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Rocky Mountain News' 150th anniversary project gets off to a stumbling start

Rocky Mountain News founder William N. Byers.

When I first read in Rocky Mountain News editor/publisher/president John Temple's October 25 column about the paper's plan to celebrate its 150th anniversary with a 150-day series spotlighting significant front-page stories published during its history, I thought it was a great idea -- and I still do. After all, articles printed the day after major events provide the sort of flavor historical synopses lack. But the first offering, "Rolling Out a Rich History," is a disappointment. The print version features a couple of photos and a partial scan of issue one's cover, which appeared on April 23, 1859. (These images don't appear in the online piece linked above.) Unfortunately, the scan is too small to read any of the stories comfortably, and the main copy above it is dominated by contextualizing commentary by contributor Michael Madigan as opposed to the items as originally published. Moreover, the excerpt from Rocky founder William N. Byers' first editorial leaves out the most interesting element -- a manifest-destiny oriented line that may strike some contemporary readers as racist.

Here's the segment quoted in the current article:

"Fondly looking forward to a long and pleasant acquaintance with our readers, hoping well to act our part, we send forth to the world the first number of the Rocky Mountain News."

And here's a longer extract, from the "About Us" page on the Rocky's website.

"With our hat in our hand and our best bow, we this week make our first appearance upon the stage in the capacity of Editor...

"We make our debut in the far west, where the snowy mountains look down upon us in the hottest summer day as well as in the winter's cold; here where a few months ago the wild beasts and wilder Indians held undisturbed possession -- where now surges the advancing wave of Anglo Saxon enterprise and civilization; where soon we fondly hope will be erected a great and powerful state, another empire in the sisterhood of empires...

"Fondly looking forward to a long and pleasant acquaintance with our readers, hoping well to act our part, we send forth to the world the first number of the Rocky Mountain News."

To put it mildly, the stuff about "wilder Indians" and "the advancing wave of Anglo Saxon enterprise," not to mention the dream of becoming "another empire in the sisterhood of empires," hasn't aged very well -- but it's precisely what makes looking back on the editorial fascinating. This material lets us know what the world was like at the time of the Rocky's birth, and how much things have changed since then. If Madigan wanted to add some commentary in an introduction to give the modern reader more perspective, that'd be fine. But by sanitizing it, the Rocky is doing an injustice to its own history, as well as to the sort of journalism it aspires to practice today.

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Perhaps future editions will feature more from the articles themselves, as opposed to mere snippets that barely hint at their flavor -- and if they won't all fit in print, they could be run in their entirety online. The Rocky has a wealth of stories at its disposal. Let's see them, warts and all. -- Michael Roberts

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