Goodbye, Rocky Mountain News; hello, Mrs. Li
How one journalist coped with a great Western paper's demise
Updated May 7, 2010
This was an anniversary bash I planned on missing.
The best way I could think of to honor the Rocky Mountain News' death a year ago on Feb. 26 was to avoid the Denver Press Club party. Sayonara, best wishes, adios. Rest in peace. Time to move on.
I imagined the scene: a few losers in the newspaper wars standing around, mourning and reminiscing about the paper we thought would never die.
Born during the gold rush of 1859, printed above a saloon on presses hauled overland by oxcart, the Rocky had survived flood, fire, fistfights and gunplay, tumultuous changes in ownership, evolution from a broadsheet into a tab, from a weekly to a daily, from an evening edition to a morning. On Feb. 27, 2009, we published our last headline: "Goodbye, Colorado."
As the anniversary date approached this winter, I found myself thinking of the many ways in which the Rocky had shaped my life during the past 20 years. I'd started there as a staff photographer and ended as photo director. And so at the last minute, I decided to go to the party.
So did a few others, it turned out. More than 200 of my former colleagues jammed into the rickety old clubroom. Everywhere I turned, I encountered a familiar smile, a hand to shake, a hug to give, a story to share. The walls echoed with loud laughter and conversation. Happiness vibrated from the crowd.
People had gone in a dizzying array of directions. Publisher John Temple had been named editor at Peer News in Honolulu. Features Editor Joe Rassenfoss started a public relations and marketing firm. Business Editor Rob Reuteman has become a freelance business journalist. Deputy Business Editor Gil Rudawsky has become a media consultant. City Editor Eric Brown works for Denver's mayor, John Hickenlooper. Reporter Laura Frank founded I-News, the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network. Political reporter M.E. Sprengelmeyer bought a New Mexico newspaper, the Guadalupe County Communicator.
Others had taken less predictable paths: Photo Editor Jay Quadracci had become a fireman. Reporter Hector Gutierrez now drives an ambulance. Photographer Darin McGregor manages a brewpub. Copy Editor Heather Pitzel teaches school in Egypt.
Still others, like me, were struggling. In the weeks following the News' demise, I often woke with a pounding heart. I was 56 years old, recently divorced. I had a son in college and another in high school, a mortgage, car payment, child support and a healthy credit card debt. The economy was a disaster. What was I going to do?
The first job I took was cooking Chinese food for eight bucks an hour at Panda Express. Mainly this meant being chased around the kitchen by the diminutive Mrs. Li. "You waste!" she scolded about sauces, paper towels and eggs. Frowning in disgust, she routinely threw away half of the lame wontons I painstakingly made: "You waste." My hands blistered from dribbling bits of chicken into bubbling hot woks. When the Associated Press offered me temporary employment editing basketball photos, I immediately quit.
Since then I've cut timber for fire mitigation and worked construction. For every job, no matter how small, I have competed against several dozen to several hundred other hopeful applicants.
I still don't have steady work, but the search has given me the time and space to rekindle some old passions. I'm writing, and shooting pictures again. I'm finishing a novel -- about an unemployed newspaper guy. I've created a small business editing wedding photos. I've spent a lot more time with my boys.
My boldest gamble was going to Africa with my friend Mad Max to raft the Omo River in southern Ethiopia. The Omo would be dammed soon, its remote and beautiful valley and the cultures of its wild tribal people forever changed. Unfortunately, the Ethiopian government didn't approve of our plans. We were stopped on the verge of launch. Instead, Max and I drove 1,400 miles through the Omo Valley, visiting the Hamer, Karo and Mursi peoples.
Recently, I got a call from Ryan Burg, a student at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business. Ryan is writing a thesis about job loss and people in transition. This is what I told him: Some mornings I still wake full of resentment about the newspaper's closing. I'm still feeling divorce aftershock. Three months ago, I stopped paying the mortgage. Last winter, to survive, I sold off some of my camera equipment. I'm still not sure how I will make ends meet.
But on most mornings I feel like the luckiest man alive. If I was still employed at the Rocky, I would have never written a novel or traveled to Africa; I wouldn't have floated the San Juan and Salmon rivers with my sons, worked for Mrs. Li, hammered nails, fired up a chainsaw, or looked at a hundred happy dancing brides.