THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


PLAYING THE MUSIC AT YOUR FUNERAL: AN EPITAPH FOR THE ROCKY MOUNTAIN NEWS

by by Margo Irvin

illustration by by Drew Foster

Last Sunday morning, construction crews stopped traffic in downtown Denver to remove the words Rocky Mountain News from the façade of the newspaper's former headquarters. A small crowd watched as workers took the four-foot-tall words down one at a time--one of the last signs of Denver's oldest newspaper, which was shut down last Thursday, February 26, by publisher E.W. Scripps. The Rocky is the largest major daily to fold in the current financial crisis, the first casualty of the day of reckoning that faces print journalism nationwide, but likely not the last.

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The Denver Newspaper Agency building still bears the name of the Denver Post, the city's remaining daily paper. "Yeah, this building's all lopsided with only one sign up there now," crane operator Jeff Macklin told 9NEWS, Denver's CBS station. Denver, which was one of a handful of American cities to still have more than one major daily, finds itself suddenly a one-newspaper town.
On Thursday, February 26, Scripps executives held a noon meeting to inform Rocky staff that Friday's paper would be the final edition. It was hardly a surprise: Scripps had put the paper up for sale December 4, indicating that if no buyer came forward, the paper would close its doors.
"I'm just sick that we're here talking to you about this," said head of the Scripps newspaper division Mark Contreras, according to the Rocky's own coverage. "I'm just sick."
"Not as sick as we are," someone whispered.
The newsroom was busy long into the night as staff put the final Rocky to bed, including a 52-page commemorative edition that highlighted moments in the paper's storied past. As John Temple, the Rocky's president, publisher and editor said at a meeting later that afternoon. "This is our last shot at this...it's like playing music at your own funeral. It's an opportunity to make really sweet sounds or blow it. I'd like to go out really proud." Funereal, indeed: "This is the second saddest day of my life--second only to the day my mother died of brain cancer," Penny Parker said in her last column for the Rocky.
Why the Rocky, a paper that won four Pulitzers in the past decade and has served Denver for a century and a half? In 1859, founding publisher William Newton Beyers arrived by wagon from Omaha with a printing press in tow, and set up shop above Uncle Dick Wooten's Log Store, the only two-story building in town. Since then, the Rocky has weathered floods, fires and an all-out circulation war with the rival Post; its 150-year anniversary would have been this April. But a recession-era slump in ad revenues, coupled with a fundamental shift in the way people read the news (or don't), meant that the Rocky was hemorrhaging cash--$16 million last year.
Scripps CEO Rick Boehne blamed "changing times in [the newspaper] industry and huge economic challenges" for the Rocky's demise, and said that its Joint Operating Agreement (JOA) with the Post was "locked in the past." Under the JOA, the Rocky published Monday through Saturday while the Post published Sunday through Friday--and picked up the relatively bigger advertising bucks from the heavier Sunday edition. Editor John Temple suggested in a final column that in Denver, the advertising pie simply wasn't big enough to be split between two papers: "The steep decline in classified advertising alone has meant the loss of more than $100 million in highly profitable categories like help wanted and real estate." Those dollars have disappeared as the reading public turns to free outlets like Craigslist and Monster.com for the services a local newspaper used to provide. The Rocky was clearly a liability for Scripps, but if cutting and running on one of its oldest papers in order to salvage the rest of the company was a gesture to appease shareholders, they may find it was a thumb in the dike. The San Francisco Chronicle's publisher Hearst recently gave that paper an ultimatum to cut costs or face closure; the Philadelphia Enquirer applied for bankruptcy last week, joining a list of 32 other major papers.
But the Rocky is also the victim of a different kind of crisis sweeping the newspaper industry: a cultural shift in which people no longer start the day by grabbing the paper from their driveways or a newsstand on the way to work. The Pew Research center reports that in 1950, nearly every household in America took a daily paper. It was down to 67 percent by 1990, and by 2000, it had dropped to 53 percent. Maybe these figures can be explained by declines in quality under the top-down business model of major chains like Scripps that force cuts and conformity in favor of the bottom line. But it's clear that readers are increasingly turning to other sources for their daily news.
Derigan Silver, a mass communications and journalism professor at the University of Denver, told the Denver Post, "While it is disappointing that the Rocky will no longer be servicing the community, it should come as no surprise that newspapers are under increasing pressure from multiple channels of information that have scattered the mass audience newspapers once held." And the authority of those sources, their local value and editorial diligence, is often questionable. Jeff Legwold, who used to follow the Broncos beat at the Rocky, agrees: "They had a saying that was painted on the wall there, 'If your mother says she tells you so, check it out.' And I still follow that rule. I don't think everybody blogging is following that rule."
Some see the newspaper die-off as a Darwinian necessity, part of the inevitable transition to an information landscape dominated by new media. The day after the Rocky ran its final issue, Colorado's freshman congressman Jared Polis (who made his fortune selling his online greeting card and flower delivery site at the height of the dot-com bubble) made some comments that ignited debate between the blogosphere and the print-journalism old guard: "So, The Rocky Mountain News published its last edition yesterday. And, I have to say, when we say who killed the Rocky Mountain News, we're all part of that, we truly are. For better or worse, and I argue that it's mostly for better....Media is dead, and long live new media!" Polis's comments hit print journalists where it hurts--he brought traditional journalism's fear of irrelevancy out into the open.
The old-school journalists he dismissed countered Polis's comments with a dose of skepticism for the journalistic ethics of new media. In his first column at the Denver Post (10 of the Rocky's writers were offered jobs with the Post), former Rocky columnist Mike Littwin rebuked Polis for his remarks: "By my count, tens of thousands of people who voted for Polis read newspapers and possibly don't agree with Polis that their financial woes are 'for the better.'" Alongside Littwin's column on the editorial page, the Post ran a cartoon: Polis, holding a bouquet, tapdances on a freshly dug grave marked "ROCKY: 1859-2009." "Bloggers are the new journalists! LMAO! :)," he sings, while in the background, a dude with a laptop says, "Sources? We don't need no stinkin' sources."
The two ends of the spectrum see themselves as diametrically opposed: to traditional journalists, "bloggers" are self-important amateurs who flout journalistic principles, while new media can see the old guard as stodgy old farts who have missed the boat. Square State, a Colorado progressive political blog, says of the Post's glib treatment of Polis's remarks, "I think instead, the free market has spoken, and an ossified, unwilling to change news outlet, whose editor thought he did well regarding citizen journalism went the way of the dodo."
Yet there seems to be some fruitful middle ground in which "blog" isn't a derogatory term, which Rocky writers have embraced in their recent unemployment. The website "I Want My Rocky" posts articles by former Rocky writers, with links to their blogs--for which they aren't getting paid, of course. Furthermore, the Rocky itself was negotiating the online transition well before the presses stopped. Its website--now indefinitely frozen at Friday, February 27, 2009--makes an earnest attempt to incorporate multimedia features and accomodate citizen journalism. Yet it's almost eerie how new media was involved in playing the music for the Rocky's funeral. A writer live-blogged the meeting where Scripps announced the paper's closing. And how did people hear about what was in the time capsule, intended to be opened on the Rocky's 200-year anniversary in 2059? Twitter.
MARGO IRVIN B'10.5 trains at high altitude.