A Death In The Family
Savor your newspaper. This is what it feels like when it’s gone.
In 2009, a member of my family died. Fortunately, it wasn’t a flesh-and-blood relative, but four and a half years later, the loss still stings. It was my hometown newspaper and employer of my father, its editorial cartoonist, for 31 years: The Rocky Mountain News of Denver, Colorado.
There was a wake for the Rocky, held at the legendary Denver Press Club. Editors, reporters, photographers and friends gathered to share war stories from the venerable paper’s 150-year history (it was also the oldest continually-running business in Colorado). Tears were shed, hugs exchanged. I wasn’t there, but my dad left me a barely audible message from the crowded bar to say that a few friends from the media department, where I briefly worked as an extra video producer during the 2008 Democratic National Convention, had asked how I was doing. In the recording, his voice sounds hoarse from hours of reminiscing.
Though she won’t admit it, I don’t think my mom liked me hanging around journalists when I was young, which makes sense given the stories my dad used to tell. There was the time a man walked into the newsroom claiming he knew how to save the comic strip character Kerry Drake and demanding to be drawn into the next day’s frame. The time (before my dad’s tenure) a reporter paid a little person to scare an editor by jumping out of his locker. The only time I ever saw my dad do anything even remotely crass in public: Moon a softball umpire who made the Rocky’s team (the Newshounds) forfeit because at 11 years old, I wasn’t technically old enough to be the bat boy. That didn’t stop me from logging quite a few hours in the newsroom, mostly after school, waiting for my dad to finish his drawing for the day and drive me home.
I especially loved sitting in my dad’s cubicle during election nights before broadband Internet, when the newspaper was still the first place in town to get the latest results. They would order food for everyone and set up a bank of old CRT TVs at least as high as the stack of pizza boxes. When new results came in over the wire, you could feel the wave of energy as editors ran across the room to yell new results at reporters, who strained to update pre-written stories on their old green-on-black computer screens. There was a family-friendly picnic to celebrate the retirement of these ancient terminals in exchange for a modern, GUI-based system, held in a park near the Rocky’s building in 1998 or 1999 (nobody I talked to was able to confirm the exact date).
The paper’s death came as no surprise. Despite mostly beating its main competitor, The Denver Post, in circulation since the 1970s, the Rocky entered a Joint Operating Agreement with the Post in 2001, agreeing to split production costs and ad revenues and, shockingly, cede the profitable Sunday edition to the competition. To most of its employees and readers, the move was seen as giving up on the Rocky’s prospects instead of trying to keep it alive by beating the competition. Shortly after the announcement of the quasi-merger, my dad had 100 t-shirts printed with a cartoon depicting the newsroom engulfed in the flames of hell, and offered them to his co-workers for ten dollars. “Welcome to the JOA,” the Devil tells an exasperated reporter. The shirts sold out in an hour. The JOA lasted six years.
In December 2008, Scripps Inc., the Rocky’s parent company, half-heartedly put the paper up for sale in the middle of the fiscal crisis, announcing that the paper was losing $15 million a year. Two months later, with no buyers in sight, Scripps closed the Rocky for good. My dad’s last cartoon for the paper depicts a man standing on his porch in his robe, holding his coffee, looking down at an empty sidewalk composed of only two black lines that takes up the bottom two-thirds of the frame. “Where’s my Rocky?” he asks.
A Communal Loss
Looking at that stark cartoon still makes me uneasy, but the paper’s employees and their families aren’t the only ones to feel the loss. To this day, friends in Colorado tell me that the Rocky’s closure has created an information gap in the state. The Denver Post, which was itself struggling to keep open, hired only a handful of the Rocky’s most popular columnists in a bid to win some of the Rocky’s subscribers rather than expand to fill the vacuum. Four years later, only a few remain employed at the Post, which still faces financial trouble of its own.
In a goodbye video produced by the Rocky’s Pulitzer Prize-winning media department, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, then Denver’s mayor, admitted that having two papers in town kept his administration in check:
By having two newspapers compete so voraciously for the news, that there’s a higher opportunity that when there’s corruption, when someone’s doing something wrong, it’s a higher probability that it will get uncovered because there’s just more reporters working harder with a greater sense of urgency to uncover that.
Four years after the paper’s death, Denver government officials still privately echo Hickenlooper’s statements. They tell my father that they simply don’t feel as much pressure to perform as they did when Capitol Hill was swarming with double the number of reporters.
Not For Lack Of Trying
Many articles were written about why the Rocky Mountain News died. Some blamed the failed leadership of the mid-90s that gave back much of the paper’s subscriber lead to the Post. Others took the paper to task for not embracing the digital revolution fast enough. There is some truth to both of these points, but for the most part, the Rocky, lead by John Temple, its last editor-in-chief and publisher, was progressive for a major daily. It was a relatively early adopter of Twitter, joining the service in September 2008. Six months later, the staff live-tweeted the announcement of the paper’s death.
Temple also invested heavily in increasing the paper’s video capabilities, which I experienced firsthand as a line producer during the 2008 Democratic National Convention. The paper produced hundreds of hours of convention video, including one of a Code Pink protester being slammed to the pavement by an over aggressive police officer that went viral on YouTube and was shown on news stations across the country that night. When some conservative commentators began complaining that we had edited the footage to make it look more dramatic, Temple stormed into the media department and demanded an explanation. When he got it, his response was not to pull or modify the video, but to post the uncut version on YouTube along with the photographer’s commentary about what he witnessed.
What killed the Rocky wasn’t a lack of trying, it was a lack of investment. It is an all too common story: Over the years, the Rocky went from being owned by an individual, to a family newspaper chain, to a media conglomerate with little stake in the newspaper business. Unlike the Graham family, which valued the newspaper above everything else and for years allowed the Washington Post Company’s profitable Kaplan education division to subsidize the paper’s declining revenues, the E.W. Scripps company spun off its flailing newspaper division from its profitable TV entertainment business in 2007, just before the financial crisis hit. The writing was on the wall.
Dave Krieger, one of the paper’s most popular sports columnists who moved to the Post but later quit when they were unwilling to let him host a radio show and write for them at the same time, said it best in his final column for the Rocky:
I still don’t get how a newspaper with 200,000 paying subscribers and hundreds of thousands more readers on the Web cannot make a go of it. Obviously, I’m not an MBA.
Not our fault, the suits say. Business model’s fault. So who came up with the business model?
If the Rocky had been stewarded by a journalism-first family like the Grahams or Sulzbergers, owners of the New York Times, it might have survived. It was beating its competition, winning top journalism awards and experimenting with new formats and technologies. If it had weathered the recession and made it just a few more years, Scripps might have found that buyer. The paper, an institution as important to the community as a family member, might still be alive.
The New Gilded Age
Last month, two communities fearing the worst learned that they would not have to mourn the loss of their major dailies the way Denver, Tuscon, Baltimore, Cincinatti, and others did. Instead, both The Boston Globe and The Washington Post were acquired by billionaires: The Globe by John Henry, owner of the Red Sox, and The Post by Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.
Whether or not this represents a new Gilded Age, where the country’s elite “re-invest in the infrastructure of our public intelligence,” as James Fallows writes in The Atlantic, is beyond the scope of this piece (I wrote about Bezos’ potential interest in the publishing business for FastCoLabs). What’s more important is that the papers survived at all, and landed with individuals who have deep enough pockets to fund them and, it seems, little agenda beyond keeping the papers in existence.
Having owners who are willing and capable of investing in them will mean that, unlike the Rocky, the Globe and the Post can continue to experiment until they find something that works. Even under their previous ownership, who valued the papers but were increasingly unable to support them, both the Post and the Globe made strides towards embracing new opportunities and becoming profitable. Both launched modestly successful paywalls, the Globe completed an ambitious responsive website re-design, and the Post released an industry-best API.
In a few years, we may find that these investments were ultimately for naught. It is very possible that the unlikely market forces that combined to create the profitable newspaper company of the last century and a half are gone for good. But it’s also possible that under new, more innovative leadership, with more investment and more time, newspapers will find a way to re-invent themselves for the digital era.
Regardless of what happens to these institutions in the next two years, for the moment, two more newspapers will live to see another day. We can analyze, debate and come to terms with what that means later. Right now, we should celebrate the fact that folks in Washington and Boston are breathing a collective sigh of relief instead of attending a funeral.