By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 27, 2009
Colorado's oldest newspaper, the Rocky Mountain News, is shutting down today, and industry analysts say it won't be the last to be pulled under by a rising tide of financial woes.
E.W. Scripps announced yesterday that it is closing the 150-year-old Rocky, which has won four Pulitzer Prizes in the last decade, leaving Denver, like most American cities, a one-newspaper town.
These are dark days for the struggling news business. Hearst threatened this week to close the San Francisco Chronicle unless major budget cuts are imposed or a buyer is found, and is also prepared to close the Seattle Post-Intelligencer if it cannot be sold. The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News filed for bankruptcy protection this week, joining Chicago's Tribune Co. and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in Chapter 11 status.
Industry analyst John Morton called the Rocky's failure to find a buyer unsurprising. "The market is awash in newspapers for sale, and nobody is buying them," he said. "This recession has so impacted advertising revenue, particularly classifieds, that it's driven into unprofitability those who are in a precarious position."
Scripps said in a statement that the tabloid became "a victim of changing times in our industry and huge economic challenges. The Rocky is one of America's very best examples of what local news organizations need to be in the future. Unfortunately, the partnership's business model is locked in the past."
That model is a joint operating agreement, an eight-year-old arrangement blessed by the Justice Department, in which the Rocky has shared business and production costs with the rival Denver Post. Each has a daily circulation of 210,000. Scripps said in December that it would try to unload the Rocky.
As grim-faced staffers looked on yesterday, Editor John Temple introduced two Scripps executives, who said that Denver could no longer support two newspapers. They said there was only one potential buyer, who backed out.
"This is a really sad end to a beautiful thing," Temple told his staff, adding that the final edition was like "being given the chance to play the music at your own funeral."
In an online blog, the paper reported: "The mood in the room is getting nastier and bitter, reporters wondering if the execs tried hard enough to save the paper or put pressure on the Rocky Mountain News."
On Twitter, one staffer wrote: "In news meeting, puffy-eyed Managing Editor is handing out assignments."
Readers posted reactions on the Rocky's Web site: "This is such a sad day." "It will leave a huge unfillable void in the Denver and Rocky Mountain region." "Bye old friend."
M.E. Sprengelmeyer, who lost his job as Scripps's Washington correspondent for the Rocky, said the paper "really was a scrappy little place. It had a little more bulldog in it than terrier. It's a place where you could pitch the wacky stuff," as he did by moving to Iowa for a year before last year's presidential caucuses.
The Denver Post, which reached an agreement with local unions this week to cut costs by 11.7 percent, is owned by William Dean Singleton's MediaNews Group. Singleton said in a statement that "the Rocky will forever be remembered for its vital role in the city's history and the city's success. Although we competed intensely, the talented staff of the Rocky earned our respect with each morning's edition." The Post said it will hire a number of Rocky reporters, columnists and editors, but this amounts to less than 5 percent of the paper's 200-person newsroom.