Newspaper editors, those who still have jobs anyway, tend to be relentlessly literal. If your mother tells you she loves you, so goes the old newsroom adage, check it out. The trait is a professional necessity. After all, the aim of the newspapering game is to track down the answers to the “Five Ws” (who, what, when, where, and why); put that reporting into an inverted pyramid, a story with the most salient facts first and the less critical information in subsequent paragraphs; and do it for dozens of breaking stories every day. Newspaper editors have neither the need nor the time for literary luxuries. And so, the senior-most editors of the Rocky Mountain News worked right through the tragic metaphor flashing before their eyes on the afternoon of January 15, 2009.
It was a Thursday, and as on most weekdays since 1998, when John Temple became the Rocky’s editor, he was leading the 3:30 p.m. meeting of his top editors. The agenda was the news of the day and how it ought be presented, particularly on the front page. The 10 or so editors were huddled around one end of a 40-foot, oblong table in a conference room on the fifth floor of a lavish leviathan called the Denver Newspaper Agency building. The DNA building, which oddly enough also houses the Rocky’s competitor, the Denver Post, was completed nearly three years ago at the newsworthy cost of $100 million. Erected on the corner of Broadway and Colfax Avenue, at the intersection of power between the Denver City and County Building and the state Capitol, it was equipped with virtually every state-of-the-art newsgathering gizmo, along with some pricey comforts. On the conference room walls hung four flat-panel televisions attached to cable news feeds from around the globe. Circling the long table were some 20 Herman Miller chairs, each retailing for hundreds of dollars.
Shortly into the meeting Temple blurted a “Wow!” intended to rouse his editors’ attention. He was looking at one of the TVs, remarking on CNN’s coverage of a commercial plane that a few hours earlier had emergency-landed in New York City’s Hudson River. Within minutes, a Rocky photo editor had a laptop pulling wire-service photographs of the event and was feeding the images to another TV screen for the editors to see. Each picture was more astounding than the last, with passengers emerging from the fuselage onto the wings, preparing to board approaching rescue boats. The Five Ws of this one were something else: During takeoff from LaGuardia Airport, US Airways Flight 1549 hit some birds, which triggered engine failure, and the pilot, captain Chesley Sullenberger, a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, executed a miraculous water landing, saving all 155 people onboard. Before climbing onto a rescue boat himself, Sullenberger walked through the sinking aircraft, twice, to ensure that everyone had been evacuated. One of the pictures, a shot of 1549’s tail dipping beneath the Hudson as passengers squeezed onto the wings, would be the front page of the next day’s Rocky. The headline: “Wing. Prayer. Rescue.”
If any of the editors in the room noted the parallels between Flight 1549 and their own predicament, they kept it to themselves. The Rocky, too, had crashed. About six weeks earlier, on December 4, 2008, executives of the E.W. Scripps Company, which owned the paper, announced that the Rocky’s moneymaking engines had failed and the company was putting it up for sale. The suits, who had flown in from Scripps’ Cincinnati headquarters, said if they were unable to find a buyer within a month—on or about that very January Thursday—the company would close the paper. Announcing the Rocky’s status as a money-losing proposition as the reason for the sale effectively had left the paper stranded and about to sink, with staffers anxiously waiting on the wings. The Rocky’s captain, Temple, had been walking the newsroom, telling his staff “anything is possible,” only here there were no rescue boats in sight, no buyers to be had.
On February 27, 2009, just 55 days shy of the paper’s 150th anniversary, the Rocky went under, swallowed into the abyss of America’s failing newspaper industry. Scripps executives again came to town. They provided answers to the Five Ws of the closure, and the Rocky reporters wrote it all down, a final assignment for a final edition. The paper had been hemorrhaging millions of dollars, the executives said. They said they’d had a “strategy,” but then the “ground shifted beneath our feet”—the U.S. economy’s plunge and the increasingly devastating power of the Internet—and it simply became too much to overcome. “We did all we could,” the suits said. “It’s nobody’s fault.” As a headline in the final edition put it: “Dismal economy, changing world halt Rocky’s near 150-year run.”
As first drafts of history go, it wasn’t bad, as it had just enough of the facts. As corporate spin goes, however, it was flawless, as it omitted just enough of the unpleasant truths. The Scripps party line avoided the fact that this once-great newspaper company long ago had begun turning away from print; that it was casting aside yet another journalistic institution like an emptied piggy bank. And there was no reason to wonder aloud if the Rocky’s esteemed editor had put his own corporate concerns above his journalistic ethics.
On an afternoon in late January, when the fate of the Rocky was at the peak of its certain uncertainty, John Temple walked to the front of the newsroom. Before he said a word his staff began to gather around him. It was a little like a Sunday Catholic mass crowd. Those who still had faith arrived early and attentively crowded the front; the nonbelievers, who felt obliged to go through the motions, took their time and lingered in the back. “Nothing like a long, drawn-out death,” reporter David Montero softy uttered to no one in particular. By then, they all knew the drill: Since the December 4 sale-or-close announcement, Temple had been holding regular meetings, including a 4:30 briefing every Thursday, to update the rank and file on any new information about the sale process. Temple originally expected he might have to do six or seven of the gatherings; this was his eighth of what would be 13.
Now, nearly two months after the December 4 ultimatum, with no word of a buyer, Rocky staffers expected that every day might be the day they boxed up their belongings, all while being encouraged to hold out hope in what was clearly a hopeless situation. And of course, while still producing a daily newspaper. As the staff covered the plight of the swelling ranks of the unemployed and the imploding, mismanaged automotive and financial sectors, they also reported on the downward spiral of the newspaper industry, even documenting the bleak predicament of their own Rocky, stories that were rapidly becoming the paper’s obituary. One of the reporters standing in the back of the newsroom, business journalist David Milstead, had been especially dogged covering the Rocky’s dramatics. He’d written several explosive stories about the paper’s business operations. Yet none of those reports was as provocative as the piece he was about to write, a story that Temple would refuse to publish.
Milstead was among many Rocky journalists who understood the best stories often emerge from tragic circumstances. Take all four of the Pulitzer Prizes that Temple’s staff had earned in the last eight years. Three were photo wins: the Columbine school massacre, the 2002 wildfires, and the portfolio that accompanied the “Final Salute” series about a Marine officer assigned to manage funerals for soldiers killed in the line of duty, which also won a Pulitzer for feature writing. Now the Rocky journalists themselves were the subjects in a wretched, still-unfolding story. Kevin Vaughan, last year nominated for a Pulitzer for his feature about a 1961 train-school bus accident that killed 20 children, worried about how he and his wife would provide for their three kids. Reporter Laura Frank, who chronicled cancer-stricken workers of the Rocky Flats weapons plant in their quest for government compensation, and her husband, Jeff Legwold, a sportswriter for the paper, would have to think about where their health insurance coverage would come from. Then there was 35-year-old Ed Sealover. Eight months earlier, he had left the Colorado Springs Gazette for his “dream job,” covering the Legislature for the Rocky; within the last few weeks he and his wife had tearfully decided they’d better hold off trying to start a family. Sealover figured he’d first have to restart his career.
Temple had likened the situation to “being given a diagnosis of cancer and waiting to find out if there’s a cure, or it’s terminal,” something Kathy Bogan, a presentation director at the paper, truly understood. In 2002, she underwent a lumpectomy and chemotherapy in her battle to beat breast cancer. Her husband, her career, her professional family—these were a few of the reasons to fight and live. Minutes before this Thursday briefing she told me, “I think we’re going through all the emotions you’d expect: grief, anxiety, anger, hope, then more grief, and then it starts all over again. Some of us are going through it all several times a day, dozens of times each week.” Bogan’s eyes reddened and watered. She pushed a lock of her silver-colored hair from her face, and with understated resignation she said, “At this point, just knowing, no matter how it’s going to end, would be better.”
The staffers didn’t want pity, only resolution, and every Thursday they turned to their editor-in-chief for answers. At 55 years old, Temple was a relatively young top editor, with a youthful face, black curly hair, and dark deep-set eyes capable of hardening or softening into polar-opposite emotional extremes within a blink. Tall and thin with stooped shoulders, there was something elastic, almost puttylike, about Temple, as if he could morph to adapt to any situation.
Rocky staffers regarded him as an “egomaniac,” a “prick,” “brilliant,” “fiercely competitive,” “kind,” and “passionate.” Many of them had stories about his volcanic shouting eruptions. One of the security guards in the lobby of the DNA building mentioned a time when Temple screamed at her for transferring a call directly to him, rather than to his assistant. Bogan recalled that after Temple had laid into her in front of her colleagues she privately said to him, “Some people might respond to that, but I am not one of them,” and that Temple seemed “puzzled” by her reaction.
As rude and as crass as he could be, much of the newsroom believed it was because Temple cared. Not long after Bogan learned that she might have cancer, Temple informed her that she was being promoted. Bogan felt compelled to share her health problems with him, to give him the option to slot in someone else, someone who would not be out of the office for treatments. Temple said, “I’m promoting you because you do good work. When you get back, you’ll do good work.” And, the thing was, Temple’s editorial instincts were spot-on. It wasn’t just the four Pulitzers they’d point to as evidence. “I’ve had a lot of editors,” columnist Mike Littwin told me one evening, alluding to his Baltimore Sun days before moving to Denver. “But Temple is by far one of the best.”
As Temple held his briefing that Thursday in January, he leaned on the back of a chair and paced in place. He pushed the chair away and then pulled it back again. “OK, so I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I don’t have a whole lot of information for you this week,” he said. There were sighs and foot stomps and frustrated pirouettes. The emotional cycle of the staff was on anger. In one of the first Thursday briefings, in early December, an editor wanted to know if the Rocky still would be submitting entries for the Pulitzer competition; a reporter had asked if they should bother pursuing longer enterprise features. Temple’s answer to both questions was yes. His message was clear: Do not give up. Now, those inspiring concerns gave way to more pressing matters. A staffer asked what was on everyone’s mind: “Can you just tell us when Scripps will be ready to tell us what is going to happen, to tell us something?”
“Soon,” was as specific as Temple got. He said he understood their frustrations and asked the staff to not pay attention to the local coverage of the Rocky’s plight in other media. “None of them know what they’re talking about.” With emphasis, he added, “I do.” It was Temple’s way of subtly reminding everyone that they ought to trust him because of his unique and extraordinary position within Scripps. He wasn’t just the Rocky’s editor, nor was he just the paper’s publisher and president; he also was a Scripps executive—vice president of the company’s newspaper division—which meant that, although he had both feet planted in the newsroom, he had at least an ear in the Scripps executive suite.
Temple assured his staff that Scripps was doing everything it could to take care of them; that at least part of the reason the process seemed to be taking so long was that Scripps was “trying to do the right thing.” He reminded the newsroom that every day the company kept the paper operating it was losing hundreds of thousands of dollars, yet it was keeping the paper operating, for now. Temple made it clear that he expected the staff to be professional and do their jobs, because they were cashing their checks, because they were colleagues in this together, and when someone was slacking that meant someone else had to pick up the slack, and because if there were a buyer interested, the Rocky would be more attractive if it was producing good journalism. “Look, I know this is hard,” he said. “But trust me, it’s complicated. It’s very, very complicated.”
The Rocky had been scrapping for its life since day one. The paper’s founder was William Newton Byers. The first official surveyor to chart and map the untamed land that was the Nebraska Territory, Byers then helped build what would become Nebraska’s largest city, Omaha, and rose to political prominence. By nature he wasn’t a white-collar bureaucrat. He was, as the Western author Wallace Stegner put it, “a pioneer, an opener, a pass-crosser of a pure American breed, one for whom an untrodden peak was a rebuke and a shame to an energetic people.” And so, in 1859, when Byers heard there was gold in Colorado, he couldn’t resist the rush. He correctly figured that such an optimistically wild town as Denver could benefit from a newspaper, and he could benefit by starting one. He set up shop above a general store and saloon, and on April 23, 1859, published the first edition of the Rocky Mountain News. He got that initial print run of about 500 papers off the press about 20 minutes before the first edition of a rival upstart, the Cherry Creek Pioneer, which never printed again. On his first day, Byers had fought and won what would be the first of many battles.
For 19 years, Byers wielded the Rocky like a miner’s pick, hammering his pro-business, pro-development agenda. And in 1878, with ample fortune and influence banked away, he sold the paper. Amid the fray of six daily newspapers, 27 weeklies, and 22 monthlies, the Byers-less Rocky was passed among four different owners over the next few decades and lost its way. Heading into the Great Depression, the Rocky was selling 30,000 copies while the Denver Post, which had launched in 1895, owned a readership five times as large. The Rocky might have succumbed if not for its new owner, the E.W. Scripps Company. Under Scripps management, the Rocky engaged the Post in an epic newspaper war that would endure for the rest of the century. The two papers faced off with morning editions, afternoon editions, and for a while with both printing before and after lunch. Each side was spending—and losing—millions annually to take down the other. And regardless of the strategy, the Rocky usually came up short.
It was a Rocky business journalist who came up with the idea that would save the paper, at least for a while longer. In the 1940s, Bill Hailey suggested the newspaper switch its format from a New York Times-style broadsheet to a New York Post-style tabloid. Who wants to deal with the origamilike folding hassle of a broadsheet when you can simply flip open a booklike tabloid? Before he died in 1965, Hailey witnessed the tabloid’s circulation jump to 133,000, while the Post’s stagnated. By 1977 the two papers were in a near dead-heat. Three years later, the Rocky claimed a circulation of 316,000, and for the first time in nearly 80 years became Denver’s dominant paper. The underdog Rocky staff relished their moniker as the “Wildcats of Welton Street.” But by 2006, when the Rocky moved into its new $100 million home at the DNA building, the Wildcats’ legacy was in jeopardy. In fact, the glittering new headquarters would soon come to represent the beginning of the end for the paper that Byers started and so many people had worked so hard to save.
In 1992, about the time Temple joined the Rocky as metro editor, the Denver newspaper war had reached cutthroat intensity. The Rocky and the Post were fighting for their financial survival and killing themselves in the process, regularly trading the lead in the circulation race. The Rocky’s newsroom anxiously awaited the tallies and regarded each victory as a punch to the gut of the Post. Wanting to deliver a defining blow, Rocky management did something staffers considered “insane:” They offered an annual subscription rate of $3.12, about a penny per daily edition. Doubly insane, the Post did the same. The owners were subsidizing significant production costs hoping to make gains in advertising, where the real money is made.
The basic algebra of advertising is the more eyes you have on your media product, the more you can charge advertisers. The most lucrative piece of newspaper business used to be the classifieds. Small and cost-efficient to produce, the listings were rich with potential profit into the mid-’90s, when the dot-com boom fueling the nation’s economy powered the Front Range’s growth. People were shopping for houses, cars, and stuff. Companies were shopping for more employees. At its height, as Temple has said, the Rocky annually generated five million classifieds that reached two million people each month. Industry analysts considered the Front Range newspaper market the second-best market west of the Mississippi, behind Los Angeles. But the crazed Spy-vs.-Spy standoff in Denver undermined advertising sales. The two papers slashed and reslashed rates to undercut each other, charging only a fraction of what the market would bear and earning not nearly enough to sustain their operations.
In 1998, Scripps reorganized the Rocky’s leadership, promoting the paper’s editor, Bob Burdick, to president and installing Temple as editor. A year later, Scripps executives began talking with representatives of Media-News Group, the Denver-based owner of the Post, about ways to end the costly competition. The discussions were a closely guarded secret. Publicly held Scripps didn’t want Wall Street to react and had to respect restrictions on sharing insider information, and privately held MediaNews preferred to operate as quietly as possible. Of lesser concern: Had rumors of the discussions leaked, they likely would have unleashed a storm of unfavorable PR. Viewed from within the journalism community, Scripps meeting with MediaNews cofounder, vice chairman, and chief executive officer William Dean Singleton was akin to Scripps negotiating with the journalistic antichrist.
A Texan and former newspaper reporter, Singleton had fashioned MediaNews into one of the nation’s largest newspaper companies by acquiring papers on the brink of closure and attempting to make them profitable by dramatically cutting staff and undercutting competing papers. One of his first acquisitions, in the 1970s, was the Fort Worth Press, where his tactics so enraged the newsroom that when he visited the paper staffers pelted him with empty beer cans. Within a year, Singleton shut the paper down. Moving on, he borrowed millions of dollars and built his newspaper empire by being heavily leveraged and outlasting competing papers. A New York Times article once claimed that those in the newspaper business widely regard Singleton as “the industry’s leading skinflint.”
The E.W. Scripps Company was no naive newcomer. In 1878, a 24-year-old former newspaper office boy, Edward Willis Scripps, borrowed $10,000 from his family and launched the Penny Press in Cleveland. By the time he died in 1926, his family owned some 25 papers. One of the last purchases Scripps made, a few months before the founder’s death, was the Rocky. E.W. believed that local editors knew better than anyone how to run their papers. This principle would be tested as the company went public. It was a publicly traded Scripps Company that ultimately sold the Fort Worth Press, and the fate of its journalists, to Singleton.
Reacquainted in Denver, the owners concluded the solution for the Post and the Rocky was the formation of a joint operating agreement, or JOA, under which the Post and Rocky would combine their subscription, distribution, and sales divisions. If those operations were unified, the logic went, the papers would no longer need to spend precious capital and time undermining each other. In fact, the proposed “Denver Newspaper Agency” could raise rates and prices across the board. In this 50-50 partnership, each of the owners would cover the costs of their respective news operations, which would remain independent. Whatever money was left would be profit, split evenly between the owners.
Scripps knew its way around a JOA. It was a partner in the very first such agreement, in New Mexico, with its Albuquerque Tribune in 1933. In the decades since, more than two dozen JOAs were created, with Singleton’s MediaNews party to its fair share. A JOA is at its core a monopolistic price-fixing strategy, but in the 1960s the U.S. Supreme Court found that these agreements are just when necessary to preserve two independent editorial voices in the community. The court, however, was careful to define the “failing company defense,” meaning at least one of the papers in a JOA has to demonstrate that it is in imminent danger of failing for a JOA to be valid. In 1970, as more JOA applications flowed into Washington, D.C., the U.S. Congress codified JOA standards in the Newspaper Preservation Act. At least part of Congress’ rationale for allowing this industry-specific antitrust exemption was: “The economics of the newspaper industry make it more likely for newspapers to fail when faced with competition than other businesses; that when a newspaper is failing it is harder to reverse the process and it is almost impossible to find an outside buyer.”
When Scripps and MediaNews submitted their JOA proposal to the Justice Department for approval in 2000, the Rocky’s weekly readership was ahead of the Post’s by more than 30,000. It appeared that the heirs to the Wildcats of Welton Street would see the Post declared the failing paper. As expected, the Justice Department approved the proposal in January 2001, but the Rocky staff was stunned to learn that its paper was the “failing” one. Scripps executives accepted the designation, as they explained, because the Rocky had posted significant operating losses at the peak of the newspaper war. Scripps officials spun the label as unfortunate semantics necessary for the paper to survive. Just as hard for the staff to swallow was the agreement required the Rocky to immediately stop producing a Sunday edition, the mother of all revenue engines with its higher circulation and advertising volume. To further consolidate printing expenditures, only the Post would publish a Sunday edition.
The suit-speak did little to console the Rocky staff. “You would think that the announcement on December 4th that we were for sale or closed was the toughest day of my professional life,” the Rocky’s longtime assistant managing editor, Deb Goeken, told me. “But it wasn’t. It was much harder to find out that we were the failing paper. We had worked so hard. We believed we were winning the war, and the circulation numbers seemed to show we were right. That was a terrible, terrible day.” Bob Burdick, president of the Rocky at the time, says he, too, was “shocked.” Burdick was not involved in any of the discussions leading up to the JOA and suspects that if he had been he would have tried to secure different terms in the deal. “There was no doubt that the Rocky was struggling,” Burdick says, declining to offer figures showing just how much. “The JOA was seen as an alternative to losing money. But not having the Sunday paper put the Rocky at a disadvantage. Without a Sunday edition I think that made it difficult for the paper to succeed down the line.”
That wouldn’t be Burdick’s problem. With advertising and business concerns for the Rocky and the Post now handled by the DNA’s board, there wasn’t much left for a traditional publisher to do, and Burdick stepped aside. That left Temple, the paper’s editor, as the lone Denver-based leader of the Rocky. Scripps executives concluded that it was only logical and cost-efficient for Temple to take on whatever noneditorial duties remained and formally added the titles of publisher and president to his business card.
For all the talk of the JOA being about preserving two journalistic voices, for Scripps it proved to be about buying time and wringing as much money as possible from the Rocky before the well ran dry. About 10 years before the Denver Newspaper Agency JOA launched, an industrious junior Scripps executive, Kenneth W. Lowe, realized that his family’s interest in homes and gardens was a rapidly developing national zeitgeist. In 1992, he presented his idea for Home & Garden Television to the Scripps board. He drew a picture of a house and pitched how each room could develop into a show. Scripps agreed to fund the project, and by 1994, HGTV was on the air, with Scripps wisely keeping ownership of the show, producing the content, and creating a dedicated network that currently plays to 89 million households. HGTV’s success has spawned several profitable “lifestyle” channels; Scripps acquired the Food Network in 1997 and spun the DIY Network out of HGTV in 1999.
It cost tens of millions of dollars to get these channels off the ground. Producing, acquiring, and distributing the network shows took capital, and the funding came from what executives referred to as the “free cash” from the newspapers. As Lowe’s babies found their profitable footing, and Lowe himself rose through the company, newspapers began dying a slow death and Scripps began casting them aside. About the time Lowe, a former disc jockey, was appointed CEO in January 2000, Scripps, which had been closing newspapers, submitted the DNA proposal to the Justice Department. Lowe’s strategy was to keep the cost (and hassles) to a minimum in the newspaper division while prioritizing the cable ventures. A few weeks after the Rocky’s close, Scripps president and CEO Richard Boehne told me, “The strategy [at the time of the JOA] was clear; we needed money for the television division.”
Scripps envisioned that the DNA would handle much of the management duties of the Rocky, and every quarter, after the expenses were paid, send the parent company a check. Preserving two editorial voices was what the Justice Department wanted to hear; failing-paper status was what it needed to hear; but people (and advertisers) wanted the niche markets of shows about pretty houses and tasty food. Between 2000 and the beginning of 2008, Scripps folded four more papers. In July 2008, Lowe divided the company into two: the E.W. Scripps Company, which oversaw the newspapers and was headed by Boehne; and Scripps Networks Interactive (SNI), which was the home for the television and Internet-based properties. As of early spring, the Scripps Company stock was worth just under two bucks; SNI was selling for $27.44, with a 52-week high of $44.98. (One former executive jokes that Boehne must have drawn the short straw.)
It was a winning strategy. Wall Street hailed Lowe for his forward thinking, for diversifying the company’s portfolio at just the right time, and for generally doing what was best for his shareholders. That Scripps was shutting down newspapers was merely the opportunity cost of doing business. And closing the Rocky, rather than selling it, might very well benefit the company more than was ever publicly disclosed.
One afternoon in the newsroom, Temple speed-walked by presentation director Kathy Bogan. She turned to me and said, “John never stops,” with an eye-roll that conveyed trust-me weariness. Walking doesn’t seem enough to satiate Temple’s kinetic urges; he’s one of those people who bounces rather than steps, swinging his arms as he goes. Even standing still, the man finds a way to move. Which might partly explain his rapid professional rise within the Scripps company.
Temple is a bit like William Byers in two respects: He happened upon his newspaper career relatively late in life, and this was because he, too, was an explorer. Yet while Byers’ adventuring seemed motivated by self-awareness, Temple’s quest was a search for self. His parents, both well-educated and from well-off families, moved to Canada in the 1940s from Europe via Budapest, Hungary, as immigrants escaping postwar anti-Semitism and communism. They settled in Vancouver among a community of Austrian Jews, a network that helped Temple’s Austrian-born father find work in a tent factory, and later as a midlevel manager at a forest products company. Wanting to assimilate into their middle-class neighborhood, Temple’s parents didn’t talk much about the past, which meant they didn’t talk much about being Jewish.
He spent a good portion of his youth outside of it all, camping and hiking in the remotest parts of British Columbia, for months at a time. A local newspaper article that mentioned young Temple and his love for uncharted territories caught the attention of the area’s Sierra Club. The organization contracted the teenager to survey an undocumented swath of wilderness. Still, he had no idea how to map his own course. What he did know was he didn’t want to become an anonymous midlevel manager at some factory. Toward the end of his high school years, the wandering kid went to see a shrink, a Jew from Vienna, like Temple’s dad. The psychiatrist asked the boy if he had considered that being Jewish might affect his identity. Inspired, Temple went to Israel after high school. He found a kibbutz, learned Hebrew, and returned home with a better understanding of his heritage but no more of an idea for his future.
Temple then embarked on a breathless, picaresque journey. A year in community college, a summer working on an oil tanker, more than a year building log homes. He worked as a carpenter and a cabbie, and got himself accepted to the prestigious architecture program at the University of Toronto. Three years into the five-year program he left, switching his major to English. The change was precipitated by his latest fancy: Temple had started the architectural school’s newspaper, the Column, and learned he “really, really liked it.” He enrolled at Northwestern University’s Medill school of journalism. During the yearlong program, he landed an internship with a paper in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The moment he walked into the newsroom, he says, “I had the answer to the question of what I was supposed to do with my life.”
His first job after Medill was with the Albuquerque Tribune, a Scripps-owned paper then operating under a JOA (and since closed by Scripps). It was 1984, and Temple was a general-assignment reporter who “didn’t give a shit” about what editors or management did, let alone the newspaper’s financial structure. “The Trib was only a small paper, but there was an FBI office, a federal courthouse, military installations—it was a great newspaper town. I cared about the stories.” Always remembering that “one of the best pieces of advice I got was to never take a job with ‘assistant’ in the title,” the kid who couldn’t map his future began to master his career. In 1987, he moved on to an environmental reporter position with the Toronto Star. A former editor at the Tribune called him one year later, wanting to know if Temple would return to Albuquerque for the job of city editor. By now Temple was married, with two children, and at home in his native Canada, but this was one of those too-good-to-refuse offers. As the city editor he could influence a paper’s coverage in ways he could not as a reporter, and an editor within Scripps, he knew, could move onward and upward.
Temple’s professional gamble worked. In 1992, the Rocky offered him the metro editor job in Denver. Within three years he was named managing editor. And in 1998, when the Rocky’s editor, Burdick, stepped aside, Temple was made editor-in-chief. In about 14 years Temple had climbed from the bottom rung of a small newsroom to the very top of the ladder at a big city paper. After the JOA launched in 2001, he was also the paper’s president and publisher, with the considerable challenge of rallying a demoralized staff and leading the Sunday-less Rocky out of its failing-paper doldrums. It was a Sisyphean task, one that would eventually prove positively futile.
Bob Burdick, along with Scripps newspaper executive Alan Horton, had handpicked Temple to take over as editor. Burdick had wanted someone from within, and didn’t see the need for much of a search. He recalled, “Temple was so smart, so committed, his standards were just so high, and he went above and beyond, in my opinion, to care for his staff.” Burdick saw his instincts about Temple validated as he watched the newly minted editor orchestrate the Columbine coverage in 1999, yet Burdick was even more impressed by Temple’s leadership after the tragic headlines faded. “You know, paramedics and fire and police, they are trained to deal with tragedies, but reporters and photographers are not. John made it possible for any staffers who covered that horrific event to see counselors, and he made sure the company paid for it.”
Whatever post-traumatic stress lingered in the Rocky newsroom was only exacerbated by the JOA a year later. One of the first things Temple did to galvanize his flattened staff was beef up the Saturday edition. Sunday is the showcase for the journalists’ more ambitious works. “Without a Sunday edition an editor might lose his best staff, who want a platform to shine,” Horton says. “John made the Saturday paper the Rocky’s Sunday.” Temple got his staff to believe that having a Saturday paper meant they could outdo the Post’s Sunday paper a day earlier. “That reinvigorated the newsroom,” says Temple’s former assistant managing editor, Deb Goeken. “It got everyone to realize we were still editorially important and competitive with the Post.”
The immediate impact of the JOA was to improve the financial forecast for both papers. With the reduced overhead, in the first year of the DNA the Rocky and the Post cut their expenditures by more than 30 percent. They—or rather the DNA—raised subscription prices to more closely reflect 21st century realities, and also increased advertising rates. Advertisers were angry, but now the DNA was the only newspaper game in town. At the end of 2001 analysts judged the JOA a success. The new streamlined operation was able to secure nearly $250 million in bank loans. A $135 million share went to a “state-of-the-art” printing press, and $100 million went to constructing the DNA building. In the Rocky’s own coverage of the building’s grand opening in August 2006, Temple said, “We are making a big statement.” As if there were any doubt what that statement was about, Harry Whipple, chief executive of the DNA, elaborated: “We have two very smart and very intelligent owners. They would not be investing a quarter of a billion dollars unless they saw a future return from their investment. That says that the newspaper industry is not dying. Everyone asks me why I would want to run a newspaper organization. I tell them this is the most marvelous time in transition and change in the newspaper industry in the last 40 years.”
In the shiny, new, 11-story building, Temple instituted seismic changes at the Rocky. To address the breaking-news capabilities of the Internet, he overhauled the website. Meanwhile, he modeled the Rocky on a magazine format, for two reasons: If the website and other Web-based news agencies were going to be breaking news, he reasoned, the paper would have to maintain its relevance and value by incorporating more compelling narrative journalism, weighing in with analysis and columnists, and becoming more visually compelling. Secondly, and probably more important, he was hoping to redefine the way the DNA sold its advertising and give the Rocky more of a chance to succeed financially.
Newspaper advertising has long been sold by the inch. In this ad-pricing structure, broadsheet papers have an advantage because they’re physically bigger than tabloids. Temple had proposed the DNA adopt a magazinelike “modular-based” structure, in which an advertiser would be sold, say, a full page or a fractional-page spot in a feature section, or a third-page ad that might run alongside Penny Parker’s gossip column. The DNA also could charge a premium for better placement. If Temple could get the DNA, and thereby both papers, to adopt modular sales, the Rocky would be better positioned to compete if the JOA ever ended, because the playing field would be based more on the merits of the papers rather than on which one was bigger. If advertisers were given a choice to buy a full-page ad in the Rocky or the Post, they would pick the Rocky because of its now superior, reinvented content.
In short, Temple was strategizing for the day when there would be no JOA. According to one former executive directly involved with the JOA, there was a “hope” among the Scripps team that Singleton, who has long been in poor health, might die, which would enable Scripps to vacate the JOA and position the Rocky to be the last paper standing. “Scripps is a very Machiavellian company,” the executive says. However, the Singleton side of the DNA board rejected Temple’s modular-advertising idea.
Editorially, Temple’s Rocky exceeded expectations. Temple agreed to assign obituary writer Jim Sheeler to cover a Marine officer who oversaw funeral arrangements for Marines killed in the line of duty. He allowed Sheeler and a photographer, Todd Heisler, to chronicle the story for the better part of a year. And rather than cut the feature, “Final Salute,” into multiple parts, he ran it as a special pullout section, launching it on the front page of the 2005 Veterans Day edition. With “The Crossing,” reporter Kevin Vaughan’s historical feature about a 1961 train and school bus collision, Temple ran the story in 34 parts, also launching the series on a weekday. He employed similar maneuvers with Vaughan’s “The Crevasse,” a five-part feature about a dramatic mountain climbing tragedy, and with Laura Frank’s “Deadly Denial,” a three-part report about the cancer-stricken workers of the Rocky Flats weapons plant. A planned bonus to Temple’s serial narrative strategy was that the Rocky’s website traffic increased because readers who missed an installment or two would go there to catch up. The unplanned but hard-won reward was four Pulitzer Prizes since 2000, compared to the Post’s single Pulitzer. In the end, however, none of the heart and hustle Temple and his staff demonstrated did a damn thing to increase the paper’s chances of survival.
David Milstead stood out in the Rocky newsroom. While so many of the others dressed and behaved like the dryly sarcastic and sartorially challenged reporter characters you see in the movies, there he was in his suit and tie and round, wire-framed glasses, exuding the deliberate demeanor of an accountant. Milstead joined the Rocky in 2001 after a short stint covering business for a regional version of the Wall Street Journal. “Many newspapers were in a hiring-freeze mode,” he says. “The Denver newspapers, however, were planning to become more profitable thanks to the brand-new JOA.”
Milstead became the Rocky’s finance editor, and his pragmatic analysis of the local business community became a must-read and earned the respect of Rob Reuteman, his editor. Which is why on a morning in late June 2008, Milstead could go to Reuteman, and say, “I think I’m going to write a column you’re not going to like.” After Milstead explained the premise, Reuteman responded, “Aww, please don’t.” A few days later, on July 1, the Rocky’s website posted the column, which would run in the following day’s paper. “It’s been a wonderful run, Denver,” read the opening sentence. “But it’s time to admit that we can no longer be a two-newspaper town.” While much of the column made a cogent case—hinging on the Rocky’s consistent circulation lead despite its “failing paper” tag—for why it should be the eventual victor, Milstead’s writing conveyed the distinct tone of a concessionary farewell. It was the first time any journalist, let alone such a respected Rocky journalist, had articulated the sentiment publicly, in print. “You might say that caught everyone’s attention,” Littwin says.
Milstead used this seemingly obvious yet controversial column to argue that everything the dot-com boom had given, the dot-com’s bust had taken away. The increasingly powerful, free Internet had siphoned off paying newspaper subscribers. Much more debilitating, websites like Craigslist.com and Monster.com cut into precious classified revenue. And, of course, the economic recession was taking an insurmountable toll. It was one of the many stories he filed on the DNA. From the moment he’d arrived at the Rocky, Milstead had educated himself on the topic. For eight years, he studied the Scripps Securities and Exchange Commission filings, cultivated sources within the DNA, and spoke with outside analysts to help him and his readers make sense of it all. By 2008, Milstead had earned the right to be considered an expert on the DNA.
His coverage was overwhelmingly favorable to Scripps and cast doubt on the stability of MediaNews. In January 2009, almost one month to the day before the Rocky was closed, he reported that MediaNews appeared to have violated the terms of the JOA by borrowing $13 million from the DNA to cover newsroom expenses. Milstead’s report was based on a memo that Scripps executives Richard Boehne and Mark Contreras had written to Singleton and another MediaNews executive. “We request that this practice cease and that the Post find a way to fund its editorial payroll without resorting to this….” The memo was dated December 9, 2008, four days after the sale-or-close announcement. Milstead didn’t disclose how he acquired it. Such a report is the sort of thing that would have piqued the interest of the Justice Department, which was closely following the DNA, and sent the message very publicly that Scripps was not afraid to play hardball to get what it wanted from MediaNews. After Milstead’s column last summer, about Denver being unable to sustain two newspapers, some of his colleagues had intimated that they were starting to think Milstead was a back-channel mouthpiece for the corporate mother ship. “Which,” Milstead says, “I took offense to.”
Ten days before the Rocky closed, Milstead filed another column on Scripps and the DNA. It was arguably his most explosive take on the topic, and it was anything but flattering to Scripps. It began: “In the absence of information about the fate of the Rocky Mountain News, we have speculation. And I can tell you the following without any special knowledge of what happens next: The U.S. tax code gives Rocky owner E.W. Scripps a perverse incentive to determine the newspaper is worthless, rather than sell it to a buyer.” Milstead reported that if Scripps were unable to find a buyer, thus demonstrating to the Internal Revenue Service that its stake in the paper was “wholly worthless,” it could gain a 2009 tax benefit worth $70 million. Milstead based his calculations on the value Scripps had put on the Rocky in 2001, the most recent available data. In addition to his own reporting, Milstead quoted a tax expert, a former Lehman Brothers analyst, who validated the reporter’s methodology.
Milstead is a dispassionate reporter. That’s not to say he is uncaring. He values the facts and reporting, but he is not one who becomes too attached to any particular story of his. Yet he couldn’t help but feel frustrated that Temple rejected this column. In his corner office, Temple told Milstead and his editor Reuteman he was rejecting the column because Milstead’s premise was based on a 2001 valuation for the Rocky. Milstead maintained that using the 2001 figure, the best available, was how financial journalists do their jobs. He explained that his tax-expert source, who “knows more about this than any of us,” had confirmed his reporting strategy. Still, Temple refused to print the piece, instructing his reporter to try to get a more recent figure and that he’d be willing to reconsider running the column “when the resolution was announced.” As far as Milstead knows, the only Rocky staffers aware that Temple shelved his piece were Temple and Reuteman.
Milstead’s column wasn’t the only piece on the DNA that Temple had decided not to run. In early January, media critic Jason Salzman submitted a column about the Justice Department’s potential involvement in the Rocky’s sale-or-closure options. “The federal government,” Salzman wrote, “can force the Rocky’s parent company…to keep the Rocky on the sales block for longer than the one month currently promised. One month is not enough time to find a buyer, according to, among others, a financial expert cited in the Rocky itself December 25. He was puzzled by the short time frame of the sale.” Salzman offered examples of where the Justice Department had intervened as he described. One of the two sources Salzman quoted in his column was a law professor emeritus at the University of California’s Berkeley Law who’s studied JOAs, and said, “I think the Justice Department might, especially in a new administration, require [the Rocky] to remain operating for a few months or something to see if a new buyer could be found.”
Whereas Milstead’s column never made it to the outside world, Salzman posted his killed piece on his own website. Rocky staffers were stunned Temple chose not to run it; even those who didn’t care for Salzman’s style believed that Salzman had the right to his informed opinion. Shortly after the column appeared, Temple addressed his rationale for not running it on his editor’s blog on the Rocky’s website and included e-mails the two exchanged. In one of them, Temple wrote, “Just to be clear: I don’t think this is a reasonable topic. And even if it were, I don’t think you’ve done a good enough job with it to merit publication.”
The debates over the shelved columns were all but forgotten on February 26, when Boehne and Contreras stood in the newsroom and announced, “Tomorrow will be the final edition of the Rocky Mountain News.” At the end of 2008, the execs said, the Rocky was losing more than $1 million dollars every month, or $16 million annually.
The questions inevitably turned to the JOA. When asked why Scripps shouldn’t stay and fight a crippled MediaNews company, which had a sinking credit rating and was about to default on loans, Boehne said, “Because it’s not that simple. We are joined,” meaning by the JOA. “On the business side of newspapers you’re a scrambled egg, a 50-50 owned business. So wait the other out? That would read better in a novel than a Harvard Business case study.” When Contreras told the staff that Scripps had “had a strategy they believed in,” he meant the JOA. “You say you had a strategy and that strategy didn’t work?” a clearly heartbroken staffer responded. “Weren’t you the ones that came up with that failed strategy? Can you tell me why I, or anyone, would want to work in newspapers? Why anyone would want to work for Scripps?” Contreras, tan and round, wearing a blue suit with his tie pulled too tightly against his throat, nodded empathetically and then talked about how they’d had a strategy, the JOA, but that the “ground had shifted beneath their feet.” After the funereal meeting adjourned, Milstead asked the executives about the tax incentive. “Taxes didn’t motivate our decision,” they said. “The economics did.” The executives said they didn’t know what the value of the company’s tax basis was.
In mid-April, Temple elaborated on his decisions about Salzman’s and Milstead’s columns: “Salzman’s assertions about the Justice Department were so misinformed. I know lawyers who are experts on this, and Jason didn’t even talk to any of them.” He also pointed out that he didn’t “kill” Milstead’s column; rather, he asked Milstead to do more reporting and get the current value of the company. “Look, when we began covering ourselves, I told David [Milstead] and Rob [Reuteman] and our business reporters to cover us like they were covering Qwest. It deserved that same kind of scrutiny. The question here with this column goes to the journalism, whether the journalism was sound enough to publish at the time, and I decided that it wasn’t.”
Then again, Rocky business reporters weren’t required to show executives at other companies—like, say, at Qwest—drafts of their stories before publication. Temple’s policy at the Rocky was that any stories about the paper or the DNA or the Post had to be top-edited and cleared by either Temple himself or, in his absence, by assistant managing editor Deb Goeken. Without exception, Temple read them all before they went to print—or did not go to print. Put another way, the vice president of the Scripps news division was editing coverage about the Scripps news division, the very definition of a conflict of interest. “There’s no question that some people would make that argument,” Temple said. “Here’s how I view it: In my capacity in Denver I’m no different than the owner of that newspaper; I’m responsible for the character and reputation of the newspaper, and when we publish articles about ourselves that include mistakes or are somehow incorrect, if I am not involved I am allowing my organization and all of the people who work here to be hurt or damaged because I am not playing my role. As the owner, at some point it comes down to your own integrity and record. I’ve worked through a lot of hard stories with a lot of people. Journalistic purists would say this is a conflict. I think they’re wrong.”
Coming from an editor who has led a “failing paper” newsroom to four Pulitzer Prizes, Temple’s explanations, agree or disagree, are easily taken at face value. Coming from the vice president of the Scripps newspaper division, however, it’s hard not to wonder how Temple couldn’t be influenced by corporate concerns. Littwin, the former Rocky columnist, now at the Post, who called Temple “by far one of the very best editors” he’s had, told me that Temple the editor changed after he took on his other business titles. “He started talking about the paper in terms of quarters. The only time I’ve ever heard an editor talk about quarters is when he was looking for change for the vending machine.”
Temple concedes that if the Milstead story had run before the Scripps executives arrived on February 26, the reception Boehne and Contreras would have received likely would have been different. As Singleton once did, they might have found themselves pelted with empty beer cans, maybe even full beer cans. In the next breath, Temple says that consideration did not color his perspective. He insists he had nothing to gain financially or otherwise by shelving the stories; by then he’d already informed the Scripps company, which had offered to keep Temple employed, that he wanted to move on to his next adventure. However, according to an executive agreement Temple entered into when he became vice president two years ago, he might have had something to lose. According to the agreement, at least part of his compensation package was contingent upon him honoring certain commitments. Scripps would have “cause” for terminating that arrangement if Temple committed “an act or a series of acts that results in material injury to the business or reputation of the Company or any subsidiary.” If the Justice Department had intervened and prevented Scripps from closing the Rocky, as Salzman was inviting, Scripps might not have been able to capitalize on the perverse tax incentive Milstead highlighted.
Or maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference. If US Airways Flight 1549 was a metaphor for the Rocky Mountain News, then perhaps the Rocky itself is a metaphor for the rest of the industry. The Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Detroit Free Press, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and many other papers are teetering on the brink of closure or have been closed in recent months. Even the seemingly indestructible New York Times is in deep financial despair. The outlook for American newspapers is so bleak that only weeks ago the U.S. Senate held a subcommittee hearing ironically titled “The Future of Journalism.” Citing the demise of the Rocky, Senator John Kerry said that newspapers are starting to “look like an endangered species.” Newspaper companies are wrestling with how to reconcile profit-and-loss statements with the public good of journalism. What is there to be learned from the Rocky’s closure? Maybe, simply put, it’s that shareholders and journalism do not mix; that while the Internet and websites like Craigslist and Monster, have undermined the newspaper business, executive agreements and quarterly reports have only complicated matters. Perhaps if newspaper industry executives had not been so obsessed with chasing quarterly returns and their own compensation packages, they might have planned for the longterm impact of the Internet.
Within hours of the Rocky’s closing, the Columbia Journalism Review solicited parting thoughts from the paper’s staffers. Dave Krieger, a longtime Rocky sports columnist, submitted this: “The corporate suits come in and cry their crocodile tears, then whiz on home to continue collecting their seven-figure salaries, pleased to have rid their shareholders of the albatross that was a helluva newspaper. Scripps is in the best financial shape of any newspaper company in America, save the Washington Post Company. Dean Singleton, who survives in Denver, is in far worse financial shape, in much deeper debt, but he fought for the market and Scripps didn’t. Scripps turns tail and runs because it is as committed to the public service of journalism as teenagers to this spring’s fashions. It has learned it can make more money in niche cable television channels. It has every right to make that call. It’s a free country. But the question is whether everybody left in the journalism business is simply in it to make a buck. Certainly, for a while there, it was a really good buck…. Is there anybody left with the heart of a journalist? Or are they all just profiteers, happy to move on to more profitable schemes when the going gets tough? Journalism has a constitutionally protected role in our republic. We need people in charge of it who are more than profiteers. Yes, I know. Times are tough. The old model doesn’t work. I get all that. Nevertheless. We need publishers with vision and conviction and courage, and it’s beginning to look like all we have are profiteers born on third base.”
Journalists know the best stories often emerge from tragedy. This is because where there’s a tragedy there’s usually a clear victim, a hero, and a villain; there’s a conflict that has to be resolved; there’s a wrong that ought to be set right. Rich Boehne, a former reporter at the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Cincinnati Post (the latter shuttered by Scripps), now an executive, understands this as well as any of the reporters his company has employed or laid off. “The trouble is, here,” he told me a few days after the Rocky’s last day, “when you’re looking for a white hat or a black hat, it’s not that easy.” Boehne, who last year earned a salary of more than $762,000 and has other stock-based compensation worth about $3.5 million, is covered by the same executive agreement as Temple.
After Scripps closed the 27,000-circulation Cincinnati Post in 2007, professor Sam Schulhofer-Wohl of Princeton University’s economics and public affairs department published a study called, “Do Newspapers Matter? Evidence from the Closure of the Cincinnati Post.” He discovered that during the following year, fewer citizens ran for political office at the municipal level and fewer citizens voted. Meaning incumbents won, in some cases unchallenged; meaning, as the professor has said, newspapers “can have a substantial measure on public life.” With fewer investigative reporters to uncover failures in government or malfeasance by a particular official, a community’s residents cared less about how they were governed. It’s too early to know if trends like this will appear in Denver, now a one-newspaper town.
Certainly, though, Denver has lost more than a 150-year-old institution; it has lost a newspaper with so many dedicated local journalists, like Milstead and Ed Sealover, the reporter who came to the Rocky eight months before it shut down for his dream job of covering the state Legislature. Over a beer a few weeks before Scripps closed the Rocky, Sealover told me, “I know it sounds ridiculous, but I love my job at the Rocky. That’s exactly what I wanted to do. And I know the vast majority of people don’t read about bills and taxes. I know that stuff can be boring. But whether people read my reporting or not, I really feel like I am there for them. I am keeping watch on politicians for them.” He took a sip from his beer and started to cry. He took a few seconds to compose himself, and he apologized.
Maximillian Potter is executive editor of 5280. E-mail him at [email protected].