When he arrived at his office yesterday, Rocky Mountain News editor/publisher/president John Temple was greeted by an e-mail letting him know about a report from KOA radio claiming that executives from E.W. Scripps, the paper's owner, which put it up for sale last month, would be arriving in the next 24 to 48 hours to announce its fate. Temple's answer to this note was two words long: "It's bullshit."
Temple wasn't quite so plainspoken in his January 17 column, headlined "Learning Lessons in Trying Times." He opened the piece with criticism of several local media outlets as it relates to coverage of the Rocky's trevails, including Westword (for a blog called "The Latest From the Rocky Mountain News Grapevine About the Paper's Future"). However, he didn't specifically name any of the organizations, thereby making it difficult for readers to look at any of the stories and decide for themselves if they agreed or disagreed with Temple's point.
In a wide-ranging conversation conducted this morning, Temple weighed in on this decision and plenty more -- even previewing a planned chat with staffers tomorrow, when he expects to tell them that they when they leave the office at day's end, they should count on being back at work as usual the following morning.
In the aforementioned column, Temple expressed surprise that I hadn't phoned him prior to the publication of the "Grapevine" blog, given that I've never been shy about dialing in the past. I told him that, in my view, doing so would have contradicted the entire concept of the piece, which revolved around the thoughts of typical staffers caught in this most difficult situation. If I'd phoned him, I would have had to title the blog "The Latest from the Rocky Mountain News' Official Spokesman About the Paper's Future."
"That's fair," Temple replied. "But it's also fair to say that the grapevine doesn't know what it's talking about. It has absolutely not a clue."
To that point, I noted that the information had been clearly labeled as speculation, not inside scoop. "I hate speculation," Temple responded. "I hate it because they don't know what's going on. I firmly believe, and will tell you today -- and would have told you a week ago -- that no one knows the ultimate outcome of this. And I would put Mr. Singleton [that's Dean Singleton of MediaNews Group, which owns the Denver Post] and Mr. Boehne [Rich Boehne, the head of E.W. Scripps] in that camp."
As for the choice not to name the organizations whose coverage of the Rocky he found lacking, he said, "I didn't feel that was the purpose of the column. I acknowledge in there that we have our own faults. I didn't want to make an example of anyone. I just didn't feel that was appropriate in that context. I was writing about it for our own staff, as well as readers, to talk about how difficult it is to do a nuanced job of reporting a story when there's a rush of expectation that something is going to happen. I thought that if I'd used the names, it would have looked petty and mean..."
According to Temple, the column was about "the approach you need to take when reporting," even when "you're the subject you're reporting about," as is currently the case for the Rocky on sale articles. To that end, he has tried to be accessible to the press. "I think it's incumbent on the media as it relates to public responsibility to talk about their work and to respond to questions about their work. There are cases where, for one reason or another, there may be a person or persons where you decide, 'There's no point. I can't talk to this person.' That can happen. But you want to avoid it, even if there are times when you need to limit the scope of what you discuss. Just because we're a news organization, not everything we do is public. However, there's a presumption of trying to be open about our situation.
"I didn't have to video Rich Boehne giving the announcement [about the sale] to my staff," he went on. "But I thought it was the best way to share the news with our readers, and to the credit of the Scripps executives, they had total commitment that everyting said in the newsroom was on the record. They were not going to ask journalists to not talk about something that happened in such a large meeting in the newsroom. I think that's reflective of our approach. I don't think people would say I'm not out there talking about what happens in the JOA [the joint-operating agreement that links business activities at the Rocky and the Post] or Denver's newspapers."
For example, Temple appeared last Friday on the KHOW talk show co-hosted by Dan Caplis and Craig Silverman, and during the chat, he made mention of the Justice Department, which had to approve of the original JOA and will oversee its dissolution if that comes to pass. According to a post on BigMedia.org, a website overseen by Rocky contributor Jason Salzman, Temple said, "First, you know I'm not a lawyer, but my understanding is that Dean Singleton of MediaNews Group, the company that owns The Post, would have the right not only to match the offer but also to say that the proposed partner is not a viable partner. But then, as you can imagine, both the Justice Department and Scripps lawyers might argue otherwise. And so that's one complicated scenario, if there were a buyer."
These comments made an impact on Salzman for obvious reasons. Earlier this month, he wrote a column criticizing the media for not offering more reportage about the prospect of the feds ordering Scripps to extend the sales period for the paper -- but Temple declined to run it because he felt it didn't meet minimum journalistic standards. Read about the brouhaha in the blog "Debate Over Spiked Rocky Mountain News Media Column Heats Up."
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Did Temple's comment imply that Justice Department intervention wasn't as far-fetched as most observers believe? Not in his view.
"I can't predict what the Justice Department would do," he said. "My point is, you'd need something really bizarre to get the Justice Department involved. There's just no question that newspapers are reeling and that people are losing money... Jason loves the idea that government will step in and force unprofitable businesses to keep running, but to me, that is very naïve, especially in this economic environment. If Rupert Murdoch bought the Rocky and said, 'I'm willing to lose money until kingdom come,' and we said, 'Forget it,' maybe they would. But that seems a little odd. After all, most people don't want to lose money."
To further illustrate this point, Temple mentioned his dissatisfaction with the January 16 blog "Delay in Rocky Mountain News Bonus: Coincidence or Conspiracy?" This bonus wasn't an example of the paper throwing money around despite the current fiscal crisis, he said. Rather, it was part of a carefully negotiated contract intended to "recast our relationship with the Guild and our vision of what journalists do, to get everybody in the position of how we should be working in this digital era." In one sense, the salary bump was a raise, following a year without them, "but we negotiated a number of other changes to achieve cost savings," he emphasized.
Such efforts will only pay off if the Rocky is still around, and while Temple can't make any long-term guarantees, he believes a final verdict isn't as imminent as KOA implied yesterday. At his regular meeting with staffers tomorrow, he'll repeat something he said the week before -- that no one needs to start packing boxes. "And I'm not speculating when I say that," he maintained. "There's no speculation involved. I feel confident going home on Friday that I'll still be an employee of the Rocky Mountain News unless someone decides to fire me -- and they should feel confident, too."