Who Really Killed the Rocky Mountain News?

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David Zalubowski / AP

A copy of the Friday, Feb. 27, 2009, edition of the Denver Post documents the demise of the rival Rocky Mountain News

"We are just deeply sorry."

That's all E.W. Scripps Co.'s Cincinnati, Ohio–based executives could mumble last week in closing Colorado's oldest company, the 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News.

In shuttering an operation sprung in 1859 from a gold-mining camp just blocks from its downtown Denver home, Scripps directly or obliquely blamed everything — the economy, the Internet, demographics — and everybody — Denver Post panjandrum William Dean Singleton, ignorant consumers, bloggers — for the diminished tabloid's demise. They certainly were factors. (See the top 10 financial collapses of 2008.)

But the black hats in this sad Western tale are the suits: the Scripps' newspaper executives whose ineptitude over the past 25 years fumbled away a prime market to a competitor they should have killed off two decades ago.

When MediaNews Group boss Singleton rode into town to buy the scarred and limping Denver Post from Times Mirror Co. for next to nothing in 1987, the Rocky was riding high, thanks to the fevered legacy of former editor Michael Balfe Howard and a band of savvy local marketers.

A wild-and-crazy guy whose grandfather had co-founded Scripps-Howard Newspapers, Howard recruited smart, aggressive talent throughout the 1970s and let it loose to dig up dirt, badger Denver's cowboy-booted establishment and raise journalistic hell. Occasional newsroom gunplay and rampant staff drug use aside, those Hunter Thompson–like efforts paid off: the Rocky topped the Post's circulation in 1980. (Read "How to Save Your Newspaper.")

But Howard's cocaine-fueled rocket fizzled, and the suits in Cincy, tired of his crazed professional and personal ways, bounced him in 1980. Though circulation climbed, eventually hitting 447,000, and advertising continued to grow, Scripps coasted. Cincinnati got complacent, refusing or declining, for example, to administer a kill shot to the Post, such as buying it before Singleton did, while parading faceless, small-thinking editors through the newsroom and importing ad execs who couldn't or wouldn't think local.

By the mid-1990s, retail advertising began to fall off because, the thinking went, modern businesses wanted broadsheet displays, not shrunken tabloid pages. Reporting talent — disgusted with the paper's draconian management — came and went. The Rocky cut back its statewide coverage and pretty much ignored Colorado's burgeoning Hispanic and newcomer populations. The paper also committed the ultimate sin in journalism: it was boring. What did Scripps do? Reduce subscription prices, mount a few lame marketing campaigns and change the paper's name to the Denver Rocky Mountain News.

In the meantime, Singleton proved to be one tough Texan. He won union concessions, slashed costs, marketed his product as "Denver's paper," stepped up local coverage and, lore has it, told the Rocky to drop dead when it inquired about a merger. He moved his family to Denver and dug in for the long haul. (See the top 10 financial-crisis buzzwords.)

When the feds let the Post and the Rocky merge business operations in 2001, the latter was officially designated the "failing paper." After that, the Rocky tried to stage a comeback, even winning a few Pulitzer Prizes. But its circulation, like the Post's, dwindled. By the time Scripps pulled the plug, the subscriber rolls stood at 210,000, about even with the Post's.

The surviving Post faces major financial problems of its own. And Scripps, long known for its bottom-line thinking, claimed it lost $15 million in Denver last year. Having had its fill of this ink-on-paper version of High Noon, it threw down its guns first — just as it had done in Albuquerque, N.M.; Birmingham, Ala.; and, ironically, Cincinnati.

Amid the staff's weepy remembrances and goodbyes in the Rocky's final edition on Feb. 27, only sportswriter Dave Krieger let Scripps have it: "I still don't get how a newspaper with 200,000 paying subscribers and hundreds of thousands more readers on the Web cannot make a go of it ... 'Not our fault,' the suits say. '[It's the] business model's fault.' So who came up with the business model?"

It was Cincinnati.

Diddlebock worked at the Rocky from 1981 to 1985.

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