The Rocky Mountain News’ closure gives me pause

The final front page of the Rocky Mountain News, Feb. 27, 2009We all live our lives way too fast. We rush to work, work at a fast clip, rush home and barely get a chance to chill out before, as a wimpy ’70s singer-songwriter once crooned, “we get up and do it again.”

So the death of the Rocky Mountain News, like the death of a close friend or family member, has given me pause. It’s making me reflect a bit on my own mortality: as a news junkie, journalist, writer, Internet geek and human being.

First of all, I feel terrible about the Rocky’s closing. I feel worse — a lot worse — than I thought I’d feel. It’s a business decision. But it affects hundreds of people, many of whom I know. In fact, I’ve known some of the staff at the Rocky for almost 30 years. In between jobs, I’ve written more freelance stories for the Rocky than for The Denver Post, the newspaper that’s left standing in Denver.

Now I work for MediaNews Group Interactive, the online operation of the Denver Post’s parent company. People — especially bloggers who cover the media — like to throw barbs at MediaNews and its owner, Denver-based Dean Singleton because he buys up newspapers and usually trims their operations to make them more profitable. “More profitable” of course is a relative term these days. Maybe we should settle for “less unprofitable” in these terrible economic times.

Anyway, I don’t interact much with Singleton, but I’ve met him and spoken to him. I’ve worked for his company before now, when I ran the DenverPost.com website for several years. His company isn’t known as the most generous in terms of pay. And everyone has to work hard in a streamlined newsroom… maybe harder than they may have at other companies. But I think he’s just a smart businessman, and does what he needs to keep running newspapers.

I believe him when he says he loves newspapers — PAPERS, the old-fashioned dead-tree print editions — because he came out of the era of powerful newspapers.

I also believe him when he says he knows the future is digital, and hope we have the opportunity to prove it on the interactive side of the company.

The Rocky’s shutdown has reminded me that although I’m not quite an “ink-stained wretch” like some of those journalists who’ve been at it for many more years than me, and who truly have ink in their blood, my identity is deeply invested in journalism, both traditional and “new media.”

Just as the industry is in the midst of a tumultuous transition between the old and the new, I’ve been incredibly lucky to have a career that spans the ink-on-paper past and the online future.

As a kid in Northern Virginia in the late 1960s and early ’70s, I delivered the Washington Post with my older brother (with lots of help and driving from our parents). I delivered the Post the day the first Woodward and Bernstein story about Watergate ran.

As a teenager, I wrote for the Paragon, the Alameda High School student newspaper in Lakewood, Colorado, but I also drew editorial cartoons and a comic strip, and I was a staff photographer.

My first job after art school was about art but not really an art job: I wrote about art (and music) for the Colorado Daily, a small community newspaper in Boulder that MNG ironically now owns, as of yesterday.

A year later, I became the music critic for Denver’s young alternative newspaper, Westword. I spent a decade there honing my chops, becoming a better writer, evolving from a rock critic to a reporter under the tutelage of the feisty weekly’s iconic editor, Patty Calhoun.

In the 1990s I spent a stint freelancing for magazines and helping to launch a radio show, “eTown.” Then I took a gig as Entertainment Editor for the Colorado Springs Gazette, which I enjoyed very much. I ran the section and also wrote lots of arts and music articles.

As it turned out, the Gazette was one of the first American newspapers to venture into the new world of the Internet, and when it launched its website in 1993, the bosses walked through the newsroom and said any staffer could have a free Internet account. I already had CompuServe and AOL accounts at the time, but I wasn’t about to turn down a free account from the paper’s Web host. I was one of only two people who raised their hand.

Since 1996, I’ve been working online, for AOL as well as a (long) list of Internet startups, always basicvally doing journalism, with titles such as Content Editor or Executive Producer. I got the title “Content Poohbah” on one business card. Ah, the wacky early days of the Net.

I even spent a few months as a night copy editor at the Rocky Mountain News (talk about ink-stained wretches, there’s nothing like a crew of cynical, jaded, veteran journalists trading jabs and jokes as they craft late-night headlines for the morning paper). In between gigs, I’ve freelanced for all sorts of publications, including the Rocky and Post (but a lot more for the Rocky).

So when I ended up running DenverPost.com in 2003, I was coming home in a way, to journalism. In 2006 I went to work for Advance Publications, a New Jersey-based company that owns a handful of major newspapers around the country, like the Newark Star-Ledger, New Orleans Times-Picayune and Portland Oregonian.

I returned to Denver to spend a year and a half working for Examiner.com, which owns two newspapers (three at the time) including the current incarnation of the once-mighty San Francisco Examiner, before landing at MediaNews Group Interactive.

I’m passionate about the Internet, but I identify as a writer and journalist first. If I don’t have ink in my veins, I do have it smeared on me. I guess I am an ink-stained wretch after all.

I’m not foolish enough to think the turmoil in the news media industry is almost over. It’s just beginning. The recession has simply accelerated the downward spiral of the newspaper industry and sped up what may have taken three, four or five years to a span of three months, and I think it’s like a high school dance: everyone has their eyes on the dancefloor, waiting for the first couple brave (or foolish) enough to stumble out there and begin swaying to the music.

I fear that once a few newspapers shut down, companies will feel it’s more acceptable to bite the bullet, face the flurry of embarrassing coverage and shut down pepers that are bleeding money, then move on.

It’s a fact of life in an uncertain economy. We’ve followed stories for years about rustbelt factory shutting down, and people put out on the street. We all nod our heads in sympathy if not empathy, when we read about hundreds of auto workers across America, or thousands of technology workers n Japan, or millions of assemblers in China, are laid off. We’re used to his news.

But it feels different when it happens in your own town; to a company that’s just four floors below in a brand-new shiny building in downtown Denver; where you know a whole bunch of people and where you’ve dreaded seeing them in the elevators for two months, because you don’t know what to say besides “How’s it going?”

“How do you think it’s going,” snapped on journalist weeks ago, not long after E.W. Scripps announced the likelihood of a shutdown.

“Oh, not too bad,,” sighed one old friend yesterday when I saw him in the lobby. He — and others — admitted that it was better in a way to know it was finally over. They’d been living day to day, week to week, since mid-December, over the fate of their livelihoods.

Some Rocky reporters had turned down jobs at other companies, and many had held off even looking for work, because they weren’t sure — really sure — whether the paper would fold. One woman turned down a great job offer because the News was still in business. It’s too late for her to jump ship — that opening was filled after the third time she asked the new company to wait a little longer.

It’s not even close to an understatement to say we’re in a time of extreme turmoil in the newspaper industry. Like a devastating earthquake, the industry shuddered in Denver yesterday and we lost a fine newspaper just short of its 150th birthday, with over 200 fine journalists.

It won’t be the last jolt. If we don’t find new ways to do business, or better ways to tell stories, or choose better stories to tell, we’re all going to be swallowed up by the temblors.

I make a living thinking about this stuff, but often at digital-age speed. Maybe it’s time to slow down, take a breath and really think about media, this industry, my career, my friends and family, and how fragile all our lives can be. Maybe if we pause to reflect more about the future and value the past, instead of living in the blink of the moment, the answer will come to us.

I sure hope so.

Update: No sooner do I approve this blog post than I see this article on C|Net, about Cablevision, the new owners of the Long Island newspaper Newsday, and their plans to charge for access to the newspaper’s website. Apparently the San Francisco Chronicle, a paper in dire financial danger, has also announced plans to charge for online content.

I don’t know about SFGate, the Chronicle’s well-regarded website. But Cablevision at least already has a customer base that’s used to paying for content. So if they want to bundle online subscriptions for an extra $5 a month or something, I don’t think cable subscribers would blink… much.

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3 Responses to The Rocky Mountain News’ closure gives me pause

  1. Ean Arth says:

    Gil- thanks for the insightful article. i think most folks don’t realize how intertwined the Rocky Mountain News is to the very fabric of Colorado itself…as they say, “you don’t know what you’re missing ’til it’s gone.” R.I.P.-RMN

  2. eric says:

    Gil,
    Someone brought up the idea of going the non-profit route as a way to save newspapers..what do you think about that?

  3. Gil Asakawa says:

    There probably is a place for a news org that’s funded as a non-profit. Look at PBS and NPR, as well as the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, which owns and operates the St. Petersburg Times, a fine newspaper. I suppose some of that will happen in the future. But given the economic crisis now, most 501(c) 3 organizations are struggle to survive themselves. Maybe some foundation or a trust could be set up by a wealthy patron of newspapers. I bet every possible avenue will be tried in the years to come….

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