'Game over man, game over'

Posted: March 3rd, 2009 | Author: Tyler Dukes | Filed under: journalism | Tags: , , , , | View Comments

co_rmnAs 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.

  • Always with the negative waves, Dukes. Always with the negative waves.

    Nah, in all seriousness, the death of the Rocky was a blow to print journalism. Here is a newspaper that was doing everything right and got the recognition for it.

    In this climate, Denver just can't support two daily newspapers. It's a shame, too, since the Rocky is clearly the better product.

    Good, quality journalism, like the one the Rocky produced, takes time, patience and money. No blogger in the world can come up with the packages like Final Salute unless they are independently wealthy and have the time and professionals dedicated to working on it.

    The thinking has to shift now. Journalism always has been about public service, but it lives in the business world. It has to. Government-run media goes against the First Amendment and the idea of a free press anyway.

    But if advertising revenues continue to drop, newsrooms will contiune to recede, and newspapers will fold.

    So let's drop the business charade altogether. Let's call ourselves what we are -- public servants, just like any politician or bureaucrat.

    And let's get out of the private sector. Screw Wall Street and the investors. Part of the reason we are in this mess to begin with is because Wall Street wants 20-percent profit margins. No industry gets anything like that anymore. You're doing well to get 8 percent.

    Eff the dirty banker swine. Let them smother under the weight of their greediness and toxic debt.

    But I digress.

    I say break up the big newspaper companies -- Gannett, Tribune, McClatchy -- and give the constituent newspapers a choice: Form a small group (strength in small numbers) and go non-profit or stike out on your own.

    There are upsides and downsides to this, and those would have to be worked out. But this idea that a community daily has to drain its coffers to support a dying metro is insane and counterproductive.

    It is a bad business model and reinforces the status quo, instead of allowing for quick thinking and action and nimbleness in a shifting economic environment.

    Yes, there will be newspapers that won't make it and they will fold, but I think if newspapers are given more local control by casting off their corporate chains, they will be in a far better position than they are now.

    We also have to figure out how to monetize content that people are getting, and expect to get, for free. I propose we start charging aggregate sites, like Google, send a penny or a dime back to the newspapers, every time they post a link on the News feed.

    Business talk aside, from here on out, instead of wallowing in the doom and gloom, we have to think about ourselves as indispensible, then go out and act like it.
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