They know I'm very supportive. I was one of the first subscribers. I signed up right away for the year-long subscription, on the first day. But I think one of the strengths of that particular project is that it's very grassroots and collegial and communal. It's not driven by a traditional news structure with a strong editor who's driving the direction of it. I think that's one issue. And the other one is, I'm not ready to jump into local news in Denver as a website as my next venture. I'm not sure that's what I want to do. And I don't want to do anything in a half-hearted way. That's not how I operate. So I just look at it as, all power to them. They know I'll help them in whatever way I can. But it's not what I want to do. I've had discussions with a number of people who've expressed an interest in potentially having other local news sites in the Denver area, and while I talk to everybody -- I'm happy to talk to people -- I'm not in a position where I'm ready to make that my next venture.
WW: The InDenver Times approach, the subscription aspect of it: Are you among those who feel that these kinds of operations can only work with revenue from subscriptions and things like that? That they can't succeed if they're only advertising-supported?
JT: I think it's a great experiment on their part, and I really support that part of their experiment. And I am one of those people who believe that the way newspapers have traditionally structured their business model, which is basically sell a subscription, and that's your idea of distribution success, is really flawed in this new business world. And I really do believe that a membership model -- actually one that goes much further than what's happening with INDenverTimes.com -- is really worth exploring. And I'm very interested in that, because I think membership establishes a much stronger relationship between advertiser and news organization, reader and news organization, and nonprofit organizations and news organizations, and creates the opportunity to look way beyond just a traditional newspaper, or in the case of INDenver Times, I think, way beyond just delivering a single product.
WW: You have always been a big supporter of technology in journalism, and in some ways, it seems that the technology that's so exciting from an information-dispersal standpoint is the very technology that seems to be killing traditional newspapers like the Rocky Mountain News. Is that an irony you appreciate or acknowledge? Or do you think that's the wrong way to look at it?
JT: I think that's the wrong way to look at it. I heard recently about a major metropolitan newspaper that is still doing paste-up with X-acto knives. To me, that is just so outrageous. What a waste of human brainpower and effort. And what a terrible decision to miss the benefits of computerization and pagination. I've always argued that the dirty secret of editors in the modern world is that a journalist in the 21st century is so much more productive than a journalist in the early '80s or something like that. The tools we have available. Just the research tools -- Google alone. And there's many more things, and they're huge improvements in journalism. That's one of the reasons I think journalism has gotten better -- as a result of these technological tools.
To me, the problems in news organizations is that we've been manufacturing companies for a long time. We manufacture this one product. And then you see what's happening in the technical world, where people who are not beholden to our traditions are experimenting and developing things. It's very exciting, and I view it as positive. In the case of the Rocky, it's not that new technology put us out of business. It's that you can't support two newsrooms in this economic environment and have the equivalent of, let's say, 420 journalists working in a market this size. The economics do not support that size of a newsroom, and you have to restructure your business -- and there are ways of restructuring your business.
I'll give you one example. When I saw that the Philadelphia Inquirer was paying Rick Santorum $1,750 per column, I thought, my God, they're out of their minds. They've lost complete touch with economic reality. They're giving Rick Santorum a huge platform in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and there's a certain quid-pro-quo there. You can't pay someone that kind of money. You can't support it with these kinds of businesses.
WW: Another journalism topic that's come up: Earlier this week, if I recall correctly, the editor of the Baltimore daily [Baltimore Sun editor Monty Cook] talked about how he feels the age of the big newspaper series is over...
JT: Oh my God. I wrote a blog item about that yesterday. That was so horrible. I couldn't believe how misguided his point of view was. For one thing, the idea of the big series: What exactly is he talking about? But the truth is, exclusive enterprise reporting is a critical component for the success of any newspaper, whether they're publishing one day a week, i.e. Westword, or seven days a week as a traditional daily does. I just think the guy is completely off-base, and I wrote a piece where I gave the ten reasons why I think multi-part series are so important to the success of newspapers in these challenging times.
WW: Obviously, the blog is giving you an opportunity to have a voice. In terms of readership, who are you hoping to reach? Fellow journalists? The average reader?
JT: I think it's a combination. But I recognize that I'm largely talking to an audience that cares about media issues. And I'm okay with that. I wouldn't say just fellow journalists, as much as other people, too. It could be journalism students, it could be journalism professors, it could be people in the media, it could be people who care about the media, it could be the general public, who had a relationship with me.
I may start another blog, believe it or not, to write about things outside of journalism that I care about. I could publish stories and things that have nothing to do with journalism, but have to do with my other interests. But I can't do all of that at once. For clucks like me, as pathetic as it sounds, buying a URL and setting up the blog and getting everything working and getting images the right size -- that's not what I've spent my time doing.
WW: You had a staff to do that...
JT: Right. It wasn't the best use of my time. But right now, it is the best use of my time. So I very well could have multiple blogs before long. I could see doing different things under my name. But for right now, I think this is a really critical time for the newspaper industry and the media and First Amendment issues in this country. I care about them deeply, and I want to participate in the discussion. Because I want to argue for things that I care about.
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