April 19, 2018

RIP Rocky Mountain News

The Rocky Morning News, Colorado’s oldest newspaper, closed its doors Friday. On their front page they have this incredibly touching video:

Final Edition from Matthew Roberts on Vimeo.

The closing of a large institution like a daily newspaper is an incredibly sad event, and my heart goes out to all the people who suddenly find their lives upended by sudden unemployment. Many talented and dedicated employees lost their jobs today, and some of them will have to scramble to salvage their careers and support their families. The video does a great job of capturing the shock and sadness that the employees of the paper feel—not just because they lost their jobs, but also because in some sense they’re losing their life’s work.

With that said, I do think it’s unfortunate that part of the video was spent badmouthing people, like me, who don’t subscribe to newspapers. One gets the impression that newspapers are failing because kids these days are so obsessed with swapping gossip on MySpace that they’ve stopped reading “real” news. No doubt, some people fit that description, but I think the more common case is something like the opposite: those of us with the most voracious appetite for news have learned that newsprint simply can’t compete with the web for breadth, depth, or timeliness. When I pick up a newspaper, I’m struck by how limited it is: the stories are 12 to 36 hours old, the range of topics covered is fairly narrow, and there’s no way to dig deeper on the stories that interest me most. That’s not the fault of the newspaper’s editors and reporters; newsprint is just an inherently limited medium.

As more newspapers go out of business in the coming years, I think it’s important that our sympathy for individual employees not translate into the fetishization of newsprint as a medium. And it’s especially important that we not confuse newsprint as a medium with journalism as a profession. Newsprint and journalism have been strongly associated in the past, but this an accident of technology, not something inherent to journalism. Journalism—the process of gathering, summarizing, and disseminating information about current events—has been greatly enriched by the Internet. Journalists have vastly more tools available for gathering the news, and much more flexible tools for disseminating it. The replacement of static newspapers with dynamic web pages is progress.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not a painful process. The web’s advantages are no consolation for Rocky employees who have spent their careers building skills connected to a declining technology. And the technical superiority of web will be of little consolation to Denver area readers who will, in the short run, have less news and information available about their local communities. So my thoughts and sympathy today are with the employees of the Rocky Mountain News.

Comments

  1. I R A Darth Aggie says:

    I’m sure the horse & carriage employees where plenty peeved about that new fangled horseless carriage. Not to mention the folks who raised horses for sale, the farriers, the blacksmiths, the stable boys and the veternarians who where also gainfully employed.

    However, this is only the first of many newspaper closings. The Seattle P-I is for sale, and if a sale can not be made, it’ll close its doors as well. I’ve also heard that a San Francisco paper (the Chronicle?) is in trouble and up for sale and will also close if not sold. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the McClatchy chain have major issues.

    • internet news says:

      I enjoy reading internet news. I think that newspapers and especially The Rocky Morning News, Colorado’s oldest newspaper are part of the history.

  2. Chris Durand says:

    I also often see the newspaper at work and am stuck by how “old” the news is. The interesting thing going forward will be to see how internet-based reporting is able to deliver local news and in-depth stories to fill the voids left by traditional newspaper reporting.

  3. Mitch Golden says:

    While I agree with these sentiments, the question is we have to answer is whether all the news we get from the internet is actually coming first and foremost from these old-line media outlets. If they are the ones who, beneath all the indexing and repackaging provided by news.google.com and the like, are actually doing the research and reporting, then as these newspapers fold, the choice may be old news or new news, it’s newspapers or no news.

    • Google News indexes content from CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, the BBC, NPR, PBS, the Economist, Time, Newsweek, CNet, Slate, and Bloomberg News. None of these news sources face the same economic constraints as the major newspapers. And that’s not counting up-and-coming news sources like TPM, the Huffington Post, the Politico, and hundreds of niche sites covering specific topics. Even if all the newspapers went out of business tomorrow there’d still be plenty for Google to index, and there’s still time for web-based sources to grow and mature while the newspapers shrink.

      • Mitch Golden says:

        Yes, but… In your list you have mixed different kinds of enterprises. Some (e.g. The Huffington Post, Slate, TPM and arguably Politico) are opinion journals. These use the newspapers’ reportage as input (and therefore they cost much less than a newspaper to run – anyone can have an opinion). The TV networks are generally followers of print journalism and have generally have much smaller staffs than newspapers.

        Contrary to your assertion, many of these other outlets are in their own financial difficulties as well. Network television in general is just a step or two behind the newspapers, and their news divisions have never been profit centers (see e.g. this article from Monday’s NY Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/28/business/media/28network.html) . Newsweek Magazine loses money and is planning a major rework in order to stay afloat, likely turning into another opinion journal (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/09/business/media/09newsweek.htm) Magazines, like newspapers, have seen their circulations and ad base collapse.

        Opinion journals and TV will not make up for the kind of reporting once done by newspapers. There is no doubt that the city of Denver now has a significantly smaller number of professional reporters covering it, and the public will suffer.

        It may be that in the end whoever is left standing – blogs and NPR – are able to deploy the resources that the newspapers once fielded. Given the low rates for online advertisements and the resistance of the public for paying for news, I am not optimistic.

        • I don’t think your distinction between news sites and opinion journals makes a lot of sense. Slate and TPM both do a mix of news gathering and opinion. Slate’s John Dickerson, for example, does the same kind of campaign reporting that you’ll find in traditional newspapers, and TPM did much of the investigative work behind the US attorney’s scandal. Conversely, newspapers have editorial pages. So I don’t see the distinction.

          Nor am I particularly worried that some non-newspaper news organizations are struggling to make ends meet. I suspect the low profitability of the news industry is a symptom of the growth of the news industry over the last decade or two. There are dramatically more firms in the market than there used to be. And as in any other industry, more competition means lower profits. Once some of those firms shrink or go out of business, competition will become less intense and the remaining firms will be more profitable.

          • Mitch Golden says:

            I don’t know why you say that the news industry has grown over the last decade. The number of active reporters is significantly lower than it was 10 or 20 years ago. Bureaus have closed around the world, and journalism in general has downsized. More reporting is done by newspapers than any other medium, so the crisis in newspaper publishing makes this particularly acute.

            Yes, opinion journals sometimes do reporting, and yes newspapers have editorials and op-ed pages. That does not mean that there is no distinction. The Huffington Post, for example, does not have a staff of paid reporters covering various beats. They have a stable of editorialists who get paid (sometimes) to write opinion pieces. The only reason those authors know what is going on in order to editorialize is because they read the papers.

            The biggest names in journalism, The NY Times, the Washington Post, the LA Times, are all in quite dire financial shape. Despite your assurances, the fact is that there is *no* institution that could fill their shoes if they disappear.

          • Again, “news” is not synonymous with newspapers. There are now half a dozen 24-hour cable news channels that didn’t even exist 30 years ago. And there are a ton of new Internet-based news sources. Many of the Internet-based outlets and all of the cable news channels do original reporting. The reason newspapers have trimmed back over the last couple of decades is precisely because they’re facing more competition than they ever have before.

          • Mitch Golden says:

            I am not claiming that news is synonymous with newspapers. What I said is that news overall has shrunk. The news staffs of the major networks have declined, in some cases drastically, newspapers are collapsing, and even the newsweeklies (Time and Newsweek) are struggling, and may disappear.

            The cable networks (the ones that aren’t just piggybacking off an allied major network, such as NBC) all have small reporting staffs. The blogs and other internet-based outlets you cite only occasionally do reporting (yes, they do some) the obvious reason being that they all have very small revenues.

            Here is an example: An article in the NY Times about the number of reporters covering Albany: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/08/nyregion/08press.html If the cable networks and online journals were filling the void left by newspapers and other traditional media, what this article reports would not be happening.

            The reasons for all of this is not far to find, and it isn’t competition from new news outlets. The reasons are (a) there are many more places to advertise than there were 30 years ago, when the newspapers, radio and TV were pretty much all there were, and (b) the public is wary of paying for content on the internet. Internet ad rates are a tiny fraction of what they were on radio and TV. The net effect has been to harm *all* of news gathering. Newspapers are the worst hit, but all of news is not far behind.

            To bolster your case, why don’t you find something you can cite that shows the number of reporters actually employed in anything you consider a news source. I bet you won’t be able to find anything that even shows that the number is flat.

          • Anonymous says:

            Perhaps the number of reporters covering Albany has dropped because the number *needed* has dropped? Many of the same Internet tools, particularly Google, mentioned previously can make a journalist much more efficient, as they can get a lot more done before having to set foot out of doors or pay more than a few nickles for coffee and bandwidth. Once they do hit the road, they will have a short list of targets in mind, where once they may have had to poke around more blindly, or go to a physical archive and fiddle with the focus knob on a microfilm machine for hours.

            If newsgathering has indeed become more efficient, it takes fewer journalists now to gather a given quantity of news, and it shouldn’t surprise us if fewer are now being employed. Much the way there are fewer people employed in shoe manufacture per capita than there were before the mechanization of shoemaking.

            Google alone has automated enough tasks journalists once had to do manually as to significantly reduce the amount of human labor required to gather a given amount of news.

            Add to that the ubiquity of cell-phones (journalists seeking to talk to a willing interviewee may be able to reach them immediately by phone instead of waiting, playing phone-tag, or calling around half a dozen places where the interviewee might be) and other modern conveniences that streamline all work processes involving communicating with other people.

            Even just having computerized full-text search of archived material within a news organization will have boosted journalists’ productivity, before Google. If you look back you might find a drop in journalists (and a much bigger one in research assistants and similar positions) going back as far as the late 80s, from this cause alone, in organizations that computerized their offices and early, especially those that scanned in their paper archives at the time. But even those that didn’t; when writing a followup to a two-week-old story, digging that back up again would be simple even if only the material written since computerization was indexed and searchable on the company network, and the most common things to refer back to are from the past few weeks, not from the Reagan Administration. 🙂

          • Mitch Golden says:

            Before, the claim was that the journalists that used to work for newspapers are being replaced by those in new media outlets (and others). Now, you’re saying that efficiencies are reducing the numbers of reporters.

            There are doubtless new efficiencies in journalism. However, most journalists will tell you that it has nothing to do with what is going on. The problem is that revenue is declining throughout journalism, as competition for eyeballs from new channels (not just news) lowers the price of advertising. To top it off, consumers are unwilling to pay for news content (see the front page of today’s NY Times business section, for example). Young people especially do not read newspapers, and so revenue is collapsing.

            It is possible that within a year or two, San Francisco will be a city with *no* daily newspaper. There will be lots of things that happen in the city that have *no one* covering them. This is not the result of efficiencies or competition from new news outlets. It will leave the people of San Francisco less informed about what is happening in their city.

          • Anonymous says:

            Bull! If there’s market demand for this information, the market will supply it. It just may not do so through big heavy inefficient bundles of awkward-to-use paper with ink that comes off all-too-easily.

  4. Anonymous says:

    C’est bizarre: spam arabe sur un blog anglais.

  5. Mark Christiansen says:

    Newsprint is fading fast as has been apparent for quite some time. The local newspaper model of a little revenue from per copy sales and a lot from local advertising fades with it. Where will the money come from? The web is a better delivery medium but you need something to deliver. Research and writing take time and money. The money has to come from somewhere.

    Are the web editions of newspapers able to pay the bills? The need for local and regional advertising isn’t going away. Has anyone made a success of simply moving the old newspaper formula on the web? It may not work so well on items of national interest but national papers have always taken a lot of that business anyway. Here in Boston the New York Times is widely available and widely read, the local papers have always had this competition.

    • Advertising is going away.

      OK, not going away, but you have free sources like Craigslist clobbering the classifieds, you have web formats that make decent display ads impossible. You have adblockers, you have people who will search for their own darn needs instead of consuming ads. So advertising as it has been is undergoing a sea change as well.

      What we’ve got is Baumol’s law: things done by people get more and more expensive relative to things done by machine as mechanization proceeds. So eventually you’re going to need a flow of funds from the aggregators and indexers to the actual fact-gatherers, or the fact-gathering will go away, like one of those predator-prey population graphs.

  6. Anonymous says:

    The way newspapers can compete with new media is to deliver slow news – that’s what their format is optimal for. You know, stuff you can really use time on like in-depth analysis and fully covering all sides of the issue, which is to me what the traditional journalism is all about. Of course that means more than just parroting stuff people write on internet forums.

  7. The way I see it, this is yet another example of cutting out the middle-man facilitated by improved communication systems.

    Traditional news (including all newspaper articles) is a SECONDARY news source (at best). Reporters go somewhere, see something, then write about it and you get to read what the reporter thought you should know. This process introduces bias (and don’t even start to pretend that the owner of a newspaper has no influence on the stories that come out) and it introduces filtering (some issues simply don’t get talked about). Plus it is expensive, because the middle man wants his slice of pie.

    That’s the BEST case scenario. In the less ideal but more common situation, lazy papers simply cut-and-paste from a handy Reuters feed (and then google news groups them all up, so you can see just how much diversity we don’t have in our media) or they rehash what some other news outlet was saying yesterday. In other cases the official media-managers of either a government department or a major corporation pumps out a “press release” and the newspapers just slurp up those press releases and splot it back out as an “original” story, usually with minimal fact checking and little to no critical consideration. Bigger attention to your product in the news articles if you also buy advertising space. We could lose between half and three quarters of the newspapers out there and the google aggregrator would have exactly the same stories, just less copies of each.

    Although we see reduction in the number of professional reporters, we also see a rise in the number of PRIMARY news sources. For example, most state police forces put out regular press releases on recent crime issues or safety advice. These days they feed those press releases to a web page and/or RSS feeder and I don’t need some newspaper hound to go find that, I can check it myself any time I like. When there’s an issue being debated in Australian parliament, the entire debate is up on the parliament house website not long after it happened, I can read it myself. Better yet, I can index by keyword, or date, or a bunch of other stuff and only read the bits that interest me. If I want to check how the economy is doing, I can go straight to the various government statistics and get the most up to date data available.

    If I want the weather, I go straight to the Bureau of Meteorology and I get forecasts, storm warnings, and satellite photos, I can see the clouds and the rain and even lightning strikes as they happen. That’s my tax dollars at work, so why pay extra for a newspaper to read it back to me?

    I get vastly better access to information right now without any newspapers than I ever did get by reading a paper, and I get it more directly, with less filtering. Of course, when I want opinions I have blogs to go to and hyperlinks to back up those opinions with real-world data.

    It’s no wonder the video above puts effort into badmouthing people, because the other alternative is to admit that reporters were never the real engine behind newspaper success. What we are discovering is that the majority of the value proposition in a newspaper was owning the distribution channel, and that value is gone because better, more direct channels have been built. Time to move on guys…