Kudos to 5280 magazine for investing so much time, effort and resources on the story of the closure of the Rocky Mountain News. For Executive Editor Maximillian Potter to report and write such an in-depth piece and for Editor and Publisher Dan Brogan to publish it is a testament to their commitment to serious journalism. The Rocky was an important institution in Colorado and its loss deserved thoughtful, independent coverage, which is why I agreed to give Potter such extraordinary access to the paper’s newsroom in its final months. It’s also why I’m disappointed in the result.
Potter’s two main points - that Scripps “cast aside yet another journalistic institution like an emptied piggy bank,” and that I put my own “corporate concerns” above journalistic ethics when I decided to hold a column about the possible benefits to Scripps of closure – are flawed, at best. Some of his reporting doesn’t meet the basic standards in which Potter and I were trained at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.
Potter did a fine job describing what he observed. I wish he had done more of that. I had hoped he would show what was being lost with the demise of the Rocky and what it would mean to Colorado. But when he ventured into deeper waters, he – and the magazine – too often stumbled. I’ve already written a blog post about the claim from an anonymous source that the Scripps team hoped that the owner of The Denver Post might die. But it’s worth exploring briefly how an outrageous claim like that gets credibility from the way the magazine treats it. In the body of the story, Potter at least cites a single anonymous source to make his point. But then the magazine pulls the claim out as a major quote in large, bold type and treats it as a statement of fact, without any attribution. What’s a reader to think, other than that it’s true? Does Potter or the magazine’s editor know that to be the case? No, they don’t. The magazine does the same thing with the way it treats the column by former Finance Editor David Milstead I decided to hold for further reporting. In big, bold type, it states: “Milstead reported that if Scripps was unable to find a buyer, thus demonstrating to the IRS that its stake in the paper was ‘wholly worthless,’ it could gain a 2009 tax benefit worth $70 million.” At least in the story, Potter attempted to represent fully my point of view on the column. But by using this statement in headline-like type – without any evidence of further reporting on the subject by Potter – the magazine gives credence to a column based on a single source who had no specific knowledge of the situation in Denver. What if the benefit had been worth $15 million? Or $10? Or 0? Would Potter and the magazine have treated the issue the same way? I doubt it. They, and Milstead, to this day have no idea what the actual number was, if anything. All they had was an 8-year-old public record from Scripps stating a value of approximately $200 million. They didn’t know the likelihood of the sort of sale that would give Scripps the tax benefit and they didn’t know the value of the paper, by which the size of any possible tax benefit would be determined – the two questions I had wanted Milstead to pursue further. Do you know any financial number that hasn’t changed in the past 8 years, let alone 8 months? Yet you wouldn’t know that from the way the magazine treated the column’s claim.
I understand why Potter painted Scripps as the bad guy in Denver. Perhaps that was inevitable. Scripps executives let down a lot of people in doing what they thought was the best thing for their company. But Potter doesn’t do the work to provide a basis for his thesis. Of course it’s true, as he reports, that Scripps invested its free cash flow from newspapers to build HGTV, FOOD and other cable networks. (Investors, including newspaper workers with 401ks, generally appreciate actions like these that build wealth faster than the growth of the S&P 500.) But what Potter doesn’t answer is whether Scripps in its more than 80 years owning the Rocky made any money to speak of at all in Denver after all its investments and losses were taken into account. Nor does he lay out explicitly how much money Scripps invested in Denver, perhaps because the facts might undermine his theory. Journalists at other Scripps papers would have been only too happy to tell him that the money to pay for the networks – and to fund Denver - came from profits at their papers. (And from the company’s TV stations, if we’re going to be honest.) Scripps can be accused of many things, including walking away from Denver when it appeared close to owning the market, but it can’t be said that they took much if any money from the Rocky to build their cable networks or that they didn’t invest in Denver to try to own the market. In the early ‘90s, the company built a state-of-the-art printing plant at a cost approaching $200 million to help win the newspaper war. Then later that decade to help win the war the company traded two of its papers in California to obtain the Boulder Daily Camera, a deal valued somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million. Then when the JOA went into effect, the company paid $60 million to become an equal partner with Singleton’s MediaNews Group. Then the two companies approved spending $100 million on a new headquarters and $135 million to retrofit a printing plant with next-generation state-of-the-art equipment. (Scripps’ share of those investments would have been half, or $117.5 million.) The owners of the JOA also bought a new state-of-the-art publishing system for their newsrooms at a cost of close to $10 million. And there was more.
The owners – who were 50-50 partners – believed they were building a going concern. Then came the impact of the Web on the classifieds and the overall economic meltdown, and the entire picture changed. While Potter seems to indicate that he shares the opinion of former Rocky sports columnist Dave Krieger that the problem in Denver and at newspaper companies in general is that they’re run by profiteers who don’t care about journalism, he and Krieger don’t deal with the question of whether Denver could any longer support two major daily newspapers. My answer is no. On that question hinges the whole story.
Potter is correct that the JOA was about buying time, and yes, I’m sure Scripps wanted to make money in the meantime. But based on my experience, there was never a belief that the best approach to running Denver would be to wring as much profit as possible from the paper before the well would run dry, as he suggests. Instead, the JOA bought time for both papers and put Scripps in the position where, with the right of first refusal to buy its partner’s interest in the JOA, it could be the last company left standing in Denver. But in the end, it walked away, because its view of the market had changed. If it had wanted to wring as much profit as possible from the paper, as he asserts, it would never have done some of the things it did. Two examples: It expanded the editorial staff from about 210 FTEs (full time equivalent employees) at the start of the JOA to a peak of more than 250, and that total didn’t include the editorial staff of YourHub.com, which totaled more than 25 at launch. And it improved compensation dramatically, studying comparable markets and putting into place a competitive pay plan for non-union managers to bring salaries that had been depressed by the newspaper war to higher levels, and paying its “stars” much more than during the war to attract and retain national-level talent.
Potter asserts that “closing the Rocky, rather than selling it, might very well benefit the company more than was ever publicly disclosed.” This is the big “secret” (my emphasis, not his) of the Milstead column his story reveals. The problem with his thesis is that it doesn’t take into account all the facts. Scripps did try to sell the paper to a viable owner. It was only after a possible deal collapsed that Scripps took the next step and put the paper up for public sale.
As for the Milstead column, I did not say I would be willing to reconsider running the column “when the resolution was announced.” I knew that if published, the column’s assertion of a $70 million benefit to Scripps would be treated as fact, based on the reaction to earlier JOA stories we had done. I knew that it had to be right, and I knew that we didn’t know if it was correct. So I asked for more reporting. That’s a common request, as I told Potter. I would have published it whenever it met our standards. I believed that could have been a matter of days. Potter keeps bringing his story back to the Justice Department and the “perverse tax incentive Milstead highlighted,” even though to this day he doesn’t know whether Scripps was in a position to benefit from that tax incentive, something Milstead didn’t know either. All he knew was that it was possible, under certain circumstances. As Milstead signaled with the first sentence of his proposed column, it was “speculation.” I wanted something more. One lesson of Medill was that one source was not good enough. We always needed two for any subject of significance. As I told Potter, I have great respect for Milstead as a reporter, but that doesn’t mean he gets carte blanche. He had to meet the same standards as every other journalist at the paper. What Potter didn’t mention, is that I told him the only piece I flat-out killed regarding the sale was a business story on why the owners hadn’t pursued bankruptcy rather than a sale, given the decision by the Tribune Co., owner of The Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, among other properties, to file for Chapter 11 reorganization. I had asked the business staff to use that decision as a news peg to explore why that option wasn’t being pursued to get out from under the burdensome debt load in Denver. The story never rose to the standard it needed to be published so I just said forget it. The topic had gotten stale. The other column that I didn’t publish, a decision that became a public controversy during the sale process, was about the possible role of the Justice Department in Denver by former Rocky Media Critic Jason Salzman. While Potter makes much of the decision not to run the Salzman piece, he never mentions the publication two weeks before of a column by Salzman far more critical of Scripps, a column that I wonder whether many editors would run. Its headline was: “Can we blame Scripps? Yes.” Salzman went on to criticize Scripps at great length for its actions in Denver. I think the context Potter provided for my decision regarding Salzman’s Justice Department column needed to include the earlier criticism of Scripps I agreed to publish. The first was a legitimate opinion column, I thought. But a columnist still needs to get his facts right and Salzman didn’t know what he was talking about regarding the Justice Department, just as Milstead hadn’t done enough homework for his intriguing column on the possible economic benefits of the Rocky’s closure.
Given the ink that’s been spilled on the Salzman controversy, it’s not worth rehashing here at any depth. But Potter says “Rocky staffers” were stunned I hadn’t run the column. Really, all Rocky staffers? Would they also be stunned that I haven’t run columns by other “stars” of the paper, including Gene Amole, perhaps the most venerated writer in the paper’s last half century. That’s what editors do. Edit. As I told Potter, the “hold” button is an editor’s best friend. If in doubt, hold something. That’s the best editing advice I was ever given. The other mantra I repeatedly used at the Rocky is that a good newspaper doesn’t publish everything it produces. It leaves a lot on the cutting room floor. I told our staff that copy never seeing the light of day was a sign of quality.
I understand why Potter might conclude that “none of the heart and hustle Temple and his staff demonstrated did a damn thing to increase the paper’s chance of survival,” but what he should have said was that “none of the heart and hustle Temple and his staff demonstrated could save the paper.” The reason: Because prospective buyers, and there were two, were in part drawn by the identity of the paper, shaped by that heart and hustle. And because if the staff hadn’t shown that hustle, could the end have come much sooner? We don’t know. We do know that it couldn’t save the paper. We don’t know whether it did a “damn thing” to increase the paper’s chances of survival. In my view, it made it a lot harder to kill the Rocky.
As for the personal aspects of the story, I understand that not everybody in a newsroom loves the guy in charge. But Potter spent more than two months with almost total access to me in my dealings with the staff. Yet to support his claim about my alleged “volcanic shouting eruptions” he had to resort to a story from an anonymous security guard and from a single editor who worked with me. I have a voice loud enough to hold newsroom meetings without a microphone, as Potter has seen. I would have expected him to be able to describe any “eruptions” he witnessed. Instead, he takes at face value accusations regarding my conduct without ever asking for my version of events. At Medill, we were taught that we always had to ask the accused for his side of the story. How could you fairly represent something you hadn’t witnessed if you had only heard one side? The guard he writes about screwed up badly and I let him know it. I didn’t need to shout. As for the editor, she’s been a colleague for many years, which says more in my view than any claim about hurt feelings from the way I handled criticism of her performance at a news meeting. The Rocky was a place where we were honest about our work, including our failings. That’s one of the things that made it an exciting place to work. Another example: Potter describes me as a person who could be “rude and crass,” again without ever using a single example he witnessed. Potter begins his piece by citing an editors’ adage, “if your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.” I think he could have done more checking in some cases. For example, Potter asserts that Scripps had offered to keep me employed before I made the decision on Milstead’s column. That’s not true. The first I ever heard that Scripps would have a job for me was at the press conference on the day Scripps announced it was closing the Rocky. I was always part of the possible sale, along with the rest of the newsroom, and it was understood that I would be leaving the company, whether to work for a new owner or to seek a new job. No offer of employment was ever made, nor did I ever seek one. I made clear to the staff long before the closure that I would not be staying with Scripps no matter what happened, not out of anger or any other negative emotion, but because I was ready to move on, if I couldn’t be at the Rocky.
Finally, it’s worth pointing out a few more errors.
Deb Goeken was not the Rocky’s longtime assistant managing editor, as Potter asserts. She was the managing editor for almost a decade.
Kevin Vaughan had been a finalist for the Pulitzer in feature writing. To say he had been nominated is to miss the point. A writer can nominate himself. It’s meaningless to be nominated. Why report it? It’s significant to be a finalist, one of three candidates chosen by a jury for the most prestigious award in journalism.
It wasn’t the “Singleton side of the DNA board” that rejected going forward with a modular advertising plan. It was the new president and CEO of the Denver Newspaper Agency, Harry Whipple, who had a number of concerns, among them that the advertising department would be unable to execute (or sell) a modular advertising plan.
Potter is a good writer. I would invite him back again if I had it to do over again. The price of giving access is you might not always like what you read. But at least there’s the opportunity for people to learn in greater depth why events occurred and what they might mean. But don’t believe everything you read in his piece, except maybe that I have a “youthful face.” Or at least did, before the weeks leading up to the Rocky’s last day.