By Ed Otte
Former Rocky staffers (from left) Denny Dressman, Dusty Saunders, Laura Frank, Mike Madigan and Mark Wolf.
Five years later, the pain and bitterness remain for some former Rocky Mountain News journalists.
The Rocky ceased publication on Feb. 27, 2009, less than two months shy of its 150th anniversary. Five former staffers discussed their recollections of the fierce newspaper war with The Denver Post and the Rocky’s closure on Sept. 24 at the Denver Press Club. The program was sponsored by the Colorado Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
“The war was a real thing,” said Denny Dressman, who served as city editor, executive sports editor, associate managing editor, and vice president for labor and human relations during his 25 years at the Rocky. “It was an intense thing between the Rocky and the Post. To this day, I don’t subscribe to the Post. I don’t wish the Post any ill will, I just can’t bring myself to subsribe to it.”
E.W. Scripps, the Rocky’s parent company, ended the war because Post publisher “Dean Singleton wanted to be in the newspaper business and Scripps didn’t,” former Rocky reporter Mark Wolf said.
Before the Internet siphoned off advertising revenue, the two newspapers battled over display and classified ad buys, circulation strategies and news coverage.
“In the newsroom, the competition was visceral,” former sports editor and assistant managing editor Mike Madigan said. “I remember telling (former CU football coach) Bill McCartney, the Rocky views the Post the way you view Nebraska.”
The circulation war occasionally involved tactical hijinks. Both dailies paid hawkers to sell newspapers on the street and, according to Madigan, “The Rocky learned what time the Post picked up the homeless hawkers at shelters and got there earlier and took them away to sell the Rocky. These were homeless people, they didn’t care which paper they sold.”
Sports coverage competition between the two papers was as important as news coverage. “We would count how many people we had in the Mile High press box during Broncos games,” Dressman said. “If we had more than the Post, we thought we would have the better game story.”
Former Rocky reporter and columnist Dusty Saunders said the competition featured a boastful tone at the Denver Press Club.
“In the earlier days when the Rocky was a morning paper and the Post was an afternoon paper, the confluence of all those people, the reporters and editors, downstairs at the bar was amazing,” he said. “They had drinks and talking about ‘we beat your ass on that.’ There was a great sense of pride when the Rocky did stories the Post ignored.
“Because the Rocky was a tabloid, people thought it was like the New York Daily News. But it wasn’t. The Rocky outlived its tabloid reputation.”
When the Post and Rocky entered into a Joint Operating Agreement in 2001, it forced a dramatic change in the Denver media landscape. The newspapers combined their advertising, circulation and business operations while their newsrooms remained separate.
“The JOA announcement was a shock,” Wolf said. “”It was like a kick in the gut. It took a lot of air, a lot of steam out of the Rocky. We lost the battle of public perception about the newspaper war with the JOA.”
Dressman described the JOA as “a bitter turn. It was the most shocking, stunning news.”
The agreement required that the Rocky would publish six days a week, Monday through Saturday, and the Post would publish Sunday through Friday.
“Since the Post got the Sunday edition and the Rocky got the Saturday edition, we felt like we got screwed,” Saunders said.
Wolf, who now works as publications editor at the National Conference of State Legislatures, talked about the personal and professional fallout in 2009. “When the Rocky went down, I was a 60-year-old man who had worked in print journalism. I went two years thinking there would be a full-time job out there for me. I found a good job but the great tragedy was the number of people who didn’t find journalism jobs.”
According to Dressman, “The people who faced the toughest challenge were those who weren’t old enough to retire. The younger ones had to find jobs. Some had to leave the business.”
One of the fortunate ones, Dressman said, is former Rocky reporter Laura Frank. “Laura is an example of what is preserving what we always did, something central to American journalism today.”
Frank is executive director of I-News, the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network, and vice president of news at Rocky Mountain PBS.
She was an investigative reporter when the Rocky closed. “My desk had stacks and stacks of papers. I was working on stories that would never get done. I began to think about what if an organization could do investigative stories that papers couldn’t do. I decided we were going to do something that had never been tried before in Colorado – public service journalism.”
After securing $300,000 in grant money, Frank hired two other former Rocky journalists “and the three of us became I-News. We were able to do the kind of projects we would have done at the Rocky and added video and audio and it was pretty darn exciting.”
The independent news organization merged with RMPBS and KUVO public radio “to give us more platforms.” I-News provides investigative news stories for newspapers, television and radio stations. Most recently, it partnered with 9News to strengthen its operation.
White the I-News business model proved successful in Denver’s media market, the two daily newspapers couldn’t continue their competition.
“The folks at the Rocky Mountain News were pretty sure Denver would become a one-newspaper town,” Wolf said. “We were right but we bet on the wrong horse.”