Politics & Media
Mar 02, 2009, 04:57AM

A Rose-Colored Goodbye for The Rocky

It's never fun to see a newspaper go, but The Rocky Mountain News' eulogists need to realize that the paper's "death" is part of a larger struggle.

Rocky.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

Photo by ezweave

On the occasion of a newspaper's closure, saddened and out-of-work employees are given wide berth to romanticize, rant, weep or take the news with studied stoicism. Anything goes. And why not: as John Temple, editor of the now-departed Rocky Mountain News said last Thursday, although "people [were] in grief," he intended to produce a bang-up final edition the following day. "This morning (someone) said it's like playing music at your own funeral. It's an opportunity to make really sweet sounds or blow it. I'd like to go out really proud."

Living on the East Coast, I didn't see the last print edition of the Rocky, with its 52-page wraparound detailing highlights of the paper's 149 years in business, but it was apparently a splendid effort. Then again, who would argue otherwise under the circumstances; for the plain fact is that in a month or so, as Rocky readers go about their lives, the daily will be mostly forgotten, just another casualty of a punishing economic environment.

I read a number of the final columns by Rocky staffers online and Mike Littwin's* stood out for both his nostalgia and bile. "I know many businesses are closing, particularly these days," Littwin wrote, "But newspapers don't simply close. They die." That's the nostalgic part, although the self-indulgence (especially for Littwin, who's moving his column over to The Denver Post, along with the equally bitter Dave Krieger) might strike other Americans, and especially people in Denver, who've been to their own "living funerals" at shuttered companies as tone-deaf. And then he took a shot at the corporate owner, E.W. Scripps Co., that paid his salary for the past 12 years: "The guys in suits cut our staff... They cut our resources. On certain days, it seemed they were trying to cut our hearts out. The guys in suits-and I say this as someone who doesn't own one-don't understand what it means to be in a newsroom, or if they once did, they forgot."

Pardon the reality check, Mike, but I believe the "guys in suits" haven't forgotten the days of double-digit profit margins at newspapers (which allowed for bloated editorial staffs), no matter what the quality of the product. In addition, "suits" across the media landscape are also losing their jobs. Littwin's politics run to the left, and I doubt he'd label New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. as a mere "suit," even though the Times scion has made many painful cost-cutting decisions in his own company.

One more quibble and I'll lay off Littwin: He claims, "People are human, including newspaper guys. (That's what we old guys are-not ‘journalists;" we didn't become journalists until about 1990)."

It's apparent Littwin's off-hand remark that he sometimes wrote columns in "six minutes" was no exaggeration, for this is undeniably wrong. "Newspaper guys" became "journalists" in the mid-70s, in the wake of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's earned celebrity status after their historic Watergate investigation. Suddenly, journalism schools were swamped with applicants, and the newsrooms of big metropolitan dailies transformed from messy Front Page surroundings to workplaces that looked, and felt, like an insurance office. (During college I worked one summer in the library of The Baltimore Sun, back when newspaper "morgues" were strewn with folders of all clipped articles, and was sorely disillusioned at the sterile atmosphere of the newsroom-save the sports section-an experience that so soured me on daily journalism that I took a gamble on "alternative" weeklies).

It's been noted in the Rocky obits that the paper improved substantially in the past decade, bagging four Pulitzer Prizes for instance, but my own introduction to the paper back in 1976 was hardly memorable. I'd taken a semester break from school to work at College Press Service in Denver-CPS was a "collective" of five people who functioned as a sort of A.P. for subscribing college papers, over 450 when I worked there-and as a lifetime newspaper reader who'd spent very little time west of Pennsylvania, I was flabbergasted at just how wretched both the tabloid Rocky and broadsheet Denver Post were. It was a helpless feeling, since The New York Times wasn't yet a national paper, The Wall Street Journal confined itself mostly to business, and although there were newsstands for out-of-town papers, copies from the East never arrived on the same day.

In fact, my clearest memory of the Rocky is from a gorgeous fall day in Denver, when I spent the morning in the city's Cheesman Park. A few hours earlier, I'd eaten some peyote buttons-they really sucked-and was a bit out of it on my walk and at one point sat on a park bench with a copy of the Rocky spread over my head to avoid sunburn. An older lady-probably younger than my current 53 years, but when you're a narcissistic 21, almost everyone seems "old"-tapped me on the shoulder and offered to escort me to a shelter for the indigent or runaways.

"You poor thing," she said with genuine concern, "I'm sure you haven't eaten anything for two days." Hail the good Samaritans in society, but this was just as ridiculous as the thread-bare political section of the Rockythe presidential campaign between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford was reaching its conclusionfor while I was feeling mildly trippy, my blue jeans were clean and without holes, as were my sweater and swell cowboy hat.

Somewhat testily, I told the woman that her assistance wasn't needed or desired, and maybe she ought to go feed the pigeons or something that was more useful. I chucked my newspaper, walked to the Gilpin St. offices of CPS and knocked out a story about Nelson Rockefeller giving the finger to hecklers at a campaign rally on a college campus the day before. That juicy photo of Rocky did find its way into the Rocky, although the accompanying story was just two or three column inches.

Bill McGraw, a friend of mine at CPS, and now a staff writer at the Detroit Free Press (one of six or seven dailies on the most-endangered list), echoed my feelings about the Rocky when I contacted him last Friday, just for a memory check. "Your recollection of the RMN is right on," he emailed. "It was fat and dull. I recall many mornings at the Kitchen on Colfax turning its pages in a sort of stupor. Compared to New York's Daily News and Philly's Daily News, my two favorite tabs of yesteryear, the RMN was like a community weekly that came out every day. The only thing that saved it was the Denver Post of that era was even worse... I understand [both papers] had improved over the decades. We have a great photo department here at DFP, and my photo friends say the RMN had become one of the best visual papers in the country."

Patty Calhoun, who founded Denver's weekly Westword with some friends in 1978, and remains as editor of that very good paper, agreed. "I remember that both papers were dull, dull, dull. But the Post was far duller than the Rocky."

As a veteran journalistor maybe that's "newspaperman"I find no solace at all seeing print publications shutting down every month. But I do believe, at a time when the layoffs at much larger companies across the country dwarf those in the media, fellows like Mike Littwin could look beyond his own situation and put the Rocky's unfortunate demise in perspective.

*This article did not originally link to Mike Littwin's Rocky Mountain News piece. We regret the omission.

  • I agree with your sentiments, whole-heartedly, Russ. So many people at newspapers refuse to believe print is dying and they should be looking into alternative business models.

    Responses to this comment
  • As a pre-internet fossil-adult I'll really miss the paper versions of newspapers. But what I won't miss is the "newspapermen" like Mike Littwin who somehow along the line adopt an unsung hero/ hardest working worker/ protector-of-the-truth persona. Just because that's the movie cliche doesn't mean most newspaper columnists qualify.

    Responses to this comment
  • Are they really tearing down the building already? That's so sad. We have to get used to it, though. More papers like the Rocky Mountain News are going to fold, and fast. No one is safe, not even the NYT.

    Responses to this comment
  • I am saddened by the death of print. I'm not even that old, but I love the feel of paper in the morning. Too bad, maybe this is how folks felt when the automobile took over for horse and buggies.

    Responses to this comment
  • Russ, I don't know who cares about your peyote-driven memories of the 1970s-era Rocky Mountain News or what possible relevance they have to the newspaper that just closed, a newspaper about which you apparently know next to nothing. But I had to laugh when you accuse me of self-indulgence even as you tell a story of no possible interest to anyone other than yourself about a Denver woman who long ago mistook you for a homeless person when she should have recognized you for what you assured us you were: a heroic teller of truth. I wonder, too, why you didn't link to my column rather than simply quoting a few scattershot lines, as if they sum up the column (they don't). That's the worst kind of journalism, although taking a joke line about writing a column in six minutes out of context is also fairly low. I wonder, too, why you'd talk about "bloated" staffs at the Rocky Mountain News, a newspaper that, in a life-long newspaper war, has never had a remotely bloated staff. I wonder, too, about the hundreds of e-mails I got after my column, none of them suggesting (because I didn't) that I called the loss of newspaper jobs somehow worse than the loss of any other jobs. Of course you have no idea what the relationship is between the Rocky Mountain News today and its readers. Nor, more telling, were you interested enough to find out. You were apparently content to remain tone deaf to the loss felt by hundreds of thousands who have picked up the Rocky for generations and to those who are, yes, embittered that EW Scripps decided to close its 150-year-old newspaper while the Denver Post's Dean Singleton, facing the same financial situation, chose to keep his open. But you did show some real initiative by actually calling a few people whose phone numbers you already knew to ask them if it's indeed true, as you recall through the lousy buttons, that the Rocky was a lousy paper in the '70s. You're right. It was lousy. Congratulations. That's real journalism. Of course, it's possible that it might have been more interesting to your readers to know the current version of the Rocky covered the hell out of the last presidential election, even sending a reporter to open a Des Moines bureau seven months prior to the caucuses. I have an idea. Why don't you link to the column? I'd be interested to see if your readers agree with you that it's full of bile or whether, as I'd posit, that you're full of, uh, it.

  • Here you go, Mike: http://www.rockymountainnews.com/news/2009/feb/27/littwin-not-just-closing-doors-but-dying/

    Responses to this comment
  • Bravo, Mike Litwin. I couldn't agree more. Russ column is insensitive and poorly written - it wouldn't have run in a real newspaper because all those boring, non-Peyote eating editors would have made him focus it around an actual point.

    Responses to this comment
  • "Now, my story begins in 19-dickety-two. We had to say 'dickety' cause that Kaiser had stolen our word 'twenty.' I chased that rascal to get it back, but gave up after dickety-six miles..." I read your piece, sounds like another old fart talking about, Back in my day...

  • ...and nickels used of have pictures of bees on them, give me five bees for a quarter, we'd say. So anyway, I had tied an onion on my belt, which was the style at the time...

    Responses to this comment
  • "Big deal! When I was a pup, we got spanked by Presidents till the cows came home. Grover Cleveland spanked me on two nonconsecutive occasions."

    Responses to this comment
  • Newspapers are folding because a majority of Americans don't like being slapped in the face every day with leftist propaganda. The Mike Littwins of the world killed their profession by becoming tools of the left, and now weep as their poisoned product is rejected. I'm glad to see the Rocky go down. Maybe a real newspaper will replace it, with real reporters who try to discover and report the truth instead of pant like obedient little poodles at the feet of their Democrat masters.

    Responses to this comment
  • It might also have something to do with the economy, television and the internet. Just sayin'!

    Responses to this comment
  • Frazetta, unfortunately for you, research shows that more people are reading the news than ever before. Just not in print that they pay for. Newspapers with conservative editorial slants are in at least as dire of straits as newspapers with supposedly "liberal" slants. Also, most news reported in a daily newspaper of any stripe is not political in nature and the community as a whole loses when a newspaper dies - even if you don't like the editors.

    Responses to this comment
  • I'm impressed that Russ linked your article. Now that I have read it, I'm even more impressed with Russ. Perhaps this is why I never read your drivel before but will continue to read Splice.

    Responses to this comment
  • Actually, that building has been gone for a while. The Rocky and The Post both moved into the Denver Newspaper Agency building a few years ago. But they did remove its name from the building over the weekend. Russ apparently isn't very interested in what's going on in Denver today. We're just a bunch of hicks, after all.

    Responses to this comment

Register or Login to leave a comment