Feb 262009
Authors: Jim Sojourner, Elyse Jarvis

Thursday night, Sara Burnett accepted the Society of Professional Journalists’ award for Rocky Mountain region journalist of the year. That same day, she lost her job.

Burnett, one of the Rocky Mountain News’ top reporters, joined the ranks of nearly 250 now-unemployed journalists whose jobs were unseated Thursday morning when Rocky-owner E.W. Scripps pulled the plug on its near-150 year operation, citing sustained financial losses.

The oldest business in Denver will publish its final paper today, ending the almost three months of speculation as to its future that stemmed from Scripps’ December decision to put the paper up for sale.

The city’s loss of the Rocky adds to the growing uncertainty in the newspaper industry, as its competitor the Denver Post continues to cut salaries and positions, the Tribune company struggles after filing for bankruptcy last year, and 15,566 journalists, the Post reported, cope with the layoffs they’ve sustained since September of last year.

Before the annual awards ceremony, which saw about 100 journalists in attendance, Burnett’s colleagues packed their belongings into boxes, and Gov. Bill Ritter quietly took the elevator into the Rocky’s newsroom, telling the Collegian he was there to offer his condolences.

But while society may still have one last day before it feels the final shock of the Rocky’s absence, Rocky reporters — many of whom are looking at possible unemployment — are already feeling it.

“It’s not a death in the family,” long-time Rocky reporter Lynn Bartels said. “It’s the death of the family.”

Bartels, who has been offered a job at the Denver Post, said she is glad to continue working in the career she loves but said for many other staffers, a feeling of “fear and uncertainty” had set in.

“I’m horrified. I’m saddened. I’m crushed,” she said.

Chris Walsh, Rocky business reporter and former Collegian editor-in-chief, said some staff members were angry and upset about Scripps’ decision because they saw it as the corporation’s putting money and not journalism first.

Walsh said that while his immediate future lies in journalism, he’s not sure he wants to follow its uncertain path, which is riddled with the challenges of maintaining an archaic business model that doesn’t financially support an industry that’s rapidly moving online.

“I’ve more or less been expecting this, and it’s kind of a relief to know what our fate is,” he said.

The mood that descended on the newsroom hours later was “kind of odd.”

“It’s not cheery, it’s not sad, it’s not shocking anymore,” Walsh said. “People are working to get the newspaper out for tomorrow, but I bet it’ll sink in when they go to bed tonight.”

CSU Associate Journalism Professor Kris Kodrich said for him, that realization will hit today.

On Thursday, Kodrich said, “When tomorrow’s newspaper comes and lands on my driveway, it’s going to be the last one I receive. That’s a sad thought.”

“We have a feisty, interesting, well-written newspaper that is going out of business,” he said. “Anyone who cares about quality journalism and the role of journalism in a free and democratic society will certainly feel a tremendous loss.”

And despite the fact that its competition is now wiped out, Post editorial page editor Dan Haley agreed, saying he was anything but pleased to hear the news.

“This is not a happy day at the Denver Post. This is a sad day for journalism. It’s a sad day for newspapers. The Rocky has been a fantastic newspaper to have competing with the Post,” he said.

“When I thought of the end of the newspaper war and what it might look like, this isn’t what I imagined at all.”

Haley said the Post will “try to pick up the torch,” now attempting to win over the Rocky’s 20,000 or so readers, but his own paper faces struggles as well, losing 15 to 20 percent in revenue per year on top of its $130 million debt.

Kodrich remained optimistic about journalism’s future, though, noting that although revenue streams are dwindling, news readership in a variety of mediums is at an all-time high. He added that finding a profitable economic model is the news industry’s next major challenge but said he believes that quality journalism will persevere.

Former Rocky reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner Jim Sheeler shared Kodrich’s sentiments and said there will always be a market for people who tell stories and take readers to places they’ve never been.

“We’ve been telling stories since we were painting on caves,” he said.

Whether those stories will be told in newspapers or some other form remains to be seen, he said, but journalists aren’t going to disappear.

News Managing Editor Elyse Jarvis and Enterprise Reporter Jim Sojourner can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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