Monday, March 2, 2009

The Rocky paper horrorshow

The Rocky Mountain News closed its doors on Friday, eight weeks short of its 150th birthday. The death of one of the nation’s leading daily papers, Colorado’s oldest paper and the state’s longest continually running business, is thought to be an early warning of what’s likely to come for some of the country’s other beleaguered dailies. Reports of the possible demise of the daily newspaper may not have been greatly exaggerated.

The Rocky’s last edition bore a front page that was a stunningly, emotionally effective valedictory: It was a reproduction of the front page of the first edition of the Rocky — April 23, 1859 — surrounding the goodbye statement of 2009. With no words beyond the news of its closing on the front page, the Rocky made a statement of the coming and the going of a newspaper, with a wistful typographical farewell to an era when newspapers weren’t an option but a necessity.

The Rocky’s owner, E.W. Scripps Company, weary of hemorrhaging cash and with no gains in circulation; absorbing the body blows of a classified ad market decimated by the Internet; and reeling (like everyone else) from the ravages of the current downturn, threw in the already bloody towel and shut operations of the newsroom on West Colfax Avenue for good.

As much as anything, the Rocky was a victim of the speed and relentlessness of the times we live in. News isn't something we have the time to savor or linger over; for more and more of us, the day's information diet is gained through the rapid infusers of television and the Internet.

“I don’t know anyone my age who has time in the morning to read a newspaper,” said Chris Olivier, 37, to The New York Times. Olivier, a retail manager, said he gets his daily news from the Internet and niche neighborhood publications. “It’s sad to see such a huge part of our state’s history lost, but the market is moving, and newspapers haven’t moved with it. They don’t get the Web.”

One Rocky reader gets it, understands the importance of contrasting voices to a vibrant democracy. Terrance D. Carroll, a Democrat and the speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives, told The Times he hated the absence of those contrasting civic voices with the Rocky shutting down.

“I’m afraid of the echo chambers that are emerging because more people are choosing to get their news only from sources that reinforce what they want to believe,” he said.

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The journalists and photographers and designers of the Rocky Mountain News, a resourceful lot, have already parlayed their professional talents and their personal pain into a Web site, I Want My Rocky, a collection of local news, reviews and ruminations, much of it written from the wounded and justifiably bitter perspective that’s only normal a few days after your job is shot out from under you.

In the months and days preceding the Rocky’s fall, there were news reports of other newspapers and their owners considering how to stay financially afloat.

The Tribune Company, owner of the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, 23 television stations and the Chicago Cubs, filed for bankruptcy protection in mid-December.

The Hearst Corporation, owners of both the San Francisco Chronicle and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, was said to be perhaps weeks away from a decision about closing both papers if no buyers can be found. Hearst execs said in January that the Post-Intelligencer would be either closed outright or converted to an online-only publication — with a staff a fraction of the size it is now — within 60 days if no buyer came forward.

The brain trust at Newsday, the icon of Long Island, may be poised to truly break out of the box with a reported decision to convert its news Web site to a paid-content model — actually trying to get people to pony up for news online.

"We plan to end the distribution of free Web content and make our newsgathering capabilities a service to our customers."said Tom Rutledge, chief operating officer of Cablevision Systems, Newsday’s parent company.

And some are even considering going a step further, following through on the oft-stated dictum that journalism is a public trust and subordinating the profit motive. They’re the ones exploring the potential for news organizations to reform as L3Cs, low-profit variations on the limited liability company (LLC) that would allow such organizations to combine pursuit of work of a proven social benefit with a secondary profit motive.

Emily Chan, staff editor of the UC Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly, wrote last July on the Nonprofit Law Blog:
The low-profit, limited liability company, or L3C, is a hybrid of a nonprofit and for-profit organization. More specifically, it is a new type of limited liability company (LLC) designed to attract private investments and philanthropic capital in ventures designed to provide a social benefit. …

On April 30, 2008, Vermont became the first State to recognize the L3C as an official legal structure. Similar legislation has since been pushed in other States such as Georgia, Michigan, Montana and North Carolina. Although Vermont currently remains the only State to authorize the L3C, it has national applicability because L3Cs formed in Vermont can be used in any State or Territory.

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All of which comes too late for the Rocky Mountain News. Some of the Rocky reporting staff has reportedly been snapped up by The Denver Post, for decades the Rocky’s loyal opposition, the adversary in a sometimes bitter newspaper war — and as of now the only Denver daily newspaper, and the surviving member of a newspaper agency with an estimated debt load of $130 million.

The death of a newspaper is never a good thing, but the death of a paper that’s a legitimate institution feels truly like a death in the family. Yours truly grew up in Denver reading both the Rocky and the Post, and briefly wrote music reviews for the Rocky entertainment section back in the Jurassic day, before the Internet. The Rocky had the populist vibe, from the tabloid shape of the paper on down to the way it was written. You could always curl up with the Rocky in a small place like a car seat or the booth of a diner. If you read the Rocky, you probably bought your booze at Argonaut Liquors instead of a wine shop out in Cherry Creek. You took the bus to work. You was folks.

No more. The Chablis sippers are winning this war, if just barely. Companies are tightening belts that are cinching bone already. As the Rocky gallops into history, you can’t help but recall a message from the movies that more than brushes up against reality.

The Hearst Corporation is said to be losing about $1 million per week at The Chronicle. The corporation was started by William Randolph Hearst, the tycoon thought to have been the inspiration for the character Charles Foster Kane, protagonist of the film classic “Citizen Kane.”

In one scene, when the young newspaper publisher Kane is confronted by his accountant and interrogated about his profligate spending, Kane speaks — with the smugness of someone certain of his own invincibiity, and that of his business model:

“You’re right, Mr. Thatcher. I did lose a million dollars last year. I expect to lose a million dollars this year. I expect to lose a million dollars next year. You know, Mr. Thatcher, at the rate of a million dollars a year, I’ll have to close this place in … sixty years.”

The Hearst Corporation in particular, and the newspaper industry in general, have nothing remotely close to that luxury anymore.
Image credits: Tribune logo: © 2009 The Tribune Company.

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