Saturday, February 28, 2009

A Rocky Future for Newspapers?

Lent is a time for serious reflection and spiritual renewal, and it can be a time for reordering of a person's life priorities. Certainly it is becoming this for me. It can also be a period of serious shock, when a person comes to understand that things cannot remain as they are. Such is the feeling, I would imagine, of people at The Rocky Mountain News on Thursday and Friday. E.W. Scripps closed Colorado's first newspaper-a property that it owns-yesterday, citing the economic reality that it could not afford to maintain The Rocky at a loss when The Denver Post appears unwilling to continue its role in the Denver Newspaper Agency in the fashion that it has in the past.

I first heard the news Thursday from Tennessee GOP Communications Director Bill Hobbs, whose dream job in the world of journalism was once to work at The Rocky Mountain News.

It hit home primarily because the announcement brought about a deja-vu of sorts of the kind that I felt when I heard that The Cincinnati Post had gotten the axe from Scripps because The Cincinnati Enquirer decided not to continue a long-standing joint operating agreement with Scripps. The Post was the first Scripps newspaper, and was the company's flagship publication. When I lived in Cincinnati, I wanted badly to wipe my rear end with The Cincinnati Post on a daily basis. However, I thought the very existence of the Post made the Enquirer a better newspaper. Further, on those rare occasion that the Post was right in an editorial sense, they were very right.

The Rocky Mountain News was different than the Post. I read it online occasionally, and it is a great paper, something sorely missing in today's market. Well-written stories, hard news, and solid editorials that leave readers asking questions and writing letters. Further, the tabloid format it published in makes it handy to read and portable. The Rocky should probably have been seen as the new flagship-the jewel in the Scripps crown with the demise of The Cincinnati Post.

I watched the short film Final Edition at The Rocky's website. On it, investigative reporter Laura Frank seems to allude that bloggers and blogs are at least part of the reason we are seeing newspapers in such trouble-and they are in real trouble. While I am sure blogs play a small role in the newspaper crisis, I didn't begin to cover Tennessee politics here in an attempt to compete with the Knoxville News-Sentinel. Instead, I write to offer both my unique perspective, and an alternative editorial voice to the News-Sentinel and The Tennessean. Those papers have staff that can put out tens and hundreds of stories a day. I write one or two editorial posts a day, perhaps more when I am at the Legislative Plaza in Nashville. I do what I can, but I am a staff of one.

Truthfully, this crisis has much more to do with newspapers' ability to successfully make a transition that is profitable from print to digital and online news production. We live in an age when the news is available free to anyone, even local news. Why should people pay for what they can get for nothing? Newspapers must learn how to make online advertizing work in a way that keeps them afloat. It is often forgotten that The Denver Post is in serious financial trouble, and there are rumors that The San Francisco Chronicle may close. It won't be long before one-newspaper towns with respected news outlets begin to lose those papers as well.

That being the case, and Scripps admitting in the midst of its sale of The Rocky Mountain News that its newspaper division is in a very serious financial situation, it is fair to ask: Will the Knoxville News-Sentinel be around for all that long?

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