Rocky kept swinging until the very end | VailDaily.com
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Rocky kept swinging until the very end

Kevin Vaughan
Rocky Mountain News
Denver, CO Colorado

DENVER, Colorado “-It came into being on a dark night two years before the Civil War’s first gunshots, survived a flood that washed away its press and countless threats to its very existence, then enjoyed, in the twilight of its life, recognition as one of the best newspapers in the country.

But today marks the final milestone in the storied history of the Rocky Mountain News, Colorado’s first newspaper and oldest continually operated business.

This is the last edition of the paper of Damon Runyon and Harry Rhoads, of Mrs. Molly Mayfield and Al Nakkula, of Gene Amole and Dusty Saunders and scores of other characters. The paper whose reporters fancied themselves the “Wildcats of Welton Street” in an earlier era. The paper that shed the bawdy image of the tabloid to win four Pulitzer Prizes since 2000.

In the end, it was the economics – not the history nor the people nor the Pulitzers – that mattered.

The Denver metro area simply could not support two major newspapers in the midst of the current economic recession. That came on top of tectonic shifts sweeping the news business, including, most recently, the phenomenon that has seen the Internet siphon off once-lucrative pieces of the business, such as classified advertising.

The end – anticipated since the E.W. Scripps Co. put the paper up for sale on Dec. 4 – officially came a few minutes after noon Thursday when the Rocky’s staff was summoned to the news desk.

Rich Boehne, the president and CEO of Scripps, stepped into the newsroom, and everyone knew.

“Tomorrow will be the final edition of the Rocky Mountain News,” Boehne began simply. “It’s certainly not good news for any of you, and it’s certainly not good news for Denver.”

In recent days, gallows humor and rumor had gripped the Rocky’s newsroom.

With the announcement, the reality of the situation gave way to tears.

“I’m just sick that we’re here talking to you about this,” said Mark Contreras, the head of the Scripps newspaper division, with emotion in his voice. “I’m just sick.”

‘Even though it was Colorado’s first paper, the Rocky’s existence, it seemed, had hung in the balance almost since the first edition, printed by William N. Byers just a few steps from Cherry Creek, right near the present-day intersection of Speer Boulevard and Auraria Parkway.

Byers had hauled his printing press to town, set up shop between the competing settlements of Denver City and Auraria, and got the first edition of the Rocky out at 10 p.m. on April 22, 1859, beating the rival Cherry Creek Pioneer by 20 minutes. The Pioneer was the first victim of the city’s newspaper wars, folding after that first issue.

Over the years, the Rocky faced an 1864 flash flood that swept its press away and knocked it out of business for five weeks, and blizzards here and there that kept carriers from getting the papers delivered to more than a handful of customers.

And over its lifespan, there was no shortage of challengers as other papers came and went. The Herald. The Daily Commonweath and Republican. The Denver Daily Gazette. The Evening Sentinel. And finally, in the 1890s, The Denver Post, which itself failed once before re-emerging in 1895 to launch one of the greatest newspaper wars in the country.

Through it all, there was something about the Rocky that seemed, somehow, different. For many of its readers, it was like a member of the family. Trusted and enjoyed most of the time, more like the obnoxious uncle at Thanksgiving now and then.

“I remember the Rocky Mountain News just being part of our lives,” said Saunders, a Denver kid who grew up to write more words for the paper than anybody ever had, or ever will.

For much of the last century, it was considered by many to be the second paper in town, behind The Post. But that seldom fazed those who worked at the Rocky. To them, there was something thrilling and satisfying about being the scrappy underdog in the fight.

“We just had a lot of spark,” said Michael Howard, whose father and grandfather ran the paper before him.

Howard, perhaps the most colorful editor in the paper’s history, took over at a time when the Rocky trailed The Post in the circulation war by approximately 90,000 papers a day. When he lost the job in 1980 after well-documented drug-abuse problems, the Rocky was in the lead.

“I think of the impossible being done, in the sense of the history of the Rocky is the history of a paper that had no future,” he said.

Howard’s family figured prominently in the history of the paper.

His grandfather, Roy Howard, oversaw the purchase of the Rocky in 1926 by the Scripps-Howard chain of newspapers, then merged The Denver Express, which the company had opened in 1906, into it.

By 1940, however, the handwriting appeared to be on the wall. The Post, with a commanding circulation lead, would prevail, it seemed. Many assumed that when new editor Jack Foster was brought to town it was to shut down the Rocky. Instead, he converted it to a tabloid on April 13, 1942, the same day the Mrs. Molly Mayfield column, penned secretly by his wife, Frances, debuted – one of the first advice columns in the country.

The Rocky doubled circulation in five years.

In March 1980, the Rocky passed The Post in overall circulation, and the two papers would swap the lead back and forth for the next 20 years.

Through all that time, the papers waged a war for readers that seems more like the stuff of screenplay than a history book.

Take February 1927. The Rocky offered two free gallons of gasoline for anybody who bought a classified advertisement in the Sunday paper. Then The Post upped the offer to four gallons, and the Rocky raised the stakes to five. It’s not clear whether either paper made any money during that battle, but the customers were lined up around their buildings.

Then there was 1986. The Post won a Pulitzer Prize that year and promptly rented a billboard to tout it. That billboard stood just outside the third-floor window of Rocky editor Ralph Looney’s office in the paper’s building at 400 W. Colfax Ave.

In 2000, as the media world began to change in ways never before seen, the Rocky and The Post finally declared a truce, of sorts, when they agreed to merge their business functions under an arrangement known as a joint operating agreement.

By then, the Rocky had acquired a reputation for its photography – George Kohaniec Jr.’s picture from the Columbine tragedy ran on front pages all over the country – and for its investigative journalism and its storytelling.

The names of some of those projects have entered the lexicon of the paper. “Osveli’s Journey.” “Final Salute.” “Change in the Air.” “The Crossing.”

And the business arrangement ushered in a new era of prosperity for the Rocky, and a sheaf of honors followed.

Since 2000, only six papers won more Pulitzers. And just this week, the paper’s sports section was named one of the 10 best in the country.

“In my opinion, we produced the highest- quality journalism this paper has ever published under the JOA,” said John Temple, the Rocky’s editor, president and publisher.

But by 2007, the industry was faltering.

Classified advertising, which just a few years ago provided the two papers with upward of $100 million in revenue, virtually vanished.

There was a time when it was said that owning a printing press was a license to print money.

On Dec. 4, Boehne stood in the Rocky’s newsroom and announced that the paper was for sale and that, if no buyer emerged, the company would consider all options. Among them was the unthinkable: shutting down the Rocky.

The announcement came in the midst of a devastating time for America’s newspapers.

As Boehne made his announcement, Gannett Co. Inc., the country’s largest newspaper publisher, was in the midst of layoffs that slashed more than 2,000 people from its newsrooms. In the ensuing weeks, the bad news accelerated.

The company that owns the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Baltimore Sun declared bankruptcy, as did the owners of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. They were followed into bankruptcy court by the company that owns the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News. The owners of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Tucson Citizen put them up for sale, and each could close in the coming months if buyers aren’t found. And the recently hired publisher of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution told staff members that the paper was losing $1 million a week.

Just this week, the owners of the San Francisco Chronicle announced that they needed drastic cuts within weeks or they would be forced to sell – or shutter – a paper born in 1865.

But even as the industry crumbled, the Rocky’s staff held onto hope that some way, somehow the paper that had been knocked down so many times would find a way to get up again.

In January, Saunders – who still writes occasionally for the Rocky even though he officially retired in 2007 – called CBS newsman Bob Schieffer for a piece on the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

The first words out of Schieffer’s mouth struck Saunders.

“God, I’m really sorry to hear what’s happening to your newspaper,” Schieffer told him.

“He used the word ‘your,’ ” Saunders said. “That’s a very proprietary thing I guess. It’s almost symbolic. . . . It’s more than a phrase. The Rocky Mountain News has been my newspaper. Just the thought of it not being there is really kind of devastating.

“It’s more than just a newspaper. There’s a personality there. It is your newspaper. You feel connected to it.”

For more than 30 years, it was Sue Lindsay’s paper.

Lindsay, the Rocky’s longest-tenured employee, has covered anything and everything for the paper and has spent so much time in courtrooms, on assignment, that some judges have told her – jokingly, she thinks – that she knows more about the law than many attorneys.

For her, Thursday brought swirling emotions. Grief. Fear. Pride.

“This is a very sad day for all of us here and those who no longer will be able to read their Rocky,” Lindsay said. “When I came here in 1977 from Chicago, I thought, ‘Wow, this is really boring. There’s no news.’

“Well, that changed big time. Through it all we had a connection with the community that was personal and deep. With what’s going on with journalism today, I feel like I’m losing a career that I am passionate about, but we’re also losing our family here and a paper that was so important to the people who live here. I’m sad for myself, my co-workers and for all the stories that won’t be told.”

Late in the afternoon, Temple gathered the staff for the last time. There were the inevitable questions about health benefits and separation agreements.

And then there was a final moment.

“I want to thank you,” he said to the bulk of the paper’s 228 employees. “It’s been an honor. We had a beautiful thing here.”

That first night along Cherry Creek, Byers printed around 500 copies of his newspaper.

An untold number of them have survived the century and a half that have passed – two in the collection of the Colorado History Museum, others rumored to be in private hands.

The “Holy Grail” of that first press run rests on the fifth floor of the Denver Public Library, behind a locked door, inside a leather case in a room where the temperature and humidity are carefully controlled.

“You could say it is priceless,” said Jim Kroll, the manager of the Western History and Genealogy Department.

It is in surprisingly good condition, owing in part to the grade of paper used before the Civil War, which had an almost linen-like quality to it. The four pages are white, and most of the printing crisp, and easily readable. In the upper right hand corner, printed in thick, block letters, is a note from founder William Newton Byers:

This is the first sheet ever printed in Pike’s Peak Country, at 10 p.m. April 22nd, 1859

Wm. N. Byers

Byers was obviously a man with a sense of history.

His paper was on the streets when what is now Denver was little more than a rough- and-tumble mining settlement. It was already 17 years old when Colorado won statehood, and 40 when the 20th century arrived.

One-hundred forty-nine years, 10 months and four days have passed since that night, and in that time the Rocky has printed more than 54,500 editions.

Now, the paper passes from chronicler of a city, state and region’s history into history itself.


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