As most people have already heard, The Rocky Mountain News went the way of the successful Wall Street trader and published its last issue on Friday. The move came after a month-long attempt by owner E.W. Scripps Co. to sell the Colorado tabloid.
Being the cynical, often disinterested guy I am, I didn’t think I’d be affected by the paper’s closure like I was.
It’s not that I didn’t expect it.
I’ve been in a lot of the arguments over the years about whether newspapers and journalism are dying and I try to keep up as best I can with the blackness that is the state of the industry. I read Romenesko religiously, I keep in touch with all my furloughed friends and I watch the increasingly prophetic earnings reports from the major media companies. But like all good journalists who express their feelings through alcohol consumption, I tried not to let the bad news get to me.
I’ve had a mantra about the death of newspapers since I got interested in telling stories through multimedia — don’t mourn the medium.
If newspapers die, so be it. If they can’t keep up, can’t evolve and can’t connect with their audience in a meaningful way, they don’t deserve to be in business. In their absence, other writers and storytellers who can and will engage their audiences effectively will spring up and do the job the newspapers should have been doing in the first place.
That was my thinking anyway. And there certainly are a number of major metro dailies that don’t do a good job creating a dialogue with the community — those whose deep budget cuts are affecting the quality of the paper and its ability to be a successful informant for the community.
But the Rocky wasn’t one of them.
Let me just say that I have never lived in or even visited Colorado — I believe places where average winter temperatures dip below freezing weren’t meant for people. But despite my aversion to the land of hiking, kayaking, rock climbing and other adventurous things I am too lazy and out of shape to do, I have had a deep appreciation for the Rocky ever since I watched its award-winning report called Final Salute.
The story, paired with an audio slideshow, brought tears to my eyes the first time I saw it. Every time I watched it, I was amazed at how effectively the story was told through audio and still photos. I couldn’t imagine the time the reporter and photographer had taken to get their sources to trust them, how long they spent getting the information and emotion to make this piece complete.
It was a beautifully illustrative example of the power of journalism, and it was what inspired me to believe that the stories I told could have an impact on people’s lives. That single project from a newspaper that wasn’t even mine made me want to be a multimedia journalist.
Now, it seems, the conversation has intensified over whether bloggers, citizen journalists and community reporters can really replace the time and care taken by newspaper reporters to cultivate big stories. And as far as online ad revenue is concerned, research firm IDC is predicting a 5 percent decline in ad revenue in the first quarter of 2009 — a far cry from the 10 percent growth projected earlier. That means some of these new media business models won’t be sustainable.
I’m questioning my mantra, and my face-saving thoughts about the future of journalism, if for no other reason than the global recession.
Newspapers and journalism were doing bad enough already. The inability of many news organizations to adapt to this new media climate has put them into a nosedive toward failure, even as the corporate news execs litter their memos with fodder for buzzword bingo. Some organizations have done their best to pull out of the downward spiral, but the economic downturn has unfortunately elevated the ground level and has made disaster almost inevitable.
So how does the news offer quality, in-depth, investigative reporting that creates a more informed audience? Television news certainly can’t do it. Even with the good ones, the best they can offer are sensational scare stories “you can’t afford want to miss.” I love blogs, but their value is often in breaking news and dialogue, not in-depth analysis that takes a lot of time.
My concern is that these long-tail stories no longer fit into the business plans of new media companies. They are what made newspapers so valuable, not the print and ink.
If we can find a way to sustain them, maybe we don’t have to mourn the medium.