Rocky Mountain News closes; is this just the beginning?
News that Denver's Rocky Mountain News closed its doors today after failing to find a buyer has hit the journalism world like a death in the family.
The implications are obvious: As the No. 2 paper in a substantially sized metropolitan area, the Rocky closes as a warning to news consumers. The few cities lucky enough to have two newspapers are on notice that the situation may not last long, including Seattle, Philadelphia, Chicago, Minneapolis and, of course, the Tampa Bay area.
Industry experts have looked at our market -- which houses the Bradenton Herald, Lakeland Ledger and Sarasota Herald-Tribune in addition to the Tampa Tribune and St. Petersburg Times -- and wondered how one metropolitan area could support so many newspapers. The Associated Press notes that Joint Operating Agreements which allowed secondary newspapers to share resources with the market leaders are likely endangered.
It's also an uncomfortable reminder of how our current media structure stretches like a pyramid in reverse -- with a wide-ranging spread of platforms and products based on the information unearthed by the only business that still sends out dozens of reporters to dig up stories in a community: the local newspaper.
As a photojournalist friend of mine noted this morning, Google added insult to injury by choosing this week to start displaying paid ads on its Google News site -- making money from the acres of free newspaper stories it aggregates for readers from the Web sites of newspapers all over the world. It's a new wrinkle on an old story; newspapers need to be on the Internet, because their readers are there, but no one wants to pay for online newspaper content, and once the information is released there, any entrepreneur can grab it for their own moneymaking schemes.
Circumstance has produced a perfect storm of calamity, with online sources demolishing the classified ads business just as the recession hit major advertisers such as auto dealers and real estate; changing reader tastes have pushed consumers online where newspapers receive a fraction of the advertising revenue; and expenses such as health care, newsprint and pension benefits skyrocket.
After losing $16 million last year, the Rocky's owner E.W. Scripps Co. tried to sell the company to no avail. At a time when recent months have seen four owners of 33 newspapers declare bankruptcy, the Denver newspaper's end came swiftly, with a handful of staffers hired by the surviving Denver Post and promises to pay those left unemployed until April.
More than 15 years ago, I worked for another Scripps paper that died an untimely death, the Pittsburgh Press, then the city's biggest newspaper. What killed the Press was a high-profile attempt to displace the Teamsters as our delivery drivers and transition to the system of independent contractors every newspaper now uses. The Teamsters called a strike in a union town, and the resulting controversy forced Scripps to sell to the competition, the Post-Gazette.
I was among a lucky 85 or so staffers who transferred. But I'll never forget helping one displaced columnist carry her stuff to her car -- a couple of boxes filled with mementos accumulated over nearly 40 years working there. It felt a little like walking someone out to a firing squad.
And as much as I hope it doesn't get uglier than this for newspapers, I've got feeling we're at the precipice of a seriously difficult time. Check out this video on the newspaper's final days below.