DENVER — The Rocky Mountain News, Colorado's oldest newspaper, was put up for sale Thursday after its owner, E.W. Scripps Co., said it lost about $11 million on the business in the first nine months of the year.
Rich Boehne, Scripps president and CEO, said shutting the paper down is a possibility if no acceptable offers emerge by mid-January.
Cincinnati-based Scripps has owned the News since 1926. Since 2001, the newspaper has been in a joint operating agreement with The Denver Post, owned by Denver-based MediaNews Group Inc.
Boehne said the company's 50 percent share of the joint operating agreement cash flow "is no longer enough to support the Rocky, leaving us with no choice but to seek an exit."
He said the News could lose $15 million this year, and that the losses could persist because of the recession.
William Dean Singleton, CEO of MediaNews and chairman of The Associated Press board, said he couldn't comment on whether MediaNews had been offered a chance to buy the News before the announcement by Scripps.
"MediaNews has a right of first refusal, but there's a big question mark as to whether there is a buyer. But time will tell," he said.
"It is clear there is not enough profit in Denver to support two newspapers, and there hasn't been for several years," Singleton said. "But there is enough profit to support one."
The News joins a crowded marketplace, with a number of other papers already up for sale at a bleak time for the industry. Advertising revenues are plunging amid the economic slump, and online rivals such as Craigslist are competing with newspapers for lucrative classified advertising.
Landmark Communications Inc. said in January it wanted to sell nine daily newspapers but has found that buyers are having trouble getting loans amid the credit crisis. Cox Enterprises Inc. is trying to sell its newspapers in Texas, North Carolina and Colorado, and in November Journal Register Co. said it plans to close up to 13 of the newspapers it owns in Connecticut if it can't find a buyer for them.
The Copley Press Inc. announced in July it would try to sell the San Diego Union-Tribune.
"This is going to be an interesting test of the viability of newspapers in these markets that are being crushed by (the) advertising collapse," said Ed Atorino, a newspaper industry analyst with Benchmark Co. The News "is a survivor but it may not be able to survive this," he said.
Scripps said the joint operating agreement, known as the Denver Newspaper Agency, has about $130 million in long-term debt from a recently completed consolidation of production facilities with new printing presses and other upgraded equipment.
Joint operating agreements allow newspapers like the News and The Post to share business and production operations, which cuts their costs, while keeping their newrooms separate and independent. The Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970 makes the arrangement exempt from antitrust laws if the attorney general certifies one paper is in danger of failing.
Then-Attorney General Janet Reno approved the Denver agreement in January 2001, concluding the News would probably close without it.
The News was founded in 1859, and Scripps' announcement that the property is for sale came amid a series marking the paper's upcoming 150th anniversary.
The 2001 joint operating agreement ended a long and heated newspaper war with The Post. The News said its daily circulation reached more than 400,000 in the final years of the battle.
Circulation is currently 210,000 daily and 457,000 on Saturday.
The News publishes Monday through Saturday and The Post publishes Sunday through Friday.
The News has 232 editorial employees, Scripps spokeswoman Lee Rose said.
"I cried," reporter Lynn Bartels said after newsroom staffers were told the news. "This is all I've ever really done."
Reporter John Ensslin said staffers had talked about the possibility that the paper might someday reach this point. "I'm just very, very sad," he said.
Scripps closed The Cincinnati Post in December 2007 and The Albuquerque Tribune in New Mexico in February of this year. The Post published its final editions on Dec. 31, when its joint operating agreement with The Cincinnati Enquirer expired. The Enquirer is owned by Gannett Co.
Scripps had put The Albuquerque Tribune up for sale in August 2007 and said it would be closed if no buyer could be found. Scripps received at least one offer, but it was withdrawn when the two partners involved said they couldn't put the deal together.
The Tribune had been in a joint operating agreement with the Albuquerque Journal since 1933.
In July Scripps split off a cable TV network operator as a separate company called Scripps Networks Interactive Inc., which includes HGTV, Food Network, DIY Network, Fine Living Network.
Scripps operates newspapers in 15 markets and has 10 TV stations. It also operates United Media, which distributes the Peanuts and Dilbert comic strips and 150 other features.
The News is Scripps' largest-circulation paper, and putting it up for sale was "one of the most difficult decisions we've ever made," Boehne said.
AP Business Writer Sandy Shore contributed to this report.