Rocky spikes column asking if Feds might intervene to prevent shutdown

Rocky Mountain News contributor Jason Salzman wrote in a column for the newspaper last week that “putting the Rocky on the market for one month over the holidays looks like it’s not a good-faith effort to find a buyer for the newspaper.” But the observation didn’t appear in the Rocky because editor and publisher John Temple rejected the column, Salzman says in a blog post Tuesday. It’s the first time in more than four years the Rocky has refused one of his biweekly “On the Media” columns, Salzman writes.

“My editors at the Rocky have been fair during my years of freelance service. I respect them, and Temple did not fire me,” the media critic writes. Salzman adds that he posted the rejected column because he feels it’s important to raise questions about possible federal intervention to keep Rocky owner E.W. Scripps Co. from shutting down the 149-year-old newspaper.

When Scripps announced on Dec. 4 that the Rocky was on the chopping block and faced an anticipated $15 million operating loss that year, the company said “it will consider shutting down the newspaper” if a buyer isn’t found by mid January. The newspaper has operated under a federally sanctioned Joint Operating Agreement (JOA) with Media News Group, owner of rival paper The Denver Post, since 2001.

The JOA, Salzman points out, includes “oversight from the Justice Department’s anti-trust division,” which “can intervene to make sure that a JOA newspaper, like the Rocky, is not closed prematurely or unnecessarily.” That could include federal efforts to ensure a newspaper’s owners “make a real effort to find a buyer, before it simply shutters the newspaper.”

Salzman turns to University of California at Berkeley law professor Stephen Barnett, an expert on JOAs, including past agreements when the Feds stepped in to encourage a sale when the owners preferred to close a newspaper.

The (Justice) Department has even taken steps to make sure that buyers aren’t discouraged, (Barnett) said.

This view about the apparent obligation of Scripps to seek a buyer has not been reported, and it should be. It could answer the nagging question of why Scripps is putting the Rocky on the market for a time period that’s so short as to make a sale nearly impossible.

Barnett suggests that the schedule surrounding the sale might be everything — as the newspapers’ corporate owners could take advantage of a sympathetic Bush administration’s final days rather than have to deal with a new administration, which might see things differently.

… If Scripps makes the decision in mid-January to close the Rocky, the Justice Department could intervene and insist the Rocky remain for sale longer.

“I think the Justice Department might, especially in a new Administration, require [the Rocky] to remain operating for a few months or something to see if a new buyer could be found,” said Barnett.

If a buyer were found, the widely reported JOA provision giving Post owner Dean Singleton both the first right of refusal and the right to reject the buyer may be illegal, said Barnett. In a view that’s not been reported locally, he believes a right of refusal in the JOA can’t trump a “capable buyer.”

As the Scripps deadline creeps closer, efforts to save the Rocky, one of Colorado’s oldest businesses, soldier on. But in the pages of the Rocky itself, “readers deserve to know what can be done if a premature decision to close the paper is made,” Salzman argued in the column the Rocky wouldn’t run.

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