Wednesday, March 4, 2009

No sequels for this Rocky

John Temple

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
March 4, 2009


Another morning dawns today without a fresh edition of the Rocky Mountain News.

A newspaper is dead five days now, and still the publisher speaks of his column and his staff and his newsroom in the present tense.

Even after attending your own wake, it is hard to believe you are gone.

On Friday, John Temple became the final publisher of a newspaper known affectionately as The Rocky, a Denver newspaper first printed in the gold-rush boom of 1859 and last printed in the credit bust of 2009.

Mr. Temple, who turns 56 next month, got into the business to produce newspapers, not to bury them.

His first job was delivering the morning broadsheet in his Vancouver birthplace.

“My route went from Larch, Elm, Trafalgar,” he said, “between 37th and 41st.” Those Kerrisdale mornings have become grey and misty in memory. Of all the editions he delivered, the front page reporting Bobby Kennedy’s shooting is the Province he remembers best.

When his brother was busy, he would take over his afternoon Sun route. Back in the 1960s, the papers had rival owners.

Mr. Temple had a roundabout route to the newsroom front office, not getting his first full-time reporting job until age 30. Eighteen years later, he was publisher of The Rocky.

Vancouver has a history of sending journalists off to stardom. Pierre Berton, whose working career began behind orange-crate desks at the perennially broke News-Herald, left for better-paying gigs in Toronto. Bob Elson, a tyrannical Province editor notorious for his nervous habit of eating scraps of paper, became managing editor of Life Magazine and wrote a two-volume history of Time Inc. (Once, he chewed to pulp a scrap of paper on which had been written a banner headline. On election night. On deadline.) Some paperboys even did better than that. Jimmy (Baby Face) McLarnin learned to box to defend his turf selling the Province on the waterfront. He became world welterweight champion.

Mr. Temple’s parents survived the Second World War in Hungary, even as German troops occupied the family home on a hill in Budapest. Other family members perished. His parents later fled the Communists by being smuggled into Vienna inside oil drums driven by a Russian in whose hands they entrusted their fate, as well as a bribe. Canada eventually accepted the couple as Displaced Persons, his father’s immigration papers describing him as a tailor though he had likely never sewn so much as a button.

The father found work at Jones Tent and Awning before beginning a career in the foresty industry, while his mother worked as a waitress before becoming a civil servant. His maternal grandparents arrived in the 1950s. They opened a delicatessen in which the grandmother was presented as “the hostess with the mostest.”

Newspapers were a staple in the Temple household staple. The boy clipped articles about the B.C. Lions football team, pressing them into a scrapbook.

Mr. Temple left home at 18, working as a treeplanter and a seaman on a small oil tanker, as a carpenter and a crafter of log cabins, as a fruitpicker on a kibbutz in Israel and as a vendor at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto. He tarred a roof during a Prince George winter and he drove a cab on the midnight shift on Toronto’s slick streets.

The deckhand job convinced him of the need for a skill, he once wrote, so he could “call my own shots in life.”

While studying architecture, he helped produce a small publication, which revived the newspaper bug. Armed with an English degree, he fired off applications. Alas, newsroom jobs were scarce in the recession of the early 1980s. The hopelessness of his circumstance was summed up when his application to the Parry Sound (Ont.) North Star did not even merit a rejection letter.

He wound up in graduate school in the United States, where he found work at the Kalamazoo (Mich.) Gazette. The Toronto Star later hired him as a reporter before the Albuquerque (N.M.) Tribune lured him away to be city editor. He rose to be managing editor before moving to Denver in 1992.

The inaugural issue of the Rocky Mountain News was printed on presses delivered by oxcart, the inky pages pushed into the mud streets of what was then a settlement in Kansas Territory, only 20 minutes ahead of those of the rival Cherry Creek Pioneer. The newspaper was housed in the attic of a saloon.

One hundred and fifty years later, the Rocky was once again in a death struggle, this time against the Denver Post.

Mr. Temple’s paper won its first Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for photographic coverage of the Columbine massacre, repeating with another photography Pulitzer in 2003.

Four years ago, James Sheeler, the paper’s obituary writer at the time, began following an officer whose duty it was to aid families of fellow Marines killed in Iraq.

Mr. Sheeler said Mr. Temple contacted him at all hours about story structure and word selection. In a meeting, Mr. Temple addressed the editors and designers who were to handle the special project, which included the touching photographs of Todd Heisler.

“There’s a point in this story where Sheeler describes the care the Marines take when folding the flag for the last time,” Mr. Temple said. “I want each of you to take the same care with this story. That’s how much it means to me.”

The poignant stories went on to win a Pulitzer for feature writing.

Those triumphs were recounted in the paper’s final edition last Friday. The E.W. Scripps Company, owners since 1926, were closing the doors just weeks before the paper’s sesquicentennial.

It was not the ending the publisher envisioned.

When the closing was announced, he spoke a few words while standing inside the newsroom’s U-shaped news desk.

He spoke in the projected cadence he had learned while hawking programs and lottery tickets at The Ex.

“I still use that voice to talk to my newsroom today,” he said.

He paused, as what he said sunk in.

“I don’t have a newsroom anymore.”

And a big city has one less voice.

The sad truth is that today’s economic climate is for newspapers similar to the influenza pandemic of 1918, which felled the young and healthy. These days, even a newspaper bleeding black ink is threatened.


Bill Tieleman said...

Great piece Tom - and how terribly sad as we watch so many fine newspapers either disappear altogether - like the Rocky Mountain News - or shrink into pale versions of their former robust selves.

Journalistic anorexia is truly both a pitiless disease and a disaster for readers and writers alike.

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