For a moment this morning I thought about asking a friend in Denver to send me a copy of the last edition of the Rocky Mountain News. But, no. It would hurt too much. After nearly 150 years, one of America's very good, and sometimes great, newspapers died today. Denver and America will be the worse for it.
For those of you dancing on the graves of newspapers, and the others who have their pet ideas for "saving" them, which always seem to continue the failed dumbing-down policies of the past 25 years (oh, but with streaming video and mom pages!). For those who think crowdsourcing and local opinion blogs can replace professional journalists in the lives of communities. All of you can stop reading now. I'm also tired of discussing the demise of the press -- I've already made my views known. I hope the rest of you will stay for the wake.
Let there be no false sentimentality. The Rocky considered me a traitor because I chose to leave in 1993. I was young and ambitious and stupid. Yes, a traitor. We were in a war with the Denver Post -- and what a war it was.
There was no joint operating agreement. Both papers were completely independent and the competition was unlike anything I ever experienced. Every morning, I picked up the two papers on my doorstep in fear of what the Post had done to me. The Post's business editor did the same. There was no time for Gannett foolishness. People in Denver and Colorado -- and these were Western regional newspapers, not flimsies focused on suburban features -- demanded news. In Dayton, I had seen the data on how many readers had simply gone away when the Journal Herald was killed in favor of the Dayton Daily News. They just went away. Denver, on the other hand, was a reading city, a newspaper-obsessed city. Each paper made the other better and citizens were the winners. To fight that war from the Rocky newsroom was to live with a daily rush through your body, a never-ending pressure on your chest, a sometimes nasty world where the paper knew it was fighting for its life -- but, what a privilege to have been there.
I came to Denver out of a failed marriage, shattered emotionally and with a vicious cold that turned to pneumonia. I was afraid to call in sick, such was the pressure. I didn't know if I would even stick with newspapers. I can start my whole life over, I kept telling myself, especially in the sheltering arms of my native West. I could go back to school, finish a Ph.D, teach and write. I considered many things. And why not? Journalism was my third career, and I still sometimes thought of it as a way station to the next thing.
That would change in Denver. There, in the battlefield of one of the last great newspaper wars, I would find that I was indeed a journalist. I saw the world differently from civilians. I soaked up the lore over drinks at the Denver Press Club, worked with some of the greats and smelled for the last time that odd inky scent of newspapers with on-site printing plants. And I knew: The public trust served by newspapers at their best is indeed sacred and essential for the survival of a democracy.
One of the great canards of the right is that newspapers are dying because of their editorial stances. Yet the Rocky had conservative editorial pages, led with intelligence and grace by Vince Carroll. The news pages, as at any good newspaper, were not influenced by the editorial position of the newspaper. And, down to the end, they were less influenced by the suicidal Gannettization that continues to drive readers away. For years, I regretted not staying there.
Years before, Times Mirror, at the height of its power, had bought the Denver Post and expected to make quick work of the tabloid Rocky. Things turned out quite differently. The Rocky rose to be the better newspaper and Times Mirror desperately sought to sell. A perhaps apocryphal story is that E.W. Scripps, the owner of the Rocky, could have put the Post down, but was too "gentlemanly." Instead the Post was sold to Dean Singleton and finally a very changed Scripps corporate gave up, conceding to a JOA that meant eventual death.
By this time the legendary newspaper chain was not run by newspapermen or newspaperwomen, not run by publishers. It was run by businessmen. As in so many industries, they could care less what they did -- it was all about the money. No wonder they couldn't see the tectonic shifts coming in the late '90s and blaze a trail to survival. No wonder they wouldn't even consider an electronic paper with a tiny staff, even as "digital newspapers" like Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo do well. One would only do such things if one felt a deep calling, not just the call of a quick buck.
For what made the Rocky great was not just war but love. The older Scrippses and Howards loved newspapers. Everybody who passed through the newsroom loved journalism and, especially, the Rocky Mountain News. Although the former's commitment went away, it can't dim the accomplishment of the legion of stars and strugglers, prima donnas and workhorses, legendary roue genuises and slightly disreputable shoe-leather reporters, visionary leaders and occasional well-meaning toadies -- all of them, who made this a great newspaper. They went down fighting. It's the only way to go. It's the only way the press will survive.