Will Denver really have a newspaper war?

As a billionaire floats reviving the Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post might buckle its chin strap

COLORADO SPRINGS, CO — The first salvo came from a newspaper in Colorado’s capital that wasn’t The Denver Post. “EXCLUSIVE,” blared an online headline shortly after 3pm yesterday in the Denver Business Journal. “Anschutz explores bringing back Rocky Mountain News in Denver.”

That’s Philip Anschutz, a publicity-shy billionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist who lives in Denver and whom The New Yorker once called “The Man Who Owns L.A.” The Rocky Mountain News was a well-respected 150-year-old daily paper in the Mile High City that folded in 2009 after E.W. Scripps Corp. put it up for sale and no one bought it. That left The Denver Post as the last standing statewide newspaper in Colorado.

But these days The Denver Post is having trouble, and the paper, owned by Digital First Media, is now itself for sale. Staffers openly discuss talk that Anschutz, who owns The Washington Examiner, The Weekly Standard, The Oklahoman, and The Gazette in Colorado Springs has possibly been interested as a buyer. (Digital First owns 13 other papers in Colorado that are also on the market.)

Which is what made yesterday’s news all the more bizarre. Why start a new paper in Denver if one is already for sale? Call it a love of newspapers, or maybe call it leverage.

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“Everyone’s just in shock,” said Mike Littwin, a former columnist for the Rocky who did a stint at The Denver Post before he was laid off, and now writes for the online Colorado Independent. He said last night that former Rocky staffers were all talking about a possible return of their venerable institution. “They’re kidding about getting their desks back,” he said.

When the news broke, some Rocky alumni thought it might be a hoax. But Ryan McKibben, CEO of Anschutz’s Clarity Media Group, confirmed that his company is conducting research–using a prototype of what a revived Rocky would look like online and in print–“to gather qualitative and quantitative data from potential readers.” He also told the DBJ Anschutz had quietly bought the right to use the Rocky’s name, URL, and intellectual property back in 2009 when the paper folded.

More from the Denver Business Journal:

The closure of the Rocky ended a fierce, nearly century-long newspaper war between the Rocky and The Denver Post, which continues to operate as Denver’s only daily.

In 2001, after federal officials determined that the News was “in probable danger of financial failure,” the Post and News combined business operations into a single agency after but kept competitive editions of the newspapers, which maintained separate newsrooms and editorial pages.

At the time, executives at both papers said the Denver market wasn’t able to support two separate, financially independent newspapers.

So, what’s going on here?

“You take this seriously because it’s coming from Anschutz and all his money,” says Jason Salzman, the former media critic for The Rocky Mountain News, who is now a Denver-based communications consultant and runs the blog BigMedia.

The way Salzman sees it, a new Rocky couldn’t possibly turn a profit in Denver, even if it were just a weekend publication. “I guess it doesn’t have to, and it never has to go anywhere, as long as The Post owners think Anschutz might be crazy and rich enough to actually do it,” he says. In that scenario, a revived Rocky is merely a bargaining chip as the billionaire pursues the Digital First product, which would come with an expensive and hard-to-build printing press. “Bottom line: with Anschutz behind it, the Rocky would win a newspaper war against the dying Post,” Salzman says. “So there’s no way The Post would let it go that far. Seems like Anschutz is serious about purchasing The Post.”

But are plugged-in media people in Denver actually expecting High Noon for another Western print newspaper war any time soon?

Probably not, posits Eli Stokols, a well-connected political reporter for KDVR-TV in Denver. He’d noted on Twitter yesterday how the news “seems like a gambit to soften up Digital First. Anschutz knows Denver is barely supporting one paper now.”

In a phone call last night, Stokols said there should be far more competition in a fast-growing city such as Denver, which has been scoring recent shout-outs from The New York Times as a new Mecca for millennials.

“I think it would be great for journalism to have a second newspaper in Denver but I have a hard time thinking that this market could sustain two papers,” he said. Rather, he sees the move more cynically, as a way to put the Post in a weaker position for a possible takeover. He pointed out that the Post didn’t break the return-of-the-Rocky story, but rather a different Denver paper, likening it to a trial balloon. “It had all the hallmarks of a story that was planted with a clear strategy in mind,” he says.

It should be noted that Denver isn’t exactly a one newspaper town. I’ve written recently about the great work the city’s alt-weekly, Westword, has done.

Westword editor Patty Calhoun told me she’d love to see her city have two daily newspapers again, but said bluntly, citing the economics, “It’s not going to happen.”

While jaws might have been dropping around Denver yesterday, John Weiss wasn’t at all surprised by the news about an hour south in Colorado Springs. He’s the publisher of The Independent alt-weekly and a handful of military and community papers in the Pikes Peak region.

Weiss says he doesn’t have any inside knowledge of what Anschutz might be up to specifically, but he’s closely studied the behavior of the elusive conservative figure for years. He sees a man of enormous talent with a great team around him, and someone who likely has statewide ambitions in Colorado.

“My thought is he may be really going after the Rocky Mountain News, which could be a legitimate aspect,” Weiss says. “But by creating a credible threat that he’s going to launch the Rocky Mountain News, he significantly reduces the value of The Denver Post. So it does not surprise me that if he does a credible launch of the Rocky Mountain News, the Post will settle. I’m assuming that they’re [the Post] not in a place to do a newspaper war.”

So Denver might not ever see a real rumble in the Rockies between Anschutz and Digital First. But the Anschutz-owned Colorado Springs Gazette and The Denver Post both did carry stories on this recent news this morning, marching out their respective lieutenants for comment.

“Asked about Clarity’s potential interest in the Post and whether a Rocky Mountain News revival was part of an acquisition strategy, McKibben wouldn’t say,” the Gazette piece reads, quoting McKibben thusly: “That’s all speculation and we’re not going to comment on that.”

I asked McKibben this morning if the potential Rocky relaunch is a business strategy for leveraging Digital First Media or the Post and he declined to comment.

“There’s a lot of work that’s gone into this,” he told me.

“I’m not going there,” he said when asked if he wanted to see another newspaper war in Denver.

I could not reach Denver Post president and publisher Mac Tully for comment this morning, but he put on a brave face, the Post reported: “We’re going to continue to do what we do–which is award-winning journalism–and wish them the best of luck.”

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Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity In vestigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.