It is a sad day for Colorado journalism. The state's oldest newspaper, The Rocky Mountain News, published its last edition today.
The only bright spot is the response of its erstwhile rival, The Denver Post. For while the conventional wisdom holds that big-city newspapers are doomed, the Post has chosen to pick up some of the Rocky's top writers and reporters. It is a move in the right direction.
The closure came as no surprise. The Rocky's owner, the Cincinnati-based E.W. Scripps Co., said Dec. 4 that the paper was for sale and if a suitable buyer could not be found, it would be shut down. Between the panic engulfing major metropolitan dailies and the state of the economy, few thought a savior would appear.
Nor is it surprising that Scripps would want out. The paper reportedly lost $16 million in 2008, and its troubles are not new. Scripps has owned the Rocky Mountain News since 1926, but since 2001, it and The Denver Post have been published by the Denver Newspaper Agency under a joint operating agreement the two papers entered into after what a Scripps news release described as a "decades-long circulation war."
Scripps' chief executive officer's explanation of the closure made it sound as if that agreement caused the paper's demise.
"The Rocky is one of America's very best examples of what local news organizations need to be in the future," he said, "Unfortunately, the partnership's business model is locked in the past."
That has a passive-voice quality that suggests Scripps was a victim in this, when closing the Rocky might better reflect Scripps' business model. Since 2005, Scripps has closed newspapers in Cincinnati, Albuquerque and Birmingham, Ala., all of which had been two-newspaper towns.
But whatever the business reality, the loss of the Rocky is a blow to this state. Founded in 1859, its owners claim it also is "the state's oldest continuously operated business."
The Rocky Mountain News has been a Colorado institution. Generations have looked to it for Denver and regional news, and for an alternative to the Post in everything from its editorial positions to its design. The Rocky's tabloid layout made it hard to follow "jumps" - the continuation of a story to other pages - but easy to read with a soup spoon in the other hand.
At least some of that will continue. The Denver Post said Thursday it would hire some of the Rocky's columnists, reporters and photographers "in order to lure the closing newspaper's readers." The list includes columnists Mike Littwin, Tina Griego and Bill Johnson, and political reporter Lynn Bartels. Sports columnist Dave Krieger will be added, as will reporters Burt Hubbard, Kevin Vaughan, Gargi Chakrabarty, and Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Judy DeHaas.
In addition, the Rocky's Editorial Page Editor Vincent Carroll will join the Post's editorial board and write an op-ed column. Carroll is a strong writer and an experienced observer of Colorado government and politics. He can be counted on to add an authoritative and conservative voice to the Post's opinion page.
The Denver Post is right to reach out to Rocky readers. (Their subscriptions will continue as Post subscriptions.) But by adding such talent, it also is benefiting its existing readers. That is scant consolation for the loss of the Rocky, but good nonetheless.