Friday, December 05, 2008

Death by JOA

"Give light and the people will find their own way."

- Motto of the former Scripps-Howard newspaper group
(now E.W. Scripps)

On Wednesday I did something uncharacteristic; I bought a copy of the Rocky Mountain News because it had a cover photo of some deaf children celebrating Christmas. It was an impulse buy, mainly because I know several deaf individuals in the Denver area and wanted to see if they were in the paper.

I don't usually get the Rocky because they are a tabloid paper, which is only to say that for some reason I prefer a broadsheet style newspaper. It was nonetheless distressing to see the announcement yesterday that the Rocky is for sale.

There's enough speculation out there about the reasons for the sale. This has a little more than passing interest to me because I'm from Pittsburgh, where both of our daily newspapers were separately owned with separate news operations, but shared printing, circulation and other operations via a Joint Operating Agreement (JOA).

In 1992, the Pittsburgh Press, owned by E.W. Scripps (the current owner of the Rocky), was sold to the parent of the competing Post-Gazette and shut down, even though it was the larger of the two papers in terms of circulation, prestige, and a Sunday edition. A labor dispute and strike that shut down both papers was the beginning of the death throes for the afternoon Press.

There has been speculation from several corners that the Rocky is not long for this world. The publisher of the rival Denver Post said as much yesterday, but there is also bad history with Scripps-owned papers operated under a JOA.

According to Wikipedia, only one Scripps paper, the Rocky, is currently operated under a JOA. There have been 5 JOAs involving Scripps papers that have terminated, all resulting in the closure of the Scripps-owned paper.

Should the Rocky shut down, leaving Denver with one major daily, I'm wondering what Scripps is thinking about with its' other Colorado holdings, which include several small town papers in places like Fort Morgan, Estes Park, Sterling, and Lamar, but most notably the Boulder Daily Camera and the Colorado Daily, which covers CU.

In Pittsburgh, billionaire and arch-conservative Richard Mellon Scaife morphed his Greensburg Tribune-Review into a daily covering all of the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, to compete with the Post-Gazette after the demise of the Press. Scaife also owns numerous small community papers that cover the suburbs, including my hometown paper, the weekly Sewickley Herald.

I'm wondering if Scripps will consider leveraging its' resources in Boulder and elsewhere to provide a greater regional footprint from which to launch a new daily for the Denver market. Granted that it may not be the best of times to do this, but it will be interesting to watch.

Hopefully there won't be too much of the kind of sentiment expressed by the Assistant City Editor of the old Memphis Press-Scimitar, quoted by Time 25 years ago last week as the paper shut down after being folded by Scripps into its' other Memphis paper, the Commercial Appeal:

"By the way, will the last person leaving please turn out the lighthouse?"

Best of luck to the Rocky and its' staff. Have a good weekend.

1 comment:

Len said...

I personally am very saddened by the prospect of shutting down the Rocky if no buyer is found. I may have only lived in Colorado for 18 months, but I have been reading the Rocky since the '70's. I have always appreciated (even if I didn't agree with) it's careful conservatism, which always seemed respectful and thoughtful; and which, while staking out a right-of-center editorial position, never engaged in the type of jihadist attacks on the other end of the political spectrum that is now in vogue.

Also, in the '70's, in Washington DC, I met and became a friend and admirer of Helene Monberg, who served as the contract Washington Bureau Chief/Correspondent for the Rocky. A truly remarkable, flinty, homespun woman, she had a grasp of water policy, federal land policy, and other resource/environmental issues that most elected officials in Washington envied. When she interviewed them, she often taught them things they did not know at the same time. She was the face and voice of the Rocky in the nation's capital.

From Fort Lewis College Center for Southwest Studies, where her papers are housed, this brief biographical note:

"Helene Monberg was born in Leadville, Colorado, on October 19, 1918, and attended the University of Colorado. In 1941, she went to Washington, D.C. to join the editorial staff of Pathfinder magazine. From 1942 to 1947, she worked for United Press. From 1949 to 1964, while operating her news bureau, Ms. Monberg also worked for the Congressional Quarterly. From 1947 to 1983, Monberg operated her own Washington news bureau primarily serving the states comprising the Four Corners area, specializing in water issues. In 1965, she started a natural resources newsletter which was published until her retirement in 1994. During the 1960s, Monberg provided start-up college scholarships for disadvantaged youths in the Washington, D.C. area which became the Achievement Scholarship Program. The ASP Program provided scholarships for black youths recommended by parole and probation officers from 1973 to 1989. More than 360 youths received the scholarship awards, from money provided directly by Monberg and her fundraising efforts. In 1998, Monberg announced a bequest of $1 million upon her death to colleges and school districts in Colorado. Monberg died of complications related to pneumonia on October 8, 2003, at Potomac Valley Nursing and Wellness Center in Rockville, Maryland."

Thanks, John, for this opportunity to mention Helene and give her deserved praise, even if this long after her death.

Len Stewart