Rocky Mountain News, Colorado's Oldest Paper, Closing Friday

The Rocky Mountain News, Colorado's oldest newspaper and a Denver fixture since 1859, will publish its last edition Friday.

Owner E.W. Scripps Co. said Thursday the newspaper lost $16 million last year and the company was unable to find a buyer.

"Today the Rocky Mountain News, long the leading voice in Denver, becomes a victim of changing times in our industry and huge economic challenges," Scripps CEO Rich Boehne said.

The News is the latest — and largest — newspaper to fail amid a recession that has been especially brutal for the industry. Four owners of 33 U.S. daily newspapers have sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the past 2 1/2 months. A number of other newspapers are up for sale.

"People are in grief, and they're very, very upset trying to process all the emotions that go with it and trying to recognize that we will be putting out our final edition tomorrow," said News publisher John Temple.

But that edition, he declared, is "going to be spectacular." Friday's newspaper will include a 52-page commemorative section, with a print run of about 350,000 copies. The News had a daily circulation of 210,000 and 457,000 on Saturdays.

"It's very rare that you get to play the music at your own funeral, so you want to make sure you do it well," Temple said.

Managing Editor Deborah Goeken said the special section will highlight some of the Rocky's best work, including Pulitzer Prize-winning stories and photos.

Scripps' Boehne said the News' 230 editorial employees would be paid through April 28. The rival Denver Post said it will hire 10 News staffers, including five columnists, four reporters and the editorial page editor.

One of those reporters, Lynn Bartels, said she would miss sitting beside her News colleagues. "The Rocky is the most amazing family," she said.

Bartels held a box of tissues over her head and called out, "This is for everybody."

Dennis Schroeder, a News photographer for 25 years, said some of his colleagues were angry but others were relieved that a decision was made after weeks of uncertainty.

"It's hard losing the best job in the world," he said.

Employees gathered outside the newsroom to open a 1985 time capsule cut out of a wall. It contained copies of the Rocky and Post, a book of employee signatures, a map of Denver and books from Rocky cartoonist Ed Stein and the late columnist Gene Amole. The capsule read: "To be opened in April 2059 on RMN's 200th anniversary."

Scripps announced on Dec. 4 it would try to sell the newspaper. Only one potential buyer came forward, "and that party was unable to present a viable plan," the company said.

"Good grief — that's a piece of heritage we're losing," said Diane Scott, 56, of suburban Englewood.

Mike Hankinson, 25, of Denver blamed the format. "It's the paper. People go online now," he said.

Scripps has owned the News since 1926. The newspaper will close just two months short of its 150th anniversary.

Since its first edition on April 23, 1859, the News has covered the Civil War, Colorado statehood, the Ludlow Massacre, the Columbine High School shootings and the Oklahoma City bombing trial. It survived a devastating flood in 1864 and competition from as many as five newspapers at a time.

A circulation war with The Post in the 1980s and 1990s proved costly, and in 2000 the rivals announced they would pool their business operations in a joint operating agreement between Scripps and The Post's owner, MediaNews Group Inc. The deal took effect in 2001.

"The Rocky will forever be remembered for its vital role in the city's history and the city's success," said William Dean Singleton, chairman and publisher of The Post and CEO of MediaNews. "Although we competed intensely, the talented staff of the Rocky earned our respect with each morning's edition."

Singleton, who is chairman of the board of The Associated Press, has said Denver could support only one newspaper. "I'm not just confident that we'll survive. We will survive," he insisted Thursday.

MediaNews said starting Saturday, Rocky Mountain News subscribers will get The Post for the length of their subscriptions, but they can cancel if they want. Singleton said only about 14,000 subscribers get both newspapers.

The Post will also return to seven-day publication starting Saturday. Under the JOA, The Post published Sunday through Friday and the News published Monday through Saturday.

Scripps said it has been working with MediaNews on "a plan to unwind the partnership" since mid-January, the deadline for offers.

The future of the Denver Newspaper Agency, the entity that handles the two newspapers' business operations, was unclear. The agency is a 50-50 partnership of the News and The Post. It employs about 1,800 people.

Scripps and MediaNews Group also are partners in Prairie Mountain Publishing, which publishes the Camera and Colorado Daily in Boulder, the Broomfield Enterprise and other Colorado newspapers. Scripps said it would transfer its 50 percent interest in Prairie Mountain to MediaNews later this year.

Scripps said it will retain ownership of, and still offer to sell, the Rocky Mountain News name and the newspaper's archives and Web site.

Ed Atorino, a newspaper industry analyst at The Benchmark Co., said that indicates the News could become an online-only venture at some point.

"Online newspapers seem to be doing pretty well," he said. "It's a very low-cost business."

Financial problems are widespread in the newspaper industry as readers have gravitated toward the Internet and advertisers have followed them. The housing slump also has crimped real estate ad sales, and the recession has eliminated much demand for employment and automotive classified ads.

The publisher of the New Haven (Conn.) Register and the owners of The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News filed separate bankruptcy cases last weekend. Tribune Co., whose stable includes the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, filed for bankruptcy protection in December. The owners of the Minneapolis Star Tribune filed in January.

Hearst Corp. said this week it will close or sell the San Francisco Chronicle if it can't slash expenses, and the company has laid out plans to close the Seattle Post-Intelligencer if a buyer isn't found before April.

Gannett Co. is looking for a buyer for the Tucson Citizen in Arizona.