Not going to take closing of paper lying down, Denver journalists start website

From the NY Times, Dec. 22, 2008
In Denver, a Web Site Tries to Save a Newspaper
By DAN FROSCH
DENVER — On Dec. 13, a group of staff members from The Rocky Mountain News gathered at the downtown Denver Press Club and agreed that they would no longer stand idle as their beloved paper careened closer and closer to a dire fate.

And they decided to use the Internet — widely credited with hastening the demise of newspapers — to get the job done.

The paper, known informally as The Rocky, had recently been put up for sale, with the distinct possibility it could close next year. The group of about 30 met for two hours trying to figure out how they could save one of Colorado’s oldest businesses, which has been churning out news here since before the Civil War. “The overall attitude at the meeting was that they weren’t going to sit around and do nothing,” said David Milstead, the paper’s finance editor.

In what staff members said was possibly the first effort of its kind, they decided to start a Web site, iwantmyrocky.com, so that readers could voice their support for the paper and The Rocky’s own employees could publicly make the case for its survival.

“Our thinking is twofold,” said John C. Ensslin, a longtime reporter and the group’s spokesman. “We want to drive home how bereft our customers would feel if The Rocky would go away. And beyond that, we want to show any other person that acquiring The Rocky would be a valuable asset.”

According to Scripps, The Rocky, a tabloid, has a full-time editorial staff of 199 and a weekday circulation of 225,000, compared with a decade ago when there were 210 full-time editorial staffers and a weekday circulation of 325,000.

Barely a week before the Web site appeared, Rich Boehne, president and chief executive of the E. W. Scripps Company, had told a stunned newsroom on Dec. 4 that the company’s flagship paper, beset by $11 million in losses in nine months this year, was up for sale. If nobody bought the Rocky by mid-January, Mr. Boehne said Scripps would consider closing the paper.

For months, Denver had been filled with with rumors that one of the city’s two dailies, The Rocky or The Denver Post, would go under. After about a century of hardscrabble competition, the papers had begun a joint operating agreement in 2001, splitting business and production costs but keeping separate newsrooms.

Even with the agreement, The Rocky and The Post, owned by William Dean Singleton’s MediaNews Group, still slugged it out for bragging rights on coverage, with The Rocky garnering Pulitzer Prizes in 2006 for feature writing and photography.

But this year, as the newspaper market continued to deteriorate, talk that Scripps was trying to unload The Rocky became louder. At one point, there were whispers that the paper would shut down immediately after the Democratic National Convention left town in late August. Even so, when the news came down from Scripps, many staff members were shocked.

“I am beyond stunned,” said the veteran political reporter Lynn Bartels. “To me, what happened was literally like a ship capsizing in the middle of the night.”

For Ms. Bartels, the Web site represents a final plea for help.

The site says staff members want to “preserve and protect” the legacy of The Rocky and “fight for the jobs of more than 200 Coloradans and the many others that would be affected by the newspaper’s closure.” It also urges readers to write to Scripps and Colorado’s Congressional delegation.

In the site’s first posting, the Rocky columnist Mike Littwin wrote: “We meet in this strange place in a noble effort to save The Rocky Mountain News. And if we can’t save The Rocky, we can, at minimum, make some noise before we go.”

So far, hundreds of people have posted comments.

Though he is not part of the group who started the site, The Rocky’s editor, publisher and president, John Temple, praised it and pointed out that the newspaper’s own Web page now links to the site.

“I think it’s great that people are taking it into their own hands and trying to have an impact on their own future, and I support that,” Mr. Temple said. “Obviously, people are concerned, and what the Web site reflects is their wanting to have influence and impact and to take action.”

In the meantime, staff members are intent on drawing attention to the plight of The Rocky or perhaps, as Mr. Littwin muses on the site, “the odd billionaire to join our cause.”

Ms. Bartels put it this way: “The Titanic may be going down, but at the very least, we have to try to save some furniture and fashion a lifeboat.”