Friday, March 6, 2009

Telling your stories is our privilege

I expect not to cry at work. As a female manager in an office with glass walls, it’s important to keep emotions in check.

On Tuesday I broke this rule, and sat here, tears welling up in my eyes and spilling onto my desk. I was reading the final edition of The Rocky Mountain News, the Denver, Colorado, tabloid that was founded in 1859 and closed last Friday. The final edition, 120 pages of newspaper lore, opinions and tributes tugged at the chords in my heart already strung a little too tight from recent events.


On Saturday, Feb. 21, the news was revealed that the company which owns The Mercury had petitioned in a New York court for reorganization under Chapter 11 of federal bankruptcy laws.

The mood here was not as somber as I would have expected. In contrast, we learned that the reorganization plan acknowledges the value of our community newspapers as ongoing businesses. No one wants to shut us down.

“We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before,” said President Barack Obama a few days later. Substitute “name of company” for “name of country,” and the message was pretty much the same.

But before the weekend was over, the owners of the once-venerable Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News also filed for bankruptcy. And, before the week was out, in a city halfway across the nation, a bastion of journalism ended with the final edition of The Rocky Mountain News.


The final edition of what Denver readers call “my Rocky,” was brought into our newsroom by business editor Michelle Karas whose sister lives in Denver.

The paper touched me emotionally because it is similar in many ways to The Mercury in its personality, emphasis on compelling photos, and spot-news courage. My tears did not spring from a fear that the same fate awaits my newspaper. Rather, they came from a place shared with Rocky columnist Tina Griego, whose final column was headlined “This is what has called my heart.”

“I’ve never forgotten that teacher’s question: ‘What calls your heart?’ ” wrote Griego as she explained to readers what had brought her and sustained her in a business that has become less rewarding as years have gone by.

Her column, like many of the words written by The Rocky’s last and loyal writers, emphasized the breeding of newspaper people, offbeat and unusual, first and always storytellers. They call it “ink in the blood,” or “something in my DNA,” but whatever it is, when I read the headline: “Rocky staffers jolted by the news; then there was a paper to put out,” I understand the moment in a way that people outside this business cannot.

We live in a different world, and yes, while it is trying and stressful some days, it remains a world of great privilege. This honor, this opportunity to tell the stories of our communities, to be the watchdog of wrong and sneaky actions, the chronicler of children’s achievements and adults’ tribulations is what drives us.

This privilege is a theme that echoes through The Rocky’s last 120 pages. The paper’s storied history offers tributes to journalists whose names are no longer on the roll call of final employees -- the photographer who died in a plane crash while capturing the gold of aspens on film, the young reporting talent killed by a hit-and-run drunk driver, the sports columnist who wrote volumes during a long career.

The edition highlights the photos and words that brought the paper four Pulitzers in this decade and ends with the musings of an editor whose only regret is that he will have no successor.

A full page advertisement from competitor The Denver Post is blank except for the words “Today Denver is at a loss for words” and “– 30 – ”, the symbol known to old-school newspapermen as signifying the end.


Since the news of our parent company’s Chapter 11 filing became public, many have asked us at The Mercury how we’re doing. Phone conversations, e-mails, acquaintances at the coffee shop inquire, “Is The Mercury okay?”

In reply, we explain that the financial reorganization of our corporate owner is separate from the day-to-day business of this newspaper, but that doesn’t answer their questions. They just want to know that we’re not leaving town. (We’re here to stay, thanks for asking.)

Their queries, couched as if checking on the health of an old friend, are warm and welcome reminders of our place in the lives of the communities we serve.

An architect or a homebuilder will influence a choice you make once or twice in a lifetime. An automaker or your investment advisor may attract your attention a dozen times or so. But a newspaper – this newspaper – is invited into your home every day.

This creative piece of work shaped daily by The Mercury staff is read, treasured, and enjoyed in more than 20,000 homes and businesses every day.

Every single day.

The privilege of participating in that daily experience is no less humbling for me than when I first walked into work in this building some 34 years ago.

John Temple, the editor of The Rocky for the past 11 years, writes in his final farewell that above all else he was honored to have been part of a newsroom of professionals, to have joined in a collaboration that rose above the norm, to have been afforded the opportunity to tell the stories of the city of Denver.

I hope to never write a Final Edition editorial. I plan for The Mercury to be around a long time. I expect not to cry in my office.

But, this is what has called my heart, and I am here for the duration whatever that future brings. Rest in peace, Rocky. Your community will miss you.


Blogger mikesang said...

I used to be a reporter at the Mercury, back in what I now recognize as the golden age of journalism. I still work as a reporter at the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, where the stories are bigger, but still the same. I told an editor here about a story I did at the Mercury in the '80s that resulted in solving a huge murder case. The editor said that story would never have been printed today. Sad, but true. The Watergate stories would not be printed in today's Washington Post.
So appreciate the newspaper you have so you won't have to live without it.
Mike Sangiacomo,
author Tales of the Starlight Drive-in and Phantom Jack

March 13, 2009 at 11:58 AM 

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