Friday, May 15, 2009

A newsprint survivor talks about life at the Rocky Mountain News, and where print media is headed

To add to my ongoing, occasional postings on newspapers, in which I've described some of my experiences as a reporter and examined the shrinking of print newspapers, I wanted to talk to someone who had worked at a newspaper that has closed shop.

It just so happens that one of my high school buddies, Rick Henderson, worked for the recently closed Rocky Mountain News (RMN). He and I recently reconnected via Facebook, and I asked him about what it was like to work for a newspaper that was doomed, and what he thinks will happen to newspapers—and newspaper reporters—now that print media is bleeding advertisers and subscribers.

Although Rick and I are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, we have a lot in common. We both started small press ventures in North Carolina (Rick, The Deregulator, a free tabloid-style paper with a Libertarian focus, and me,
a very small magazine, a tiny literary/vanity pub devoted to parody); we both grew up in Wilkes County, NC; we both went to UNC (though at different times); and we both blog.

Rick worked at RMN as an editorial writer from January 2006 until the paper closed at the end of February this year. Before that he worked for other papers including the Press-Enterprise in Riverside, Calif., and the Review-Journal in Las Vegas, as well as Investor's Business Daily and Reason magazine. Rick now works as the managing editor for
Carolina Journal, where his first article for them, unsurprisingly, is on the demise of print media: The demise of traditional news outlets opens doors for high-quality alternatives. In addition, in March, Rick wrote about the closing of RMN for the National Review

What did you do at the RMN?

I was an editorial writer who also handled some production/pagination duties, solicited op-eds, posted content to the web site, etc. When I started in 2006 there were two other staff writers and my boss who roughly spent half their time writing editorials and the other half writing bylined columns. The two writers retired in 2007 when the paper was cutting staff. So for the final 18 months or so, I was the only full-time editorial writer at the paper, so I typically produced something for print—often the lead editorial—every day.

When did you know that it was the end at RMN? Were there prior warnings for or was it sudden?

In early December 2008, E.W. Scripps Co., the Rocky's owners, announced they were putting the paper up for sale and that if they found no buyers by mid-January they would consider "other options." At that point, I figured it was a matter of time before the paper closed. The paper had offered buyouts to about 20 percent of the newsroom around 18 months before that, and had no difficulty getting takers—a lot of reporters and editors who had been there for 30-plus years and were at or beyond retirement age anyway, so they took the buyouts.

Denver's situation was unusual in that the Rocky and the Denver Post were equal partners in a joint-operating agreement. The Post's owners, MediaNews, were in a world of hurt financially; Scripps was not. MediaNews had acquired pieces of a number of money-losing papers in recent years (in San Jose, Detroit, L.A.). But Scripps had exited several metro markets (including Albuquerque and Cincinnati), and had given every indication it wanted to concentrate on suburban or bedroom communities that might have no local TV station to siphon off ad dollars -- and where its papers were more likely to be profitable in the long term.

The group operating the Denver JOA received $100 million less in ad revenues in 2008 than it did five years earlier. And the Rocky had lost about $18 million in 2008. Scripps made no secret it wanted to cut its losses and leave Denver, even if MediaNews might be teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and might not survive had Scripps subsidized the Rocky's operations another year or so.

Morale remained remarkably high at the paper, even up to the day the paper published its final edition. To be sure there was anger at Scripps, in part because the paper would have celebrated its 150th anniversary in April, and a lot of us were hoping Scripps would keep it afloat at least that long. Plus, the Rocky and the Post had fought some brutal circulation wars over the past 30 years, and the Post won every one because (in perception, anyway), the Post was more eager to fight than Scripps. Aside from that, however, the esprit de corps was remarkable.

What are your ex-colleagues doing?

There were about 220 people in the Rocky's newsroom when the paper closed. So a lot of them are looking for work. About 10 of them were hired by the Post, mainly high-profile metro columnists and reporters. My former boss, the editorial-page editor, was hired as an opinion page columnist; he was pretty influential in the community and is a terrific writer.

Another half-dozen or so got jobs as government PIOs during the paper's final weeks, or went to work for nonprofits. Since I left the area, I'm not sure what most of them are doing now.

What is happening to the blog/web pub that former RMN reporters were trying to put together?

The project tried to operate with 30 employees, online only. Had they signed up 50,000 people to pay $5 a month, then several Colorado investors were reportedly ready to kick in enough capital to make the web site a full-time newsroom. They got more like 3,000 instead. A few of the sparkplugs behind the Web idea are trying to come up with another proposal, but I have no idea if they'll make a go of it. The Rocky Mountain News was deeply loved by its readers, but apparently not so loved that former subscribers were willing to pay a little bit of money to keep a second daily news operation in Denver alive.

Do you think the print newspaper will survive? How do you think people will be getting their daily dose of news in five years?

The demand for the information newspapers produced may be greater now than it ever has been, thanks to the Internet. It's a case of supply creating its own demand -- from newspapers' free online content to web sites dedicated to the news (Politico, for example), blogs, and nonprofits (including my own publication or the Pro Publica outfit).

The challenge for traditional or legacy media organizations is figuring out how to get users to provide enough revenue so that publishers can pay journalists. I'm still not sure whether it was a mistake for newspapers to provide content for free online. Readers never have liked firewalls. It's also easier to just give stuff away, drive up pageviews, and hope you can figure out some way to collect from readers.

The publisher of the Rocky Mountain News, John Temple, has started a blog called Temple Talk where he throws out ideas about how media organizations will establish new business models over time. He's very thoughtful about these issues and believes the traditional newsroom is dead. To survive, he believes a "paper" that might have operated with a 200-person newsroom in 2008 might have to shrink to one-tenth that size and get a lot of its content from amateurs, free-lancers, stringers, etc. The paid staff would primarily be editors/gatekeepers who decide which stories deserve most prominent play and throw a lot of stuff out there with minimal line-by-line oversight.

I think the next few years are extremely worrisome. The media landscape is going to undergo upheaval for another five or ten years as media organizations desperately try to figure out how to attract revenues from online readers. And until then, newspapers, magazines, and even radio and TV stations will continue to reduce staffing. Newsrooms are going to shrink. The recession simply acclerated a downturn that began a few years ago when Craigslist, Yahoo, and other online outlets provided an alternative to traditional media—particularly newspaper classfieds and radio/TV ads of any kind. Even alternative weeklies are struggling because their advertising/revenue base has largely migrated to the Internet.

As a result, there will be less media oversight of large public and private institutions. There will be attempts to fill in that information void from new sources, including nonprofits like the one I work for, which has full-time investigative reporters on staff, along with freelancers. There'll be bloggers who will cover city council meetings, for example. But they won't have the same access to public officials (and whistleblowers/leakers) that newspapers enjoyed, so much more of the operations of institutions will go unreported. At least until people figure out a business model that works for sustainable, local online journalism.

Do you think Internet-based publications are a viable job option for writers/reporters? Are any of them paying well? 

A good friend and former Riverside colleague went to work for a startup political web site Scripps opened (and then closed) last year. So even major media companies with presumably deep pockets are still experimenting with ideas to create commercially viable content providers. And as I mentioned before, mainline media outlets of all varieties are shrinking.

This is a roundabout way of saying Internet publications may or may not be a stable outlet for unemployed traditional journalists. Every situation is different.

I continue to believe community weeklies should remain viable (and could indeed expand) as metro dailies shrink. If I were starting a weekly in a small town or an exurb, I'd publish tons of community-service announcements and do some butt-kicking reporting on local government. And I'd consider putting almost none of my content online. Force people to pick you up and read you; that's the best way to give value to advertisers.

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