I came across a familiar kerfuffle the other day while scanning Poynter.org, my favorite Web site for media industry news.
Ive read Poynter.org for years. Its the best compendium of media news out there, and old-school newspaper journalist Jim Romeneskos companion blog keeps track of every triumph, tragedy and dust-up at virtually every newspaper in the country.
So it was on Poynter.org that I learned that Denver media consultant Jason Salzman, who writes a media criticism column for the Rocky Mountain News, was publicly spitting nails after the Rocky refused to publish one of his recent columns.
The column, which Salzman posted on his personal blog, deals with some of his questions about the recently-announced sale of the Rocky Mountain News. The E.W Scripps Company, which owns the Rocky, said on Dec. 4 that it was putting the paper for up sale and would close it if no buyer emerged by mid-January. If the Rocky closed, it would leave Denver with just one paper, the decidedly more conservative Denver Post.
Anyone else feeling deja vu?
Because thats exactly what played out earlier this year with the Albuquerque Tribune, an afternoon paper also owned by E. W. Scripps. After publishing the Trib for more than 75 years, Scripps closed the paper Feb. 28 when no buyer came forward by the seven-month, Scripps-imposed deadline.
I was working at the Albuquerque Journal at the time of the pending closure and remember jumping out of my skin at the lack of media coverage of the entire situation.
There was no real explanation of exactly how the Tribune was linked to the Journal through their Joint Operating Agreement, which was supposed to run for several more years and involved profit-sharing and much more. And there was certainly no honest admission of the fact that a finding buyer for the beloved (but very-low circulation) Tribune was highly unlikely, mostly because Scripps was not going to sell its share in the JOA.
Frankly, most people dont understand the way newspapers operate, and they certainly dont comprehend Joint Operating Agreements, or JOAs, such as the one between the Journal and the Trib. The Justice Department arranged these complicated exceptions to anti-trust laws by way of the Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970. The JOAs were designed to help keep two competing newspapers—and their unique editorial voices—alive by allowing them to share operating costs, including a printing press and other business functions.
A number of U.S. cities have newspapers with JOAs (this list was complied in 2004 and Albuquerque, Madison and Cincinnati have since dropped off).
The JOA between the Journal and the Trib, forged in 1933, was the nations first. But if Scripps wasnt selling its share in the JOA, then whoever bought the Trib would be buying just a name and about 30 editorial employees—no building, no printing press, no circulation or advertising folks, no delivery trucks.
Part of the problem was that the Tribunes circulation had dropped to below 10,000. It was an excellent product, but it was an afternoon newspaper with no Sunday edition, in a market that favored morning newspapers with fat, lucrative Sunday sections.
I knew, as did most Albuquerque journalists, that no buyer would emerge, and that Albuquerque was going to lose the Trib. Yes, we at the Journal competed against the Trib. But my colleagues and I were journalists because we loved newspapers, and believed that the more voices and viewpoints in the public discourse, the better.
Interestingly, the privately-owned Journal didnt write about it the Tribune as it was slowly circling the drain. I know of at least one column and several stories about the situation that were scrapped by the higher-ups.
And oddly enough, the Trib didnt write about it either. I dont know whether it was at the bidding of Scripps or the Justice Department, but precious little information ever got through to the public until it was too late, and the Trib was done.
I talked to many, many people in the community in the months before the Trib closed, and few of them had any idea it would really happen.
And guess what? The same damn things gonna happen to the Rocky. I think people in Denver deserve to know what might happen. How bad is the financial situation at the publicly-traded company and what alternatives do Scripps and the Justice Department have for keeping the Rocky open?
Rocky Mountain News editor, publisher and president John Temple (a former Tribunista) doesnt agree. That much is apparent in his rather shirty response to Salzmans protest.
Thank God for Salzman (check out an earlier column the Rocky DID publish too see why), and alternative weeklies like Westword, who are trying to report the situation honestly.
Many believe the internal Scripps deadline for a Rocky sale is Jan 16 tomorrow and if Denver is anything like Albuquerque, people there deserve a bit of time to get used to living with just one newspaper.