Denver at 150

November 2008

Yesterday's News
By J.R. Moehringer

Just after I started as a reporter at the Rocky Mountain News, 18 years ago this fall, a man walked into the newsroom leading a mountain lion on a leash. The man looked crazy, as only a man walking a mountain lion can. He asked to see the nature writer, so we all figured he was a flack for the museum or the zoo, pitching a story about mountain lions. But we didn't dare ask the nature writer, whose nature was menacing. On a good day he made us nervous—now there was a mountain lion at his desk.

As the lion's tail bobbed and twitched behind a row of computers, I crouched under my desk and dialed a friend in Manhattan, where I'd just spent three years as a copyboy for the New York Times. "How's Denver?" my friend asked breezily. "There's a mountain lion in the newsroom," I said in a frantic whisper. My friend was irked. He thought I was playing him for a chump, pretending Denver was still an outpost for beaver trappers and Conestoga wagons.

But the Denver where I did my newspaper apprenticeship did have a boot in the past. Though the city had started to modernize, to widen its roads and air out the smell of horse urine from the LoDo stables, its newspapers still gave off a vague whiff of frontier. They had a rawboned looseness, an Old West tolerance for misfits, eccentrics, exiles, losers—and greenhorns. That's why I fit right in. Not that I could articulate it at the time. I couldn't articulate much at the time.

On my first day, wearing my charcoal-gray suit and wine-red necktie, I watched as editors and reporters went by wearing Rockmount shirts and cowboy boots and belt buckles as big as my face. I saw a reporter pacing and rehearsing his lede aloud, as though he were belting out a big number in Oklahoma! Evidently that was how he wrote on deadline—out loud. Coworkers dropped by my desk to say hello, then filled me in on the News' wild, lawless history, including one editor-in-chief who had been a raging cocaine addict, snorting lines while OK'ing headlines. Leaving the News some nights, walking home to my unfurnished apartment in my fraying gray suit, I often asked myself: Where the hell am I?

But I was right where I was supposed to be. Samuel Butler wrote: "We are like billiard balls in a game played by unskillful players, continually being nearly sent into a pocket, but hardly ever getting right into one, except by a fluke." At the News I was shot flush into a side pocket that was perfect for me. At 25, I thought what I needed was to learn how to write. Of course you never learn to write. You only have brief lulls where it hurts slightly less. What I really needed was to learn how to relax, and there was no newspaper more relaxed than the Rocky Mountain News of the early '90s.

Shortly before I arrived the News reported that actor Lee Marvin had been spotted skiing in the Rockies. This must have come as a terrible shock to the Widow Marvin. And yet, no one at the News got fired. No one even got chewed out. I was shocked by the editors' placid reaction. I was calmed.

I don't mean to say mistakes didn't matter. But the margin for error was wider at the News, and we luxuriated in that wideness. We didn't give ourselves, or each other, ulcers. Time and again I'd hear a fellow reporter, after erring or writing something lifeless, say the following: "Ah well, some days the bear gets you." I never once heard that phrase at the Times.

Somehow the man who rehearsed his ledes aloud became my mentor. Whenever we worked night cops together he'd take me to a dive on Federal Boulevard for a $4 steak dinner. I couldn't believe there was still a place in America that served a $4 steak. I was suspicious at first. I questioned the provenance of the meat. But it was one tasty rib-eye, and it even came with a baked spud and a bowl of creamed spinach. After dinner we'd sometimes go for coffee or a beer and chat about writing.

Our conversation usually drifted to Damon Runyon, the most famous newspaperman ever to write for the News. My mentor was Runyon-besotted. He wore a fedora that I guessed was Runyonesque, and won eternal fame in the newsroom for a Runyonesque lede about a killer stalking Denver's homeless: Life is tough enough on the streets without having to worry about some creep with a knife in his hand and midnight in his heart. Fun as it was to read, hearing my mentor say it aloud was better.

Runyon enjoyed drinking, enjoyed it immensely, but decided when still quite young to quit. Just like that he set down his drink and picked up his craft. If the man in the fedora was my mentor, Runyon was my role model. His ghost hovered and smiled when I was hungover on deadline, but he came closer, and patted my head, when I decided this hangover would be my last. I'd been at the News about six months when I made that decision, and it may have been the first real step I took toward learning how to relax.

If it wasn't Runyon's ghost at my elbow, it was William Byers, the Moses of the News, who trucked a used printing press from Omaha to Denver on a prairie schooner in April 1859. During a big spring snow he brought out the first copy of a six-column broadsheet, filled with items sure to interest the local whores, rustlers, '59ers and Arapaho braves. (Everything I knew about Byers came from a lovely book, The First Hundred Years, by Robert L. Perkin, which still occupies a slot of honor on my bookshelf.) Byers busted his ass to get the first issue of the News on the street minutes before the rival Cherry Creek Pioneer, meaning the News was born in the midst of a newspaper war, and there has never been so much as a ceasefire since. The enemies have varied—the Republican, the Herald, the Times, the Post, the Internet—and a few have turned into quasi-allies. The war, however, has always been for the same elusive thing. Survival.

No one can say what will happen to newspapers in the next two or 10 years, but it doesn't look good. A man or woman younger than 30 who reads a newspaper (besides the Onion) is harder to find on the streets of Denver than a '59er. The sad thing is how much better the News is today than when I worked there. In the early '90s, if you'd told the drinkers and scrofulous wackos gathered at the Press Club that the News would one day rack up Pulitzers and match the nation's best newspapers on some of the biggest stories of the decade—JonBenét Ramsey, Columbine—they would have insisted you weren't drunk enough and forced you to down another beer. Now it's a fact, taken for granted—and still circulation keeps going down and down.

Diehards say newspapers will never disappear, they will simply vaporize onto the Internet. When the Internet isn't blamed for killing journalism, it's hailed as Journalism Heaven—all good newspapers will go there when they die. But even if newspapers rise up to that pearly ether, their transubstantiation will be a shame. They will be here, but not here. They will be as ghostly as Runyon and Byers.

I'll miss them all, none more than the News. When the last blue newspaper box is gone from Denver, something precious, something primeval, will be lost, like the last crouton of gold panned from Cherry Creek. You might call me a Luddite, just as you might call it rank sentimentalism to have sensed Byers and Runyon at my side. But they were there; I felt connected to them. I was part of their frontier, and I have the clip to prove it.

In the mid-1800s more than 100 people gathered to watch boars lock horns in the middle of Denver's dirt streets, and the News sent a reporter. Fast-forward 134 years: The city desk sent me to cover something called the Running of the Pigs, a LoDo spectacle modeled after the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona. The editors not only let me write it up in mock Ernest Hemingway style, they actually ran what I wrote.

Soon after, I left for a bigger newspaper, and on my last day at the News, as they rolled out my sheet cake and popped the Champagne, the managing editor read my pig story aloud to the newsroom. He began by shaking his head and declaring: "I cannot believe that what I'm about to read to you once appeared in this newspaper."

Everyone laughed.

But then I thought: Where else could it have run? All at once I felt knocked sideways by sadness and fondness and gratitude—a small preview of what's to come if it ever becomes necessary to say good-bye again to the News.