As Denver's Rocky Mountain News clings to life, future of journalism unclear
December 5, 2008 —
The ski world is focused on this weekend’s Birds of Prey World Cup (and the opening of Vail’s Back Bowls this Saturday). The cable-news world is focused on the “Big Three” auto companies wrangling with Congress for a bailout package.
But in Colorado’s world of journalists and editors, freelancers and photographers, the whopping-big news of this week is the announcement that the Rocky Mountain News, Colorado’s longest continually-operated business, is up for sale.
Another “Gray Lady” is heading toward the grave, and only a last-minute deal can save her from extinction. E.W. Scripps CEO Rich Boehne made the announcement in the Rocky newsroom Dec. 4 that the paper was up for sale, and added that if a sale isn’t made within four-to-six weeks (a very short time to sell a major newspaper), then the Rocky may close its doors.
If she does go down, she won’t be the first – or the last – major metro newspaper in the nation to succumb to market forces. Even in 2004, when the economy was booming, the mighty Los Angeles Times offered buyouts to employees. Olympic attendance by reporters, another mark of a newspaper’s budget, was limited to a handful of American newspapers as editorial rooms increase reliance upon Associated Press reporting. And even the legendary Dow Jones, which owns the Wall Street Journal, was forced to sell out to media mogul Rupurt Murdoch.
The signs of the Rocky’s ill health have been nearly omnipresent since the announcement of the JOA (Joint Operating Agreement) between the Rocky and the Denver Post in 2001. This reached an apogee on July 2, 2008, in a column by David Milstead in the Rocky which stated that, “It’s time to admit that we can no longer be a two-newspaper town.”
Those sentiments came home with tremendous force today when the Rocky quoted its former editor, Michael Howard, as saying it is, “inevitable we were headed toward a one-newspaper town. It’s very sad.”
Milstead’s column has been posted on my refrigerator since it was posted. It’s a reminder, in no uncertain terms, that the future of my profession is terminally uncertain.
After all, I have been freelancing for the Rocky for exactly eight years, filing my first report for them when Picabo Street was in Beaver Creek for World Cup ski training. In that time I have written for virtually every section of the paper, from education to business, sports to outdoors, city desk to arts and entertainment and, yes, even some web-only assignments.
And the web is where the crux of the matter lies. Even now, as I write this, I may be contributing to the demise of my own profession.
Small sites like realvail.com, and larger sites like the Huffington Post and Colorado Independent, are taking a huge bite out of newspaper readership. As these sites grow, the Rocky Mountain News’ weekend circulation was 591,000 in March of 2005, compared to 457,000 in September of ’08.
Aye, but here’s the rub: web readership is failing to bring in the needed cash to keep operations afloat. The New York Times site, for example, has about 13 million unique visits per month, compared to 787,000 nationwide subscribers to the print publication – however the web only accounted for a paltry 13 percent of revenue in August of 2008.
Along with sagging readership, the Rocky and other papers are faced with the enormous energy costs of printing and distributing newspapers, not to mention holding onto staffs like the Rocky’s 232 newsroom employees. On the web, however, it’s a matter of technical knowledge and time – not material costs. If you understand what this means: img src="photo" border="1" alt="descofphoto" width="215" class="image_right"/ then you can more-or-less post something on the web.
Which is why a small group of journalists and locals from Vail, Colorado, can afford to put out an online publication like realvail.com. Unlike the behemoth, slow-moving media companies of old, new media’s strength doesn’t come from our dollar-value capital; it comes from our intellectual capital. We write legit journalistic stories, we post blogs, we take photos, we make videos, we design and we publish. Then we sell ads.
Remove personnel costs and our operation is run for mere pennies.
Sounds great, right?
Well, it still doesn’t work, exactly.
The equations which describe the journalistic universe aren’t balancing. Like Einstien, who was forced to add the arbitrary “gravitational constant” to his Theory of Relativity in order to see it function, journalists must add funky variables to their lives to make the business of providing information add up.
And for some of us, the Rocky is key to that equation, because RealVail doesn’t pay all the bills. Sure, it pays its own bills, and in terms of percentage of profit over money invested, RealVail has been a wild success. We have a solid core of dedicated readers, and we are the perfect site for people who are on their way to, or just coming from, Vail and Beaver Creek, and who want to stay in touch with the vibrant, beautiful, outdoor-oriented lifestyle here.
We’ve also received tremendous support from advertisers (and, ahem, of course I highly encourage you to visit their sites and help support our sponsors).
But just as the New York Times online sales cannot support its staff, RealVail’s ad sales aren’t enough to provide its staff with full-time work. The current economic turbulence hasn’t helped. So in my other life I’m a newspaper mercenary, a union-buster, a “stringer” as they say, waiting with cell phone in hand for that call from the newsroom’s central headquarters, where a covey of editors call me to do the dirty work that the Rocky’s staffers don’t want or don’t have time for. And I eagerly accept, knowing that fresh clips in a major metro are still important in this business, and knowing that I need outside dollars to stay afloat.
RealVail is a part-time gig, a labor of love, a passion and a dream that we think will one day blossom into a larger full-time gig – just as soon as the industry works out this annoying little discrepancy in online readership vs online ad revenue.
And by creating it, filling it with content, and giving it the largest journalistic teeth we possibly can, we have also simultaneously taken a bite out of the hand that feeds us: The Rocky Mountain News.
It’s cannibalistic. It cannot last. The event horizon is approaching.
And what comes next?
Denver will soon be a one major-metro newspaper town (I am not counting, of course, the tiny, free, Denver Daily News and the alt weekly Westword, among other little pubs around Denver and the state).
In Vail, even free dailies like the Vail Mountaineer and the Vail Daily must bear the burden of print and distribution costs. The existence of those two papers in our little community cannot last more than a few years without a serious propping-up from Swift, which owns the Daily, or Jim Pavelich, who owns the Mountaineer(and, BTW, the Denver Daily News).
As for RealVail, and other sites like it, we’re not going away. We care too much about doing, ah, what I’m doing right now, writing, talking out loud, and posting our thoughts about Vail and the world at large without – and this is key – without the big, bad, overlords of major media breathing down our necks.
We are small, we are a bit raw and uncut, but we’re straight from the heart of the real Vail.
And to print and distribute this story to you, the precious web readers, costs a bit of time, a lot of thought, plus a few cents on my electrical bill. The rest is the push of a button.
And though I love the Gray Lady, she simply can’t compete with that.
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