In his article in the current issue of 5280 Magazine, Maximillian Potter describes an “executive agreement” between former Rocky Editor John Temple and E. W. Scripps, which owned the Rocky.
According to Potter, the agreement stated that at least part of Temple’s compensation package from Scripps might have been jeopardized if Temple committed, “‘an act or a series of acts that results in material injury to the business or reputation of the Company or any subsidiary.’”
Because of this agreement, Potter writes, Temple “might have had something to lose” by publishing articles in the Rocky that were unfavorable to Scripps.
Potter writes that the existence of this agreement might explain why Temple rejected a Rocky column of mine in January. Im my column, I called on reporters to detail how the federal government could delay or even stop the closure of the Rocky. No reporting about what the government could do to help the Rocky had been published at the time.
I wrote that the Justice Department had the power to force Scripps to spend more than one measly month looking for a buyer for the 150-year-old institution. At the time, it appeared that the Rocky would be closed one month after it was put up for sale by Scripps on Dec. 4, 2008. In the end, Scripps closed the newspaper on Feb. 27, 2009, about three measly months after it went to the sales block.
Potter quotes journalists like Mike Littwin who say Temple was an excellent editor, but Potter also points out that Temple was an executive vice president of the Scripps newspaper division. So Potter writes that “it’s hard not to wonder how Temple couldn’t be influence by corporate concerns.”
In his response to Potter’s article, Temple defends himself in part by pointing out that two weeks prior to rejecting my Justice Department column, the Rocky ran a column of mine titled, “Can we blame Scripps? Yes.” In it, I called on journalists to air the view Scripps shouldn’t rush the Rocky to the sales block, particularly after the company made lots of money over the years in the Denver market.
Temple writes that if he were simply protecting Scripps and himself, he wouldn’t have run my first column, and he wonders “whether many editors would run” a column like mine. It’s a sad reflection on the state of journalism, but Temple is probably right. I wouldn’t be bragging about this if I were Temple, but, still, hedeserves credit for publishing my first column.
But there was a difference between my column that Temple rejected and the one he ran two weeks earlier.
My first column, the one that Temple published, was a simple ethical argument…-that Scripps owed it to our community to stick it out a bit longer. Unfortunately, that’s a purely idealistic notion that’s easy to ignore.
But my second column, the one that Temple rejected, offered a real option, however far-fetched, for government action that could have cost Scripps millions of dollars.
There was a remote chance at the time that some Democratic leader in Denver might have latched onto the idea of extending the Rocky’s sale period for, say, a measly six months or even a measly year, and pressured his or her fellow Democrats in the Obama Administration to lean on the Justice Department to intervene and force the Rocky to stay open. This is exactly the kind of idea that paranoid corporate lawyers would have counseled Temple to keep out of his newspaper. But Temple wouldn’t have needed a lawyer to understand that this was a touchy subject for Scripps.
The experts I interviewed said that the Justice Department could indeed force Scripps to extend the amount of time that the Rocky was on the sales block. In my rejected column, as Potter writes, I cited examples of this type of intervention, none of which had been reported in the Denver newspapers.
Temple has my eternal respect for, among other things, hiring an outsider like me to critique the media, including his own newspaper. So his rejection of my little column is all the more mystifying to me.
Temple’s journalistic justifications for spiking it just don’t add up. His repeated claim that I got my facts wrong annoys me because he has yet to point to a single incorrect fact in my rejected piece. Legal experts had different views about Scripps’ options at the time, so some “facts” were in dispute and remain in dispute to this day, but my sources were highly credible. In fact, one of journalism’s leading experts on JOAs, Editor and Publisher’s Mark Fitzgerald, said the JOA expert whom I interviewed, Stephen Barnett, was more knowledgeable about JOAs than Fitzgerald was.
Temple’s previous assertion that The Post and the Rocky had reported on what the government could have done to help the Rocky is laughable. As pointed out here, no such reporting had occurred when I wrote my column, so my criticism was valid. It was reported that the feds would likely do nothing and the Justice Department wouldn’t talk. There was nothing about options for federal intervention that could keep the Rocky’s doors open.
Potter didn’t accuse Temple of bending journalism to benefit Scripps and to protect himself, and neither would I. But Potter makes the point that you have to wonder, and I agree.
Still, I think Temple could have spiked my column because his long-standing frustration with me as a media critic had reached the boiling point, or he was in a bad mood when he first read my column.
Or maybe the rejection occurred because the very reasonable Vince Carroll was on vacation and unable to work with me on the column.
One thing’s for sure. Temple was definitely not interested in publishing my piece, or anything resembling it. I submitted the column five days prior to publication, well before my deadline, because I knew the topic was sensitive. Three days prior to publication, after Temple initially rejected it, I offered to submit a new draft. Temple declined my offer. His decision was final.
So who knows what was going on Temple’s mind?
In any case, Potter’s article is not only critical of Temple but of Scripps generally. It was great to see the 5280 piece, because when it closed the Rocky, Scripps mostly got a free pass in Denver.
How great would it have been if Temple had put out a final edition of the Rocky slamming Scripps for shutting the paper with one day’s notice after a pitifully short three months on the market…-after the Rocky had been around for 150 years.
Instead, journalists were jumping up and down praising the beauty of Rocky’s last issue, even though there was barely a peep of critical reporting about the closure in it. Yes, I know, obituaries are usually free of criticism too, but so what.
Yes, it’s hard times for newspapers, but Scripps owed our community more respect than we got in the end. Thanks, 5280.