Highlights from the goodbye-to-the-Rocky Mountain News press conference

Categories: Media

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J. Knight
E.W. Scripps CEO Rich Boehne addresses the media after announcing the Rocky would close after Friday's issue.

Reporter Lynn Bartels's colleagues at the Rocky Mountain News warned her not to try exiting the Denver Newspaper Agency building through the main lobby. After all, the place was swarming with reporters gathered to attend an upcoming press conference at which E.W. Scripps CEO Rich Boehne -- and, as it turned out, quite a few other executive types -- was going to explain why his company had decided to shut down the Rocky after the distribution of tomorrow's edition. But Bartels, one of the lucky handful of Rocky reporters to be offered a position at the Denver Post, just wanted something to eat, and she thought she could slip in and out without notice. And she might have been right, had it not been for yours truly. I greeted her as she walked past, and when she stopped to talk, she was immediately swarmed by the collected press. Suddenly, one of the most no-nonsense wordsmiths imaginable was being treated like a media celebrity.

It was that kind of day.

Bartels talked about her mixed emotions and confirmed that she was indeed a "fierce Rocky partisan," as I described her in a December 10 sidebar to our feature article about Scripps putting the Rocky on the block. She emphasized how much pride she took in trumping the Post, and noted that starting on Monday (she thinks), she'll have the same mindset while reporting for her new employer -- except that now, she'll devote herself to scooping every other news organization in town instead of the one she'd previously targeted. In addition, she revealed that she wasn't told about being hired to work for her onetime blood rival until approximately 11 a.m., just an hour before the announcement about the Rocky's closure was made to the newsroom as a whole.

Once the collected horde had finally run out of questions and Bartels was able to make her belated escape, reporters slowly ambled to the Denver Newspaper Agency auditorium, where the press conference was to take place -- and where, tonight, the Society of Professional Journalists' local chapter is supposed to hand out awards, many of which will no doubt go to Rocky journalists. While we waited, I chatted with Kevin Vaughan, another Rocky writer fortunate enough to have been asked to join the Post staff. He was as torn as Bartels about how to react, and he had an additional challenge: He'd been assigned to write about the upcoming address for the last-ever Rocky.

On the cusp of 2 p.m., the assorted boss-men appeared: Boehne; Scripps senior vice president/newspapers Mark Contreras (who remained mostly mum); Rocky editor/publisher/president John Temple; Jody Lodovic, president of the Post (he was a silent observer); Post editor Greg Moore; and Dean Singleton, vice chairman and CEO of MediaNews Group, which owns the Post, as well as the paper's chairman and publisher. Singleton has been battling multiple sclerosis for over two decades, and the disease is taking its toll on him physically; he moved to the auditorium's platform on a motorized wheelchair. But his eyes made it clear that he was as feisty as ever.

Boehne began by saying that he'd just come from the Rocky newsroom, where he'd shared what he described as "a terrible tragedy for the paper and for everybody involved -- and a very sad day for Denver, as well." Scripps had "tried to find a better solution, but we didn't," in part because of a journalism-industry environment that is "nothing like we've been through before" -- a situation that's "dramatic" and "pretty scary." With that in mind, Scripps decided to clear out of the market entirely in order to "give the Post a good head start out of the gate" so it could keep fighting the good fight.

On occasion, Boehne displayed a competitive edge. At one point, he declared that "the best paper in Denver -- through tomorrow -- is the Rocky Mountain News." But the decision to smother it was made with the health of the entire Scripps media empire in mind. "Today, Scripps is a healthy company, and we intend to keep it that way," he stressed.

Then the questions came, and some interesting responses followed. Boehne confirmed that Scripps hadn't received any credible offers for the Rocky; the closest they'd come was interest from an unnamed party with little previous media business experience that had backed away a few weeks earlier. However, he contradicted this statement when asked why Scripps hadn't simply closed the money-losing property in mid-January, as it had originally hinted, instead of allowing it to linger on for nearly six more weeks. "Newspapers are attractive," he says. "They're a public trust. They're special. And all kinds of people come out of the woodwork" when one of the Rocky's pedigree comes on the market. Scripps had to "sort through those" to determine if any were worth pursuing, he said.

Did he mean sort through the one? Perhaps -- but he also noted that Scripps had been having regular meetings with the Department of Justice about dissolving the joint operating agreement with the Post, which the feds had blessed earlier this decade. Scripps wanted to make sure Justice reps wouldn't object to ending the pact, and he and his legal minions are convinced that they won't. After all, there aren't a lot of people looking to buy newspapers these days, and some of the properties available can be picked up in what Boehne called "a cleaner way" than could the Rocky -- meaning without having to involve the government. Moreover, Boehne suggested that the paper's tabloid format, which is beloved by readers but gives the ad department fewer column inches to sell, had contributed to the Rocky's financial challenges -- the implication being that other companies would also see its size as a detriment.

As for the archives of the Rocky, Boehne said that they're for sale -- a move he implied was being done in part to satisfy the folks at Justice. He added that Scripps wouldn't be receiving a percentage of revenue from the Denver Newspaper Agency to stop publishing, as has happened at some JOAs in the past. (Of course, there isn't any revenue right now, which makes this decision considerably less of a sacrifice.) Likewise, it's handing MediaNews its 50 percent share of Prairie Mountain Publishing, the firm that puts out the Boulder Daily Camera, the Colorado Daily and other newspaper properties in the area. "No money is changing hands" in that transaction, Boehne confirmed -- another indication that Scripps was more interested in ridding itself of these accords as soon as posible rather than driving the toughest possible bargain.

The result? Well over 200 of the Rocky's 228 newsroom employees face an uncertain future, and the 160-180 staffers at Prairie Mountain Publishing will no longer be associated with Scripps.

Next, Rocky editor Temple approached the microphone, sharing his thoughts about his crew's reaction to the announcement. "I think the newsroom was stunned," he said. "People are in grief...they're very, very upset -- trying to process all the emotions that go with it.... I hate that this day has arrived."

Temple was less comfortable answering a question about when he knew the Rocky's die was cast. He's been in constant communiation with Scripps as publisher of the Rocky, and he's known that they've been struggling with the market realities here for years, he said -- "and certainly I knew this was the most likely alternative." However, "you have to live with the hand you're dealt."

Hence, he's devoted to making the Rocky's final salvo the best it possibly can be -- a 52-page special section that will wrap around the main newspaper, with features focusing on the people who work at the paper and their deep connection to readers and the community. He then provided a rationale for readers who love the Rocky not to reject the Post out of hand. "I don't think that's a good idea," he said. "The reason you read a newspaper is to fully participate in a community.... Do you really want to give up your participation in the community? I'd encourage them to stay engaged and give the newspaper a chance.

"I'm optimistic about the future," he went on -- but he also acknowledged that the next phase of newspapering's history "is going to be really rough. We're in a very destructive period."

As for his own future, he said, "I don't have any" beyond helping Scripps put the Rocky to bed over the next few months. However, Boehne made it clear that Temple has a job at Scripps if he wants one, and identified Temple as "the best newspaper editor in the country." Temple, though, didn't seem quite ready to look forward. "Tomorrow will be 55 days from our 150th birthday," he said.

With that, Boehne and Temple ceded the stage to the MediaNews trio. Singleton made his way to the microphone first.

"This is not a day that anybody wanted to see," Singleton said. "The newspaper owners, back in 2000 -- we agreed to the JOA because we wanted to preserve two really good newspapers for a really, really long time." Unfortunately, "the newspaper model started to change" shortly after the JOA went into effect, and the current recession, which he called one of the worst anyone in the room had witnessed, made it increasingly clear that Denver could no longer support two dailies, no matter how good they might be.

"The Rocky Mountain News is an outstanding newspaper with an outstanding editor and an outstanding staff," he declared. "For 22 years, I've read it every morning" -- and the first time in that span he won't be able to do so will sting, in part because the relationship between the publications had improved in recent years. According to Singleton, "We went from clawing each others' eyes out during the newspaper war to being very good partners and very good friends" -- albeit ones who competed in a "fierce" manner from an editorial standpoint.

Of course, that rivalry carried over to readers, as Singleton is well aware. "We'll work hard to convince the Rocky's readers that they can be comfortable with the Post," he said. "Some of them won't, but we hope most of them will." Approximately 14,000 people currently receive both the Post and the Rocky, so their newspaper allotment will immediately be halved, and part of their investment refunded. But Rocky-only subscribers will begin receiving the Post as of Saturday -- "and we'll continue giving it to them until they tell us otherwise," he vowed.

As was the case with Boehne, questions for Singleton from the assembled reporters prompted more intriguing responses than his opening address. For instance, his concession that the Rocky might have been the surviving paper if things had gone a bit differently will no doubt irritate those Rocky loyalists who've always thought Scripps blinked first. He also said that he began having discussions with Scripps executives about the end game "several weeks ago...when it became clear that there wasn't a credible buyer."

In regard to MediaNews's widely reported money problems, Singleton brushed them off with his usual defiance. When asked if the Post would live on, he said, "I'm not just confident it will survive. It will survive." He then took Channel 9's Greg Moss to task for emphasizing the difficulties newspapers are facing without also citing the similar troubles afflicting broadcast media. "We tend to write about ourselves more than TV stations talk about themselves," he maintained. "Your ad revenue is down more than ours is, but you don't report about it every day" -- and neither do radio stations, where the same is true. He closed off the subject with the words, "The newspaper industry will survive and thrive -- and I hope your business will, too."

Not that Singleton pretended all was swell in his accounting department. He conceded the importance of working "with our unionized employees" and asking them "to participate in the recovery" -- which led to a tentative agreement with the Denver Newspaper Agency for a contract featuring cuts estimated at 11.7 percent. Once those pacts are ratified, he said he would finalize a deal to refinance an enormous loan for the DNA's printing facilities, which went on line a few years ago. When asked for details, he deferred, saying, "We're a private company" -- a status that he's repeatedly used to his advantage. But under questioning from the Rocky's business expert, David Milstead, he described MediaNews as "leveraged" and said that the Hearst Corp., his partner in many of his more than 100 newspaper properties in the U.S., holds more than half of its debt in at least one major financial category.

Other odds and ends: The Post's page count will increase, at least for now, and it will run all of its comics along with those that have appeared in the Rocky. Leaving a story out of the paper might be problematic, Singleton said, but "you leave a comic out and you're dead."

A short time later, Post editor Moore took his place in the spotlight, but since he's a much more concise speaker than those who preceded him, he didn't stay long. He discussed adding members of the Rocky staff to his own in a way that made the Post stronger and didn't step on the toes of his own long-timers. He said there would be changes in the Post, but not so many that it would seem as if he was trying to create a third paper in a market where two had previously existed. And he scoffed at the notion that a lack of competition from the Rocky would hurt the quality of the Post's work. That concern didn't even make his top-four list of worries, he allowed. And what were those top four worries? "None of your business," he said firmly, triggering one of the assembly's few big laughs.

The meeting wound down from there, and as the executives left through a side door and other reporters hurried off to file their stories, I encountered Adrian Dater, the Post's must-read hockey writer. Dater had the day off, but he'd come down because he'd wanted to witness this sad bit of history. If Bartels is a fierce Rocky partisan, Dater fits the same description at the Post, and nothing made him happier than coming out on top in head-to-head battles with his tabloid foes over the years. But on this day, he felt no sense of triumph. He's recently been reading about the history of the Denver newspapers -- about how the Rocky was once printed on a hand-cranked press on the side of a dusty road during an era two centuries removed from the one we're in now, and the idea that it will soon cease to exist couldn't help making him feel melancholy.

He isn't alone. And that feeling will only grow more acute in the coming days.

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