I’m reading stories about the closing of the Rocky Mountain News in Denver with a great deal of sadness. I wasn’t a reader of the newspaper, and I have no personal connection to Colorado, but I had the chance to meet John Temple, the paper’s long-time editor and publisher, a few weeks ago at a talk I gave at the University of Denver.
I was moved that Temple took time to attend an event celebrating free speech while his paper was going through a period of such uncertainty, and grateful that he took the time to engage my talk in a column in his paper. That column, titled “Time to play offense, not defense” gave me the sense that the Rocky Mountain News went down fighting, with Temple looking towards future scenarios for newspapers up to the moment the newspaper closed its doors.
Denver has been a two newspaper town for many years – the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News have engaged in a rivalry for over a hundred years. In one of his last columns, Temple explains that this rivalry kept circulation high, but subscription revenue low, and artificially depressed advertising rates. Since 2000, the papers have combined their operations – though not their newsrooms – under a joint operating agreement. With the JOA in place, the papers tried to raise rates, with some success, but Temple argues that advertising rates are still far below what they are in similarly sized markets.
The Rocky Mountain News isn’t the only newspaper facing closure. The Washington Post, writing about the shuttering of the Rocky notes, “Hearst threatened this week to close the San Francisco Chronicle unless major budget cuts are imposed or a buyer is found, and is also prepared to close the Seattle Post-Intelligencer if it cannot be sold. The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News filed for bankruptcy protection this week, joining Chicago’s Tribune Co. and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in Chapter 11 status.”
None of these papers are likely to find buyers – there are too many newspapers on the market, and too much uncertainty about business models to support newspapers. Papers in large markets, like Denver, that don’t have a national profile (like the New York Times or the Washington Post) seem to have the most trouble surviving – they’ve got high newsroom costs, and people are hard at work creating alternative advertising outlets to serve the large markets. In comparison, smaller newspapers may have an easier time – they’re more likely to have a defensible local monopoly for community advertising, and they’ve got lower newsroom and production costs.
There’s a sad irony for me in writing about the Rocky Mountain News’s demise. I wrote, a few weeks back, about the economics of my local newspaper, the Berkshire Eagle. The piece sparked a great deal of conversation, both locally and around the web, and I’ve gotten feedback that’s helped me understand the economics of my local paper better. I believe that my local paper is probably profitable, due to very high ad rates which may make sense because the paper has an effective local monopoly. The profitability of the paper helps it sustain other papers in its chain, MediaNews group. The central property of MediaNews Group is the Denver Post, which will be taking over the Rocky Mountain News’s subscribers. So perhaps the Rocky’s demise will help shore up the finances of the parent company of my local paper – maybe they’ll finally buy new computers for my friends who produce the Eagle on ten-year old Macs.
Or maybe what happened to the Rocky is simply a herald for the fans of other storied newspapers around the world. It’s not hard to imagine that a rough economy, a transitioning advertising market and the analog to digital shift will leave other newspapers forced to quickly find a white knight or to shut their doors.
Reading Temple’s columns the past few days, I was pleased to see that he found some consolation in the fact that the Rocky got to report on its own demise, that they were given “the chance to play the music at your own funeral”.
Here’s some of that funeral music, a video report on the last edition of the Rocky Mountain News. Rest in peace, Rocky, and good luck to everyone else figuring out how to avoid this fate.