Rocky Mountain News Staffers, Two Years Out

“The last two years have been a journey to reinvent myself.”

Sunday marked the second anniversary of the final edition of Colorado’s Pulitzer Prize winning Rocky Mountain News, which closed its doors in 2009 after 150 years. On that sad day, Bob Burdick, who had served as managing editor, editor, and president of the Rocky, wrote a piece for CJR, “Remembering the Rocky,” in which he raised a glass to the good men and women at the esteemed paper, as well as their sparring partners at The Denver Post:

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.

CJR also invited the paper’s staffers to share their thoughts and tributes, an offer to which many responded. Laura Frank, investigative reporter, lamented all of the projects she had been working on that would now never be published, and all the stories that might get overlooked in the future. A great watchdog is dead,” Frank wrote. “In a democracy that depends on an informed citizenry, a dead watchdog is a dangerous thing.” Steve Haigh, former business web editor, wrote, “I love this newspaper and I hate it, too, but I can’t imagine doing anything else that could give me more pleasure and fulfillment.” And theater critic Lisa Bornstein likely spoke for a whole generation of journalists when she wrote,

A degree in journalism and twenty years reporting for newspapers, and that career is over. I feel like a blacksmith in 1915. I didn’t lose my job; I lost my career. It’s not here anymore. Even if I could find a job at another paper, I believe it would just postpone the inevitable and make me that much older when I have to figure out what to do next.

On the occasion of the anniversary, the Rocky’s last editor and publisher John Temple decided to check in with his former colleagues—to see whether or not they were still working in journalism, and how they thought their quality of life compared. He sent this survey to 194 former Rocky staffers and got 146 responses, which he is posting on his blog, Temple Talk.

Temple summed up his survey’s findings in an overview post, here:

Perhaps the most depressing finding is that 98 out of 146 respondents, or 67 percent, said they were earning less today than they made at the Rocky. Fifty-six of those 98, or 57 percent, said their income was “much less.” Only 27, or 18 percent of the people who responded, said they were making more, and those people were more likely to have left journalism.

Perhaps the most surprising finding was that despite the general decline in income, roughly the same amount of people reported that their life was better today than that it was worse. In fact, of those who responded to the question, more said it was much better (12) than much worse (5).

Ninety-two of the survey’s respondents are still working as journalists. Some got hired by The Denver Post, but many others have scattered: from Cincinnati and Raleigh to Australia and Korea. Recurring themes among their letters were financial worries, worries about their age, and a healthy mix of anger at the industry and a sense of appreciation that they managed to stay in it.

But more interesting, perhaps, was hearing from the fifty-two respondents who are no longer in journalism:

They’re working in construction and in restaurants, at universities and ad agencies. Some are retired. Others are students. And a few are unemployed.

A greater percentage of this group who responded to a survey about life two years after the Rocky Mountain News closed said it was better now than when they were at the paper than did those still in the profession. But one theme emerged in this group’s personal stories more strongly, a sense of loss.

Of those who chose to switch careers, many spoke of a personal transformation that had to take place as they turned away from a profession they had trained and worked in since they were young. “The past two years have been a journey to reinvent myself,” wrote former police reporter Judy Villa, who is now working as a communications specialist and 911 dispatcher in a sheriff’s office. “I had let journalism become my identity,” wrote Darin McGregor, Rocky Mountain News photographer who now manages a brewery. “That was foolish. No single thing defines me.”

Myung Oak Kim, expressed a common sentiment, that even working outside the field of journalism, Kim had managed to find work that stayed true to the ideals that had fueled her earliest journalistic ambitions:

In my heart, part of me will always be a journalist. But I’ve decided to move toward doing service work in my community rather than writing about what other people do. I believe that we all have something to contribute to society. I want to use my skills toward making positive change, which is one of the most noble goals of journalism.

And what of Lisa Bornstein, the “blacksmith in 1915”? She is now teaching fourth-grade in Denver, and says that her life is much better than it was at the Rocky. She writes:

My current job treats people with more respect than what I saw at the Rocky. I was bored the last few years at the Rocky and in my new field I am creatively and intellectually stimulated and feel that my efforts are valued. But I miss my friends in the newsroom a lot. I also miss going to work after it was light out.

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner