February 27, 2009
That's what they called it in recent years. As I recall, we used to call it The News.
By either name, it will probably have ceased to exist by the time you read this. The EW Scripps Co., owners of Denver 's Rocky Mountain News since 1926 announced that the last issue will leave the presses on Friday morning (February 27).
I suppose I would sound erudite saying that I've spent more than fifty years with Denver's Rocky Mountain News—more than a third of its history—but it wouldn't be quite true.
The paper gave me some of my very first reading experiences, probably in 1954. It was always on our kitchen table at breakfast-time. By the time I sat down each morning, Dad would already have been reading it, and would peel off the front and back pages for me. The News was printed in tabloid format, and the comics were the last two content pages; the back page was always a full-page department store ad. So, I would read the comics first, but from the age of six, I found The News's front pages far more interesting than the back of a cereal box. When my reading skill and attention span had developed a bit, Dad would give me more pages. The obituaries were at the back of those sheets, just before the comics, and local news at the front.
That made for an effective introduction to analytical reading, and to life itself: comics first, then world and national news, obituaries, local news. When Dad left the table, I got the rest of the world—editorials from the center of the paper, arts, sports—all of it. I was shaped by it.
I learned of Sputnik, Castro, Francis Gary Powers and the U2 airplane, Martin Luther King. I read of the first American airplane bombing, and of Buddhist monks who set themselves on fire in a small Asian nation called Viet Nam—their behavior seemed bizarre, but I couldn't imagine how it might personally affect Americans. I saw pictures of the Birmingham Fire Department turning hoses on Negro protesters—we used the word Negro then, when we didn't use worse. I read for the first time of political scandal and police scandal. And the comics were still there when my nascent political consciousness turned to the satire of features like Pogo and Li'l Abner.
But the last time I actually subscribed to The News was probably in the late seventies. Denver 's other paper, The Denver Post, once an afternoon paper, had moved to morning printing and distribution. I didn't really need two morning papers; I usually didn't have time to fully digest even one. Dad had always said that The Post was a more serious paper than The News. I may have been unduly influenced by his opinion, and by the general reputation of tabloid newspapers, but by my mid-twenties, I liked The Post better.
At the end of the seventies I worked at a public radio station, broadcast Morning Edition every morning, and heard most of All Things Considered nearly ever evening. I also had access to the AP wire for the first time. I began to spend much less time with the newspaper. Then, in the late eighties, the Internet landed in our lives. At first, it was hard to use, and not comprehensive, but it quickly began to offer a variety and depth of news that paper-and-ink technology couldn't match.
I was throwing away a lot of unopened newspapers. That was especially troubling on Sundays, when the ad-crammed paper was massive. When I did read the paper, I found little that I couldn't get from other sources. I stopped my Post subscription in the early nineties.
Today, I'm better informed than I've ever been. I read regularly from major newspapers and other media, worldwide. When I need perspective on a story, I can compare versions from several countries. When news is breaking fast, I can easily grab the latest reporting, from whichever outlet is getting it at the moment.
The problem of course, is that most and the best of the news on which we depend is gathered by the reportorial and editorial staffs of major newspapers—and the business model of those papers has failed. It's not failing. It has failed. It cannot be saved.
In part, I quit using The Denver Post because of the wasted bulk of the paper. But that bulk was the business model. Advertising wasn't an adjunct to the paper business—it was the business. Even in the nineteen-fifties, that full-page ad on the back of The News made the front page possible. But the big ads weren't the biggest revenue producers. In truth, the smaller the ad, the more money it produced, per square inch of paper. Classified ads and small display ads were the cash cows of the newspaper business. And all that ad revenue was dependent on circulation numbers; the more papers the publisher sold the more it could charge for advertising.
But circulation has fallen precipitously. Due to cable television and the Internet—and funerals—the audience for newspapers is vanishing. It won't come back. Nothing will ever reverse the trend. With it goes the ad revenue that supports the news departments.
That wouldn't be so bad if the Internet could really replace newspapers, but it can't. Oh, it can do the job from the readers' perspective. But it hasn't created a business model that can finance the news-gathering function. Internet advertising doesn't work like print advertising, and it doesn't produce anything like print's revenue. That Sunday newspaper I hated to throw away had hundreds of pages of advertising but only a few dozen pages of other content. The Internet has different ratios; more space is devoted to the content than to the advertising.
There's more, though. I saw few of the ads in my newspaper, and seldom read any of them, but every advertiser paid for me as if I read each ad. Papers charge for advertising based on the total number of subscribers, whether or not those subscribers are likely customers for the product, whether or not they read the section of the paper where the ad is placed, whether or not they ever open the page where the ad is printed. But the Internet typically charges by the click, so the advertiser only pays if I actually choose to read the ad. That makes advertising more efficient for the advertiser and the reader, but it produces far less money to pay for all those reporters and editors, and for all the travel and other costs of producing the news.
So, The Rocky Mountain News is gone. The San Francisco Chronicle may go any day, leaving that city with no daily paper. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer may be next. It's not the end of the news industry, yet. None of those papers was ever a major engine of journalism. They weren't the same kinds of institutions as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post. The current batch of collapsing papers will be missed primarily for the loss of local and state news coverage. And in Denver 's case, we still have The Denver Post—for a while. But all of these papers, large and small, will disappear, at least as ink-on-paper entities. The biggest of them have already reinvented themselves as Internet instruments, and eventually will create some kind of revenue model for support.
But we risk the loss of thousands of reporting and editorial jobs. With them will disappear vast quantities of information—information that not only will never find its way to our eyes and ears, but will in fact never be gathered. And in the resulting darkness will hide all manner of dereliction, corruption and abuse.
We will be the poorer.