Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Good question: Why didn't I do at the Rocky Mountain News what I now say local newspapers should do?

This from Jay Rosen on Twitter: "People have asked me so I'll ask you, @JTEMPLERMN: you're blogging about them now, but why didn't you DO these things as boss of the Rocky?"

A good question.

Here's my Twitter response:

"Think of what I'm writing as things I learned from running the Rocky. I did what I could."

I also heard something similar from Tom Davidson, who asked:
"RT @jayrosen_nyu: Asking @JTEMPLERMN: you're blogging about them now, but why didn't you DO these things when you were boss at the Rocky?"

Here's an edited version of my Twitter response to Mr. Davidson:

Good question. I did what I could. I don't want to sound like I'm making excuses. But Rocky was in a JOA. (JOA stands for joint operating agreement, a Justice Department sanctioned business deal that otherwise would violate anti-trust laws because it allows "competing" newspapers to combine their business operations to keep both editorial brands alive.) That's very unwieldy. In JOA, business and editorial separate. And web even more complicated. Advertising and editorial hosted by different companies. Think of what I'm writing as lessons from being in the trenches for many years, wishing I could have done things differently. (I would add here, that it's important to understand that as much authority as I had, and Scripps was great about giving me rope to do what I thought was right, there's nobody in such a complex organization who can control the whole thing. You can try to use your influence, but that's about as far as it goes on many matters.) I'm not pretending I have the answers. I am saying what I would try to do if I were in a situation where all forces could align.

The issue of all forces aligning is the key. That's not happening at many, perhaps most, local news organizations I know. It's what's potentially exciting about new people coming into ownership roles in the business or creating new local news organizations. Starting from scratch, as it were, perhaps they'll be able to make all forces align and help everyone, inside and outside the organization, understand what it's trying to do and why that's worthwhile for them.

I then asked Mr. Davidson: Does that make sense? I think we did a lot of things really well and smartly at the Rocky. But conversation needs to be bigger.

In part, that's what I'm trying to do now: Make the conversation bigger.

I'm trying to look ahead free from the responsibility of running an existing newspaper. I learned many lessons at the Rocky Mountain News. But I know I have much more to learn. (For example, how to do basic coding on my blog for google analytics and to replace the blogger icon with my own favicon. Only half kidding.)

We tried many things in Denver prior to the closing of the Rocky and the dissolution of the JOA. But for all involved it was a very unwieldy structure, with its own unique problems. In a JOA, the newsrooms are completely separate and independent from the business operation. That has its advantages. But it also makes it very difficult to build a team dedicated to the same cause or to build new businesses. The Web was even more complex than print. I don't want to make excuses. The Rocky, The Denver Post and the Denver Newspaper Agency tried many things. I tried many things on my own and learned a lot in the process. I'm grateful for the experience but also enjoying the perspective being a "free agent" gives me.

Finally, I felt I shouldn't just criticize the American Press Institute's white papers, but instead offer up some of my own thinking.

Hope this helps. Happy to discuss further.


  1. A decade or so ago, Alan Horton, then head of the newspaper division at Scripps, toured the concern's newspaper with a message to editors to "blow up the newspapers," get rid of the presses and shake up and slim down the newsrooms. I think it is fair to say he was almost universally ridiculed as few editors then understood the erosive power the Internet would have on their local business. Horton is looking quite prescient now, and you seem to have encorporated some of his ideas into your response to the API. So you were given free rein a decade ago to experiment, a much more complete explanation is needed on why you didn't take Horton's recommendation and blow up the Rocky? I personally think it was complacency and status-quo management.

  2. Mr. Allen, you should ask Alan Horton, somebody for whom I have great respect. We are still close. That should tell you something. I believe you would find that he holds me and my work at the Rocky in high regard.

  3. John - excellent series of posts. I think you're spot on. I spent 20 years in print newsrooms, and another 10 on the interactive side. I was frustrated during those last 10 with the defensiveness of the traditional culture. With a few months' distance, "frustrated" has turned into "stunned and amazed." Yes, the sheer size of the traditional businesses makes them difficult to turn, in spite of strong efforts from many folks. But the imperatives to turn remain. Sadly, most of what we hear from *inside* the organizations is still defensive: "What we do it SOOOO IMPORTANT."

    Agreed. But that doesn't solve the problem.

    Looking forward to more of your thoughts. You're a welcome voice to that ongoing conversation.


  4. Hi, John:

    How to add Google Analytics: here

    You can make a favicon here: favicon generator. Here's a howto adding the favicon to your site that discusses the annoying IE favicon bug.

  5. Thanks for the kind words, TGD. I still have hope.

    Lisa, I really appreciate the help. I'll try to follow your suggestions in the morning. The link telling people how to add google analytics provides the best instructions I've seen yet. I'm just kind of uneasy because I don't want to blow up my blog by making a mistake.

  6. Here are some instructions for fixing your favicon specifically on Blogger:

    Even easier: Use WordPress! All the stuff you would want from Analytics is in the stats page automatically, no need to install anything.

    And to the bigger question, well, I'm glad you addressed it. I saw my old J-school prof's question this morning and wondered if you would be addressing it. Glad you did.

  7. A note about John Temple's efforts at The Rocky. I ran the web site at The Denver Post and one of the key attractions for me when I took the job was to have competition from John and his team. John put together the innovative yourhub platform, was aggressive in adopting blogging and Twitter strategies, and was (is) a central part of the community in Denver. There are lots of newspaper editors and publishers who are afraid to take risks -- John isn't one of them.

  8. Mark, I appreciate you weighing in. You were very energetic at the Post, a formidable competitor. I wish you all the best.

  9. scodtt, thanks for your help. You're absolutely right about word press. I started with blogger because I'm on my own now and wanted to be able to do everything myself. This is a good place for me to start, but I hear you. I did successfully install analytics this morning. Now working on favicon. Seems like a lot of bother for a little picture. But it does make the web more personal.

  10. "Seems like a lot of bother for a little picture. But it does make the web more personal."
    Wrong. It is all about BRANDING.
    The favicon appears in my list of bookmarks in Firefox.
    The B is generic. The T or TT or whatever you use will identify you.

  11. Dave Barnes, I'm with you about the favicon. But I tried doing it today a couple of different ways and got hung up when I got to where to put the code. I wasn't willing to risk it because I didn't understand the instructions.

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