Monday, April 6, 2009

Rocky Mountain News Closing

By Lynn DeBruin, Rocky Mountain News , Lisa Ryckman, Rocky Mountain News
Originally published 12:01 p.m., February 26, 2009
Updated 10:08 p.m., February 26, 2009

The Rocky Mountain News publishes its last paper tomorrow.
Rich Boehne, chief executive officer of Rocky-owner Scripps, broke the news to the staff at noon today, ending nearly three months of speculation over the paper's future.

"People are in grief," Editor John Temple said a noon news conference.

But he was intent on making sure the Rocky's final edition, which would include a 52-page wraparound section, was as special as the paper itself.

"This is our last shot at this," Temple said at a second afternoon gathering at the newsroom. "This morning (someone) said it's like playing music at your own funeral. It's an opportunity to make really sweet sounds or blow it. I'd like to go out really proud."

Boehne told staffers that the Rocky was the victim of a terrible economy and an upheaval in the newspaper industry.

"Denver can't support two newspapers any longer," Boehne told staffers, some of whom cried at the news. "It's certainly not good news for you, and it's certainly not good news for Denver."

Tensions were higher at the second staff meeting, held to update additional employees who couldn¹t attend the hastily called noon press conference.

Several employees wanted to know about severance packages, or even if they could buy at discount their computers.

Others were critical of Scripps for not seeking wage concessions first or going online only.

But Mark Contreras, vice president of newspapers for Scripps, said the math simply didn't work.

"If you cut both newsrooms in half, fired half the people in each newsroom, you'd be down to where other market newsrooms are today. And they're struggling," he said.

As for online revenues, he said if they were to grow 40 percent a year for the next five years, they still would be equal to the cost of one newsroom today.

"We're sick that we're here," Contreras said. "We want you to know it's not your fault. There's no paper in Scripps that we hold dearer."

But Boehne said Scripps intended to keep its other media, both print and in broadcast, running.

"Scripps has been around for 130 years. We intend to be around another 130 years," Boehne said. "If you can't make hard decisions, you won't make it."

After Friday, the Denver Post will be the only newspaper in town.

Asked if pubilsher Dean Singleton now walks away with the whole pie, Boehne was blunt.

"He walks away with an unprofitable paper, $130 million in debt and revenues that are down 15-20 percent every year," Boehne said.

Asked if Singleton would have to pay for the presses now, Boehne added, "We had to kill a newspaper. He can pay for the presses."

Reaction came from across the nation and around the block.

"The Rocky Mountain News has chronicled the storied, and at times tumultuous, history of Colorado for nearly 150 years. I am deeply saddened by this news, and my heart goes out to all the talented men and women at the Rocky," U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet said in a statement. "I am grateful for their hard work and dedication to not only their profession, but the people of Colorado as well."

At the Statehouse, Rep. Joe Rice (D-Littleton), said the paper would be missed.

"The Rocky Mountain News has been a valued institution in Denver," he said.

"It's a sad, sad day."

Long-time Denver real estate agent Edie Marks called the Rocky a voice of reason, moderation and common sense.

"I think that it was the fairest newspaper, the most diverse, and am important part of my daily life," she said. "I'm going to miss it tremendously."

On Dec. 4, Boehne announced that Scripps was looking for a buyer for the Rocky and its 50 percent interest in the Denver Newspaper Agency, the company that handles business matters for the papers. The move came because of financial losses in Denver, including $16 million in 2008.

"This moment is nothing like any experience any of us have had," Boehne said. "The industry is in serious, serious trouble."

Temple said he was optimistic about the future of journalism but added that newspapers would be "radically different" in the future. He said he had no plans for his own future, although Boehne said Temple has a job with Scripps if he wants it.

Boehne said there was an out-of-state nibble from only one potential buyer, who withdrew after realizing that it would cost as much as $100 million "just to stay in the game."

He said they were in talks with that potential buyer as recently as a couple of weeks ago.

The sale of a newspaper brings out all sorts of colorful characters, Boehne said. "You get calls from pay phones at parks."

Since then, Scripps said it has been working with Post owner MediaNews Group to come up with a plan to leave Colorado. It also shares 50-50 ownership with MediaNews of the Boulder Daily Camera and a handful of other smaller papers in the state.

The Rocky has been in a joint operating agreement with The Denver Post since 2001. The arrangement approved by the U.S. Justice Department allowed the papers to share all business services, from advertising to printing, to preserve two editorial voices in the community.

Since then, Scripps said it has been working with Post owner MediaNews Group to come up with a plan to leave Colorado. It also shares 50-50 ownership with MediaNews of the Boulder Daily Camera and a handful of other smaller papers in the state.

Boehne said that the Post's traditional format and established Sunday edition made it more economically viable.

"In this environment, where there's so little room to take economic risk, I really feel the best chance for survival belongs to the broadsheet," he said.

The closure of the Rocky will mean Denver will have just one major newspaper, like the vast majority of American cities today.

"I certainly feel that all of (us) did what we could to make this paper successful, and I want to thank you for that," Temple told the staff. "To me, this is the very sad end of a beautiful thing."

Scripps said it will now offer for sale the masthead, archives and Web site of the Rocky, separate from its interest in the newspaper agency.

Today's announcement comes as metropolitan newspapers and major newspaper companies find themselves reeling, with plummeting advertising revenues and dramatically diminished share prices. Just this week, Hearst, owner of the San Francisco Chronicle, announced that unless it was able to make immediate and steep expense cuts it would put the paper up for sale and possibly close it. Two other papers in JOAs, one in Seattle and the other in Tucson, are facing closure in coming weeks.

The Rocky was founded in 1859 by William Byers, one of the most influential figures in Colorado history. Scripps bought the paper in 1926 and immediately began a newspaper war with The Post. That fight ebbed and flowed over the course of the rest of the 20th century, culminating in penny-a-day subscriptions in the late '90s.

Perhaps the most critical step for the Rocky occurred in 1942, when then-Editor Jack Foster saved it by adopting the tabloid style it has been known for ever since. Readers loved the change, and circulation took off.

In the past decade, the Rocky has won four Pulitzer Prizes, more than all but a handful of American papers. Its sports section was named one of the 10 best in the nation this week. Its business section was cited by the Society of American Business Editors and Writers as one of the best in the country last year. And its photo staff is regularly listed among the best in the nation when the top 10 photo newspapers are judged.

Staffers were told to come in Friday to collect personal effects.

"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."

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