Remembering the Rocky

A former Rocky Mountain News president on the end of an era

Watching a friend die, as those who have shared this intensely emotional experience know, doesn’t get easier with practice. The helplessness of knowing the end is near—and nothing can be done—is overwhelming.

And so it is for me in watching the Rocky Mountain News fade into the Colorado sunset. It is fitting that our state’s sunset generally is colorful, underscoring the legend on the welcome signs at our borders, and symbolizing the wonderful 150-year history of my old newspaper friend.

Life goes on. But the scrappy, feisty, Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper does not. It will publish its final edition Friday, a victim of the convergence of a struggling economy and deep-rooted change in how Americans access their news. More than 200 journalists will be laid off—in a time when other good jobs are scarce. A few will be hired by The Denver Post, but the majority will not, of course.

Rich Boehne, CEO of Rocky parent company E.W. Scripps, announced the closure to the staff Thursday. “I could say stupid things like, ‘I know how you feel.’ I don’t,” Boehne said. “We are just deeply sorry. I hope you will accept that.”

John Temple, editor, president and publisher of the Rocky, told the staff, “To me, this is the very sad end of a beautiful thing,” according to the newspaper’s Web site.

For decades, the Rocky and The Denver Post battled for the hearts and minds—as well as advertising and circulation dollars—of Coloradans. Their battle, which also produced Pulitzer Prizes for The Post and numerous other journalistic honors, led them to compete aggressively (and not uncontroversially) in monitoring politics, development, water rights, tourism, finance, and other Western growing pains. Sometimes they were very effective watchdogs; sometimes they were less so.

But always they were there—if not for serious pursuits, then for the farcical. One time, a circulation hawker for one paper dragged a hawker from the other paper beneath a bridge and beat him up. Another time, one paper recruited two truckloads of men and women from rescue missions, ostensibly to hawk copies of an Extra. In reality, only one truckload was needed; to prevent the other paper from finding any potential hawkers for its Extras, the second truckload was driven to nearby Boulder for dinner at McDonald’s— just to ensure its occupants were unavailable for the competitor.

In 2001, the newspapers entered a Joint Operating Agreement, combining production, advertising, circulation, and business functions while the newsrooms remained independent. In the end, even that wasn’t enough to save the Rocky. E.W. Scripps said the newspaper lost $16 million in 2008 alone. When Scripps announced last Dec. 4 that the Rocky was for sale, it seemed unlikely that any buyers would step forward—especially after Boehne subsequently disclosed that it would take $100 million “just to stay in the game.” Boehne also said a broadsheet, rather than the tabloid Rocky, is better positioned to succeed financially.

Looking forward, the best thing for Denver and Colorado is for the surviving newspaper¸ The Post¸ to gain enough economic strength to effectively do what’s needed in one of the worst times for newspapers. Unfortunately, even a number of single-newspaper cities are struggling these days. In the immediate aftermath of the Rocky’s demise, the reportorial attention paid to the Colorado Congressional delegation, the Colorado Legislature, the City and County of Denver, and numerous other government entities and industries will drop precipitously. All in all, next week will be a better time to try to sneak something past the people than last week was.

In addition to The Post, television news, as well as limited original-reporting radio news, will attempt to fill the gap. Blogs will be offered and could well flourish. But with so many news outlets depending on major print sources for news (distributed by the AP, or simply picked up as tips), the loss of one of the two major providers does not bode well for the area.

Add to that the loss of a major middle-to-mildly conservative editorial voice and outlet for columnists of varied opinion, and readers suffer even more. No matter how good the editors of The Denver Post are (and some are very good), limiting the circle of gatekeepers for news and opinion is never good for the public.

So now, the Rocky—ironically, honored recently as having one of the nation’s best business sections and one of the Top Ten sports sections—is consigned to the recycle heap, its life stretching from 1859 to 2009.

The memories abound: from Speed Graphics to handset heads to hot type to stereo (no, not the music) to penny papers to darkrooms to Underwood typewriters to old slow-speed, all-cap teletypes to wire rooms to building-shaking, on-site presses to across-the-street watering holes to UPI as a full-fledged wire service to vodka bottles stashed near the float in the tanks of toilets to dreadful interim steps such as electric typewriters and copy scanners to cheap bourbon (was there ever any other kind?) in a bottom drawer at the copy desk and so on.

Both Denver newspaper buildings where I used to work (the Post at 15th and California and the Rocky at 400 West Colfax) are gone now, so I need not drive by. Instead, I’ll take advantage of an unseasonably warm Colorado evening, don my trusty fedora, turn off my phone, and sit on my back deck and think of the people with whom I have worked through the tense times, the crazy times—and, almost always, the fun times. I plan to stay out there on the deck until my bottle of anti-freeze (a.k.a. Buffalo Trace bourbon) is empty.

Before I come inside, I’ll toast the men and women of the Rocky Mountain News. But I’ll also toast the men and women who won the newspaper war, those at The Denver Post. May they, too, have Godspeed and successfully harness this latest set of changes. For all of us. We need them more now than ever.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Bob Burdick served as managing editor, editor, and president of the Rocky Mountain News and assistant managing editor of The Denver Post.