Thursday, February 26, 2009

Newspaper=buggy whip

Today, management of the Rocky Mountain News, Denver's afternoon newspaper, announced they were shutting the newspaper down. Effective Friday.

The Rocky has joined a number of other newspapers in the past few months that have gone under or have plans to go under. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer will soon either be sold (to whom?), shut down, or become an on-line-only publication. The P-I's owner, Hearst, just announced the venerable San Francisco Chronicle was also on the chopping block. The Detroit News is resorting to a weekend-only hard copy and an on-line newspaper the rest of the week. Newspapers across the country are cutting staff, reducing page count, and shrinking the physical size of the pages. Our hometown Star-Telegram has essentially given up competing with the Dallas Morning News in Arlington, retrenched its exensive operation there, and agreed to share content with its competition--all actions that has significantly lessened the quality of the publication.

I grew up reading newspapers, and, in fact, the best job I had through high school and junior college was working for the Daily Journal-American in Bellevue, Washington.This love of newspapers led me to pursue photojournalism in college, and after graduating in 1984, I worked at a number of newspapers: The Tacoma News-Tribune, the Idaho Statesman, the Greeley Tribune, the Spokane Spokesman-Review and Chronicle, the Ogden Standard-Examiner. After a decade in the business, I gave it up to "go railroading." Who would've thought, back in 1994, right on the cusp of the internet boom, that it was railroading that would emerge as the stronger industry versus newspapering (I recall how novel it was in Spokane, my last newspaper job, that the newsroom had created an "online editor" position, and how no one really knew what the position would do or what "online" really meant. That was in 1993).

It was exciting as a high school student to walk into the newsroom of the Bellevue Journal-American in late 1976. It'd just started daily operation--the first daily newspaper launched in Washington state in 60 years--and its young, talented and driven staff were determined to beat the Seattle Times and P-I. The J-A not only covered local news well, it competed with the P-I and Times with sports coverage and state news as well. It moved into a fancy new business and newsroom building and built a new press operation and settled in for the long-haul. For nearly 20 years, the J-A held its own, but eventually the economic clout of the nearby Times proved too much--the Times threw all it could at creating an East Side presence, and crushed the J-A. Ownership changes and consolidations further weakened the old Journal, and it finally died in 2008. With the competition gone, the Times shuttered its East Side operation, leaving the cities of Redmond, Kirkland, Bellevue and Issaquah with little in the way of local news coverage. All the talent and determination of the news staff couldn't overcome decisions on the business side to let the franchise slip away.

It's sad to see newspapers--like the Star-Telegram--flounder. It's even sadder to see them die, and a helluva lot of them are dying. The journalists who compete against other dailies as a matter of pride are among those who really had no say in the matter. Largely, decisions are made on a corporate level far removed from local management, and in the past fifteen years, horrible decisions have been made in how to deal with that 900-pound gorilla, the Internet. Initially, back in the days of BBS, slow modems and dial-up, one paid for the privledge of downloading the daily newspaper over a computer. But soon, newspapers decided that giving away content on line would be a great "bonus" for folks to have--and this proved to be its undoing. Soon, folks discovered there was no need to subscribe to get the paper--and why place classified ads with your newspaper when you could also go on line to Craigslist and do that for free, too!

The industry is in a free-fall. It's the perfect storm of defecting subscribers and a tanking economy. Some newspapers have hinted that they'll survive largely as an on-line presence, but it was a large newsroom staff, with connected reporters covering their beats, that best covered a city. A blog here and an online editor there do nothing for creating original content. The news has to come from somewhere.

I'm sure glad as hell I got out when I did. Many of my former co-workers got out too. A few hang on, and the smart ones are taking college classes on the side, learning new skills for the inevitable day when their newspaper, too, shuts down their presses.

For once, I made the right move.


ArgyleEagle said...

My first job was delivering papers after school for the Dallas Times Herald. I was 12 or 13 and my Dad lent me money to buy a bike ( a 3 speed Schwinn) and a pair of rear axle mounted baskets to stuff the papers in and my route consisted of about a dozen blocks in North Dallas. At the end of each month I had to collect the paper fees from each customer, pay the Herald for the papers, and pay my Dad back for the bike. I think I paid the bike back in 6 months, and had the route for about 2 years. It was decent money for a kid, and fun on nice days, not so much on rainy and cold days. Looking back, it was a wonderful experience in being sort of an independent contractor and my business today is not that much different - I deliver goods in a timely manner and collect money from my clients and pay the equipment manufacturer's that I sell for in a defined region - those few blocks have turned into TX and OK, but the basics are still in play. As an aside, the original Nintendo game "Paperboy" is one of my all time favorites.
One has to deliver papers while avoiding all kinds of obstacles, such as stray cats, manholes, and an old lady chasing you with a rolling pin.

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