All the News that's Fit to be Killed

Fifty-five days shy of the Rocky Mountain News' 150th anniversary, the paper's corporate owner shut it down. Executives of the E.W. Scripps Company said it had to be done. That's one way of looking at it.

June 2009

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.