An appreciation: 10 things I learned at the Rocky

I’m heartbroken about the Rocky Mountain News.

My mind races between sadness, disbelief, anger and a cold, whispering fear that what we are facing as an industry could very well do the rest of us in.

If it could happen there …

The Rocky newsroom was wildly talented, coolly efficient and extremely close-knit. Its priorities — local news and technological innovation — were the right ones, the ones we’re all supposed to follow. It was undone by being part of a company — E.W. Scripps — that, right or wrong, did not believe it could tolerate a drain from Denver as the economy continued to weaken. The Rocky’s last edition was Friday.

I worked at the Rocky from late 2001 to 2005 as a designer and assistant design director. I grew up in Denver, reading the paper. I’ve learned in every newsroom I’ve worked, but I came of age as a journalist at the Rocky. I owe a significant debt to that wonderful place — a place that won’t publish another paper, page or project.

I’d like to thank the Rocky for what it gave to me and share 10 things I learned there:
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1. Thinking big about 5-point type. Election results and school tests: What is more bread and butter to a newspaper than these data sets? No one worked these harder than the journalists at the Rocky. I remember, especially, seeing how the brilliant Burt Hubbard and the Web team torqued the spreadsheets to break out comparable data with an eye for what every parent, voter, citizen and reader would need to know. The paper’s Web-based ballot-builder and school test modules were far ahead of everyone else.

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2. Working the story. I had already left the paper before it won two Pulitzer Prizes for its Final Salute series. But I was there when writer Jim Sheeler and photographer Todd Heisler began the work it took to get those stories. This wasn’t one assignment for a big weekend spread, it was years of work building sources, trust, access and story lines. I was lucky to get to design some of these early projects. Jim can weave these incredible pictures of humanity and Todd captures the world through an amber-colored lens. A postscript to the Rocky’s demise concerns stories like these. As more journalists move on, who will do this kind of work? And how will the world be affected as less of it is done? It’s not cheap, it’s not easy and it takes a very special collection of people and skills that budget-minded companies don’t often have the tolerance to incubate.

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3. How good photos are made. Of course the Rocky is known for its photography. Behind those glorious images are a team of magicians, pit bulls and artists. The irreplaceable director of photography, Janet Reeves, and her team sweated every part of how a photo was made: the assignments, the equipment, the toning, the editing, the design. They were unforgiving, uncompromising, unapologetic, sharp and knew everything about making pictures in Colorado. Oh yeah, and they built a team of photographers who made magic wherever they went. They put that team in a position to succeed. This is part of the same postscript: Putting this culture and these people together is really hard to do and it seems, increasingly, much too easy to take apart.

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4. Covering people. When we covered crime we never put the mugshots of victims next to the mugshots of the accused. This might seem like an arcane bit of style, but it came from a deeply rooted connection to the community, and wasn’t unrelated to the paper’s experience with the Columbine shootings. The community and the paper were shaken to the core by this tragedy. It was a test of the paper’s role in the city that lasted and grew through relationships and enterprise reports many years after the initial incident.

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5. Commitment to an idea. The paper’s redesign in 2002 introduced a host of smart web-like elements that enlivened its report. Every section had a column of fun short, sharp items – called channels. They were reported, intensely local and conversational. Even the editorial page broke the mold, offering short bits of opinion and thought-provoking material. I don’t bring this up because it was a revolutionary idea. Other papers had done this before to be sure. It’s significant because when the Rocky committed to this device, it played it out completely. Alternative story forms were not a throwaway, not carelessly conceived or reported. The paper used these devices well side-by-side with one of its greatest visual assets: stunning photography.

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6. Everyone counts. The effects of Denver’s newspaper war are complex and varied. One thing is for sure, that battle built a newspaper in the Rocky that was incredibly efficient in trying to do what it set out to do. Just as the San Jose Mercury News in the era of the first dot-com bubble was a reflection of the excess it covered, the Rocky was a reflection of its market. A couple of valuable lessons here. One, the Rocky committed to deep, human, textured local storytelling. So the space it allocated, the people it hired, the decisions it made all went to this goal. Every copy editor, people like John Moore and Greg McElvain, knew how to make the most of this. Every reporter counted, every photographer and designer was hired to help complete this mission. Every hire was gold and everyone fit into the bigger picture. It sounds silly now, but the Rocky’s efficiency should be seen as a hallmark. The paper was able to do much more with fewer people than its cross-town competitor. This was through smart hiring and smart editing. I believe journalism is lucky to have wily competitors like Dean Singleton. He’s a survivor and I hope his bets pay off. I do think he can learn from the journalistic values and practices of the Rocky, though.

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7. Talking about stories. How many news meetings have we been to that are stilted and compulsory? How many budget lines float through without much thought? One of the coolest things I’ve been a part of at any newspaper was the late-night post-election huddle at the Rocky. Whether it was the surprising first victory of Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper or the reelection of George W. Bush, seeing editor and publisher John Temple huddle with top editors after we’d closed the edition and spitball about the stories for the next day was something else. It showed me that journalism, at its core, is a human endeavor. That curiosity and teamwork make things happen. As much as designers might like to click the window closed when an editor walks by or bristle at some of the conversation that makes your job inconvenient, you have to remember that you can’t do journalism alone. Editing, talking and brainstorming make the paper better. And if you’re not doing that, you’re not doing journalism — you’re just a technician.

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8. Respect the process. The newsroom works because of deadlines. They’re the skeleton of every operation. No one understood this like the top editors at the Rocky did. Randall Roberts, the presentation editor when I worked there, was a master at putting together this puzzle. Everything from how a story was slugged to how budgets were shared to how photos and graphics were assigned was given clear, thoughtful consideration. Everything was done for a reason and with cool efficiency. When the paper redesigned, it also implemented a new publishing system, bypassing CCI, a system used by so many top papers. As one editor told me at the time, why would anyone who uses a system choose CCI? The paper developed a proprietary budgeting software that should be sold to other organizations. It made the software work for the lean organization it had built, a good lesson on bending the tools to your mission and not letting them bend you.

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9. Web first, really. When the Denver Newspaper Agency decided to take on local weeklies that were popping up all over the metro area it did an interesting thing. It started a new publication: YourHub.com. It was a Web site first and a paper second and built a scalable technology and business model that is now working in eight states. Contrast that with what Knight Ridder tried a few years later when faced with a similar challenge: KR bought a chain of local dailies and struggled with how to contain costs and make the economies of scale work for them. Temple once said to me something that stuck: Why would you start a newspaper without starting a Web site first? YourHub is still going strong.

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10. Be who you are. Many major metros are a hodge-podge of everything. As space is nipped and tucked, the identity of a place slowly gets stripped away. This wasn’t as much of the case at the Rocky, a paper that was unabashedly bold and unflinchingly local. The local page led the paper. Local stories and photos starred on the front page. The business section was called Wall Street West. Every philosophy was reinforced and built on this identity. The editors defended it and helped it progress, and crafted that conversation with the community. As John Temple says in the “Final Edition” video, when readers talked about the paper, they called it “my Rocky,” not the Rocky Mountain News. That’s no small accomplishment in an age of so little loyalty. In the end, of course, it was an accomplishment too easy to undo.

Jonathon Berlin is design and graphics editor at the Chicago Tribune.

He’s also the editor of SND’s quarterly magazine, Design Journal.