Newspapers have long been known as the recorders of history.
And as the Rocky Mountain News approached its 150th anniversary, former editor Michael Madigan was busy at work piecing together a project that highlighted 150 of the most memorable and historic front pages throughout the paper’s existence.
Madigan’s idea was to run one front page per day for the 150 days leading up to the Rocky’s anniversary date. Yet, only 103 ever ran — each tucked inside the back page with an accompanying story about why it was chosen — before the Rocky itself became history, closing Feb. 23, 2009, two months shy of its big birthday.
Months after the paper closed, however, Madigan released the rest through the publishing of “Heroes, Villains, Dames & Disasters: 150 Years of Front-Page Stories from the Rocky Mountain News.” As the introduction of the book states, the project “as it was conceived was to be an anniversary reprise. Now it is an obituary.”
The book kicks off with the tale of the paper’s very first edition being created in a second-floor office above a saloon alongside Cherry Creek on April 23, 1859.
It covers the assassinations of Lincoln, Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the completion of the Denver Pacific Railroad, the Broncos first Super Bowl and the Hayman Fire. There’s the death of Billy the Kid, Colorado becoming the second state to pass women’s suffrage, the opening of Red Rocks and the start of World War II.
There’s surprises, historical anecdotes and things one may not have known or otherwise forgot. It is history the way Colorado’s pioneer newspaper reported it.
The Arvada resident has spent much of the past three years — while not working on his upcoming novel due out in August — talking about the book with historical societies, book clubs and senior clubs around the Denver metro area.
“I think the real star of the book and of the programs I give are the front pages,” Madigan said before a recent scheduled event in Highlands Ranch. “Being able to look back at these I find just fascinating.”
At his presentations he typically discusses how each of the front pages were selected, the stylistic differences in how varying events were reported and shares some of the surprises that came with doing the project, such as how Lincoln’s assassination wound up on Page 2 as opposed to Page 1 and why it still made the book.
He also can’t make an appearance without having someone come up to him and talk about how much they miss the Rocky, some with tears in their eyes.
“We always felt that there was a real local attachment to the newspaper, but that’s really been driven home in the years since the paper closed,” Madigan said.
“Everybody knew that the newspaper industry was in hard times at that point, but I don’t think anybody had any inkling that Scripps had any thought in mind of closing the Rocky. It came as a shock. … The Rocky could very easily be the only daily metropolitan paper in Denver right now rather than the Post.”
Now all that’s left of the publication is what started out simply as the “@150 project.”
The book, along with Madigan’s “Historic Photos of Denver in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s” — which tells the tale of urban renewal in the city through black and white photographs — can be found at bookstores throughout the area and is available online.