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We'll lose more than a paper:

My farewell column for the Rocky Mountain News:

Unfortunately, the demise of the Rocky is more than a 50 percent diminution in newspaper quality in Denver. There's the direct loss of the stories which the Rocky covered and the Post didn't, or which the Rocky investigated thoroughly and the Post only superficially. But there's also the less visible loss of how competition with the Rocky has made the Post a better paper throughout all of that paper's own venerable history. Having two newspapers is more than twice as good as having just one, because each newspaper spurs the other to better work....

With the Rocky gone tomorrow - and the Post perhaps gone within two years - who is going to report the news in Denver? The TV and radio stations only report a fraction of the number of stories that go into a daily newspaper, and the reporting is much less detailed than what's in the papers.

It's possible to have a republic without newspapers. But we've never done it in America, and there's no guarantee that we'll succeed at doing it.

vassil_petrov (mail):
Who is going to report the news in Denver?

If there is a market for news in Denver, there will always be somebody to report them.

Supply and demand.
2.27.2009 3:59am
Brett Bellmore:
It could have been worse, you might have ended up with a JOA, and been stuck with two editions of the Post, one pretending to the the RMT. That's what happened in Detroit.
2.27.2009 7:03am
PersonFromPorlock:

With the Rocky gone tomorrow - and the Post perhaps gone within two years - who is going to report the news in Denver?

I guess that'll depend on who the interested parties send their press releases to. Probably whoever changes them the least before passing them on as 'news'.
2.27.2009 7:24am
A. Zarkov (mail):
" ... who is going to report the news in Denver?"

Is the "news" really getting reported in Denver right now, or some filtered, compromised version of the news?

In the Soviet Union there were two major newspapers-- Pravda (Правда), and Izvestia (Известия). The Russians had a saying: "There's no news in The Truth, and truth in the News.

Americans aren't getting the straight story from their MSM and they know it. This is why newspapers like The San Francisco Chronicle (my local paper) are going out of business. We get tired of reading about who voted for Proposition 8, while the biggest power grab in the history of the US is going on. Watch them fall one by one.
2.27.2009 7:48am
Eric Muller (www):
David, this must be a huge loss for you personally (above and beyond the loss to the state and the region). My condolences.
2.27.2009 7:49am
DNL (mail):
@Zarkov:

These papers are not going out of business because of their perceived inability to report the "straight story". They're dying because:

(1) media is fundamentally -- fundamentally -- different than it was even 10 years ago, with geographic boundaries becoming less important from a media business perspective, and
(2) local advertising, especially in major cities, has moved to the web in the form of craigslist listings and Google AdWords buys.

Newspapers -- not the MSM, but newspapers (and magazines) specifically -- are getting hit on both sides. Point (1) speaks to their product. Point (2) speaks to their revenue stream. Both are going in the wrong direction.

http://www.centernetworks.com/how-to-save-newspapers has more.
2.27.2009 8:45am
Just Dropping By (mail):
The Russians had a saying: "There's no news in The Truth, and truth in the News.

The way I always heard the joke was that a man walked up to a newsstand, asked to buy a paper, and was told, "There's no Truth (Pravda), there's no News (Izvestia), Soviet Russia has sold out, but we do have Labour (Trud)."
2.27.2009 8:47am
DNL (mail):
Mr. Kopel, again, my condolences.

I think you are correct. In two years time, assuming no drastic changes, the Post will follow suit. However, I think out of the ashes, a new model will arise, and that model will be agile enough to quickly enter markets in which the newspapers are no more (or failing quickly).

No one yet knows what that model is, but there are many great ideas out there. I hope now-former veterans of the RMN, such as yourself, take an entrepreneurial bent and try some of those models. The Web makes it possible to bootstrap the initial ideas, and the experience RMN people bring to the table make the second step(s), whatever they are, credibly possible.
2.27.2009 8:54am
Orson Buggeigh:
I will simply second Eric Muller's comments. My sympathy to all the Rocky Mountain News 'family,' and my thanks to you all for a job well done.
2.27.2009 8:58am
Ariel:
DNL,

I'd guess there's a third factor as well - the amount that it costs to produce the news. If you can't get your prices above your costs, you go out of business - no one has considered the cost side, really. If you don't hire college graduates, you can pay them less - this would going back to the earlier model of reporting, when blue collar folks were doing it. There may be reasons why that is not desirable - i.e., I'm not denying there are costs to this approach - but it seems to me like if we're going to have local papers, they're going to have to figure out a cost solution: the revenue side isn't going to cut it.
2.27.2009 9:10am
J. Aldridge:
Get rid of the internet and problem solved?
2.27.2009 9:42am
neurodoc:
vassil_petrov : Who is going to report the news in Denver?

If there is a market for news in Denver, there will always be somebody to report them.

Supply and demand.
If the "invisible hand" works so consistently and felicitously, why are there many places in the United States that go with out medical services? It isn't because there is no "market" (demand) for those services in those places.

"Supply and demand" may always be at work, but clearly things are a tad more complicated, and there are no assurances that someone else will step in to provide the local news that a newspaper was providing.
2.27.2009 9:47am
rick.felt:
If the "invisible hand" works so consistently and felicitously, why are there many places in the United States that go with out medical services? It isn't because there is no "market" (demand) for those services in those places.

It's folly to describe health care delivery in this country as anything even approximating a free market. The AMA has used its monopoly power to limit the number of physicians (remember the fears of a "doctor glut"?), residencies are funded by and dependent on the federal government, all of medicine is licensed and regulated more than almost any other industry, and the government already pays for the health care of a huge portion of the country through Medicare, Medicaid, the VA, S-CHIP, and the health benefits of government workers.

I'm not necessarily saying that all of this is bad, but a free market it ain't.
2.27.2009 9:56am
Ron Mexico:
To think that the market will necessarily provide everything that a society requires is a childish understanding at best. You cannot equate utility with profitability. The problem is that we, as a society, need journalists to investigate, provide context, and shed light on the goings on of local, state, and national governments and events. However, the business of newspapers is dying. That doesn't make our need for journalists or reporting any less necessary.

You may like to bash the "MSM" because you've given into the republican party's strategy of the last two decades. But the media provides the unvarnished truth. Without arbiters such as reputable newspapers, how are we even going to be able to have an ongoing dialogue in this country? All we're going to be left with are the partisan ramblings of bloggers and talk show hosts. We won't even know the actual truth, let alone how to spin it. Without newspapers, who can you trust to deliver actual facts?

Take off the partisan blinders, quit bashing newspapers for reporting stories that you disagree with. Realize that the death of journalism is going to be a major development in the history of the US that is going to have severe consequences. Fox News was the beginning, but now everyone will be basically forced to just get information from their own preferred echo chamber. Don't like the truth? Just deny it exists.
[end of rant]
2.27.2009 10:35am
cboldt (mail):
-- But the media provides the unvarnished truth. --
.
You may want to rephrase that, ever so slightly. I use raw source material such as court records (judicial orders and opinions, motions, etc.) and the Congressional Record, and when the media reports "the truth," it is by accident.
2.27.2009 10:48am
rick.felt:
But the media provides the unvarnished truth. Without arbiters such as reputable newspapers, how are we even going to be able to have an ongoing dialogue in this country?

It's a rant so maybe I should let this go, but you're abusing adjectives. Newspapers may get the facts right most of the time, but they do not (and for the most part cannot) present the "unvarnished truth." A newspaper consists mostly of varnish placed on facts. With the notable exception of sports scores and stock prices, newspaper reporting isn't a data-dump. Newspapers contextualize and explain based on the objectives of the reporters and editors. Every news article is "varnished" in some way.

So to answer your question: well, it will be hard, but newspapers (and television, and radio) have made us lazy. We expect to get our facts explained to us in context. That has some merit to it, but perhaps we'll all be better off in a world where we don't get filtered news. When the only news sources are partisan, the only sure thing is the raw data: the numbers, the video feed. Maybe we'll be better off when we all have to work for our news rather than having it fed to us.
2.27.2009 10:54am
Ron Mexico:
"You may want to rephrase that, ever so slightly. I use raw source material such as court records (judicial orders and opinions, motions, etc.) and the Congressional Record, and when the media reports "the truth," it is by accident."

Like I said, if you are willing to take off the partisan blinders . . .
2.27.2009 10:54am
Ron Mexico:
"Newspapers contextualize and explain based on the objectives of the reporters and editors."

What do you think goes on in news rooms? Do you think they have secret meetings where everyone has "objectives" and tries to work to get these out? You are assigning far too much ulterior motive. The journalists I know have the "objective" of presenting facts in the context of other facts.

A desperate power play from a dying political party that can't address the facts head-on is going to change this country forever.
2.27.2009 10:58am
CiarandDenlane (mail):
It makes theoretical sense that a paper would get worse if it no longer has competition to spur excellence, but what little experience I have living in such a town suggests otherwise: My fairly strong impression during the years after the Washington Star folded was that the Washington Post got better.

Granted, my impression might have been wrong. Or it might have been right, but only by my own lights (among other things, I thought the Post took more pains to be centrist or balanced when it recognized it no longer had a right of center counterweight in the Star, a development that pleased this centrist more than it might have others).

Or maybe the Washington Times counts as local competition or the Post's national competition with those New York papers is more important than the lack of local competition.

And the times were different. A newspaper, particularly one with a near monopoly in a large market, could make a profit back then and take over the best features and best writers from folding competitors.

Still, granting all those possibilities why I'm either wrong about the Washington experience or why it might be irrelevant to present day Denver, I would not take it for granted that the surviving paper will get worse because its rival folded. One paper won't be as good as two, but it might be better than half as good.
2.27.2009 11:07am
cboldt (mail):
-- When the only news sources are partisan, the only sure thing is the raw data: the numbers, the video feed. Maybe we'll be better off when we all have to work for our news rather than having it fed to us. --
.
Author! Hear Hear!
.
"Non-partisan news" is a fiction, promulgated by those who pedal their varnished truth as unvarnished. Most of the public lacks the education and mental faculties to ferret the "truth" out of raw data - which makes the public ripe for manipulation.
2.27.2009 11:23am
Sk (mail):
"It's possible to have a republic without newspapers. But we've never done it in America, and there's no guarantee that we'll succeed at doing it."

Its also possible to lose a republic, even with newspapers.
2.27.2009 11:30am
Elliot123 (mail):
"Supply and demand" may always be at work, but clearly things are a tad more complicated, and there are no assurances that someone else will step in to provide the local news that a newspaper was providing."

I agree there are no assurances. But, I'd observe that most innovations are things the rest of us didn't think about. Our inability to figure it out doesn't mean everyone shares that characteristic.
2.27.2009 11:36am
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):
"It's possible to have a republic without newspapers. But we've never done it in America, and there's no guarantee that we'll succeed at doing it."


Its also possible to lose a republic, even with newspapers.


I agree with A. Zarkov’s and rick.felt’s comments and would suggest that to the extent we are “losing a republic” it has been in part because of the MSM (including newspapers) rather than despite them. We’re not “losing a republic” because a particular model of information dissemination is being replaced with another; we’re losing it when people think that the purpose of government is to enable everyone to live at the expense of everyone else. When people quit taking responsibility for themselves (including thinking for themselves), the end result is the lost of any concept of self-government. And I think that the MSM, while not the cause of this problem, has more often than not been an enabler.
2.27.2009 11:52am
A. Zarkov (mail):
DNL:

Your points (1) and (2) are good ones, but I think the MSM generally, and newspapers specifically tend to all sound alike, and the readers are going elsewhere. On the other hand, the WSJ appears to be doing ok despite the steep price to resubscribe-- over $300 per year. It must be offering its readers something that the New York Times, The Washington Post, the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune and other major dailies lack.
2.27.2009 11:59am
Andy Freeman (mail):
> But the media provides the unvarnished truth.

They usually get the sports scores correct and the society pages usually tell you attendance, but in every other case where I have independent knowledge, the media typically makes a couple of significant errors.

I found this interesting so I asked folks I knew about media coverage of things that they knew personally. Same result.

Why should I assume that they're better wrt things that I don't have independent or second-hand knowledge?

Peter Norvig recently documented a case where a reporter admits that he made up a quote (attributed to Norvig) because it fit the story. http://norvig.com/fact-check.html
2.27.2009 12:03pm
Randy R. (mail):
Zarkov: "On the other hand, the WSJ appears to be doing ok despite the steep price to resubscribe-- over $300 per year. It must be offering its readers something that the New York Times, The Washington Post, the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune and other major dailies lack."

And the Washington Times, that objective font of conservatism, has always been deeply subsidized by the Moonies. Guess they can't offer what readers really want, eh?
2.27.2009 12:08pm
krs:

If there is a market for news in Denver, there will always be somebody to report them.

Supply and demand.

I didn't think I'd see this lesson pop up so soon, but so be it.
2.27.2009 12:09pm
pete (mail) (www):
This is only slightly related, but my major frustration with our local paper is that in several stories that I have read that involved where I worked the reporters had not done their job right as far as basic background research. In one story about a computer program we had purchased for our city it was obvious that the reporter had not bothered to do a google search on the program or visit the company website since he got the facts wildly off. He quoted a city councilman on what he thought the program could do, but the councilman had no idea what was going on and it looks like the reporter and his editor never bothered to research for themselves what the program actually did. The story had other significant factual errors that could have been fixed if they had talked to more people involved, but if they can screw up major details of a story where the basic facts can be revealed with a five second google search what else are they screwing up and not bothering to double check?
2.27.2009 12:21pm
second history:
I agree with the points raised by DNL and Ron Mexico. The reason the WSJ is a able to charge $300 a year (for the paper) or $100 for the website is that it contains specialized financial information that people are willing to pay for. General news, however, doesn't command such a premium. How much are you willing to pay for news about Bosnia, Iraq, Iran, China, or Africa; news that doesn't directly affect you immediately but may affect your future standard of living?

I too lament the passing of the RMN; or the possible passing of the SF Chronicle, LA Times, NY Times, or other major (and minor) newspapers.

As for Prof. Kopel's future as a media critic, perhaps he can publish his column in ProPublica, an organization that is seeking to fill the gap in investigative reporting but Kopel has found wanting here and here.
2.27.2009 12:21pm
And a... (mail):
With the Rocky gone tomorrow - and the Post perhaps gone within two years - who is going to report the news in Denver? The TV and radio stations only report a fraction of the number of stories that go into a daily newspaper, and the reporting is much less detailed than what's in the papers


Gosh, who could put together a group of conservative bloggers/ stringers to fill the news gap in Colorado? Who I say? Who?

David, D. Tocqueville said Americans don't complain about problems, they fix them.
2.27.2009 12:35pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
Randy R:

And the Washington Times, that objective font of conservatism, has always been deeply subsidized by the Moonies. Guess they can't offer what readers really want, eh?


The Washington Times hardly counts as part of the MSM as their circulation is extremely small compared to (say) The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. As the substance of my comment has to do with comparing MSM publications, I don't get the relevance of your remark. There are many minor publications that enjoy subsidies, so I have to say, "so what?"
2.27.2009 12:36pm
Blue:
Try as I might, I can't see that it is a complete disaster for the Republic that the monstrously one sided media is getting chopped down to size.
2.27.2009 12:41pm
twwren:
There was a time when we received our news from a local cryer or on parchment nailed to a tree. A time will come, soon, when there will be no dead-tree Journalism. To mourn this evolution is like mourning the demise of the IBM Seletric typewriter. Corresondence did not cease; it merely took a differnt form.
2.27.2009 12:53pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
In France virtually no one expects to read unbiased news in their major newspapers. Le Monde provides center-left viewpoint, Le Figaro provides for the center-right, and L'Humanité gives the hard left (communist) slant. Many Frenchmen read all three in the hope that something approximating the truth will emerge from the combination.

I like the French system as it dispenses with the myth of objectivity that some Americans (eg Ron Mexico) buy into.

On a personal note I used to listen to the ultra left radio station WBAI in New York City during the Vietnam War. The would quote from L'Humanité as though it were an objective source, and they failed to tell their listeners that L'Humanité was the mouthpiece of the French Comuunist Party, the most Stalinist and hard line of the Western Europe Communist Parties. It was from this and many other experiences that I learned not to trust the American Media, mainstream or not.
2.27.2009 1:05pm
pintler:
Does anyone know what the typical cost breakdown of a newspaper is - how much to pay the staff (which will stay the same if the paper goes online) vs. how much to print and distribute hardcopy?
2.27.2009 1:35pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
pintler:

Try going to the SEC EDGAR database and looking up their filings. I would do it, but I have to leave for a while.
2.27.2009 1:38pm
Dave R. (mail):
Good riddance.

Will the remaining paper not be sharpened by competition from web-based news and bloggers? And if not, whose fault is that? There's nothing special about printing presses, cheap paper and subscription routes. It's just a delivery method.

There is a use for local coverage and beat reporting. But there are people working on that. Either using a non-profit office approach, or one-person guerrilla video and narration reporting.

Even admitting the need for full-time coverage of local government, the track record of J-school graduates is not impressive. Economics, statistics, basic legal or scientific understanding all seem to be casualties of taking four or more years to learn how to write and report. If newspapers had more David Kopels, more educated and experienced people brought in to provide coverage instead of the journalism school paradigm they might not be in this position.

Newspapers have been effectively a cartel for years. The single-mindedness across different papers and editors is impressive. To the extent that internet advertising is taking away newspaper profitability, great. That just tells me advertisers have found a more efficient source for their product, and the cartel no longer enjoys its monopoly on supply of advertising. If their news reporting product had the quality they've always claimed it did, they'd be more competitive on the web.
2.27.2009 3:33pm
Hoosier:
Two things that I won't miss when newspapaers go: Science and religion reporting. The first is almost impossible to get right, it would seem, in papers other than the NYT and WSJ. The second is one of the NYT's biggest areas of incomptence.

Other than that, this death-of-the-American-newspaper just sucks total monkey balls. As Dr. Johnson--a newspaperman himself--used to say.
2.27.2009 4:50pm
Desiderius:
Pintler,

I remember touring the Manchester Guardian about twenty years ago when I was at school at Man U., and I asked what percentage of their costs went into content vs. printing/distribution etc... and I seem to recall it was about 2/3 the latter. We had just learned about this MiniTel thingy sweeping France, so I asked if they had any plans to go electronic eventually and basically got laughter back.

Time flies. I tend to think this present phenomenon is primarily technological, secondarily cultural, and tertiarily ideological, with the latter arising from newspapers hiring inexperienced reporters to cut costs - recent college graduates tending toward a dull left default worldview before they craft their own.

And Hoozchze - give me a few Ramblers over my dim-witted corporate local paper any day.
2.27.2009 10:37pm
Desiderius:
David,

Condolences here, as well. My dim-witted corporate local was once anxiously awaited each day, as much for the eclectic (local) editorial page as the Reds' box scores. The decline has been painful to behold.

"They are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time, to show virtue her own image; scorn, her own features; and the very age and body of the time, his form and pressure."

- Hamlet
2.27.2009 11:18pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
Thanks, Ron Mexico.

* * * *

'No one yet knows what that model is, but there are many great ideas out there.'

Name one. I'm curious.
2.28.2009 12:45pm
Desiderius:
Harry Eagar,

Mexico overstates his case. I would say that the news business has failed to recruit a sufficient number of Harry Eagars over these past twenty years to maintain its former quality.
3.1.2009 12:14am
Harry Eagar (mail):
I dunno. The young people I work with are better prepared than I was at their age, they are deeply conscious of their duty to be fair.

When I came into the business 40-some years ago, the editors were frank racists. At least, that's no longer the case. There's plenty wrong with newspapers today, but there was plenty wrong before, too.
3.1.2009 2:01pm
Desiderius:
Eagar,

"When I came into the business 40-some years ago, the editors were frank racists."

So's this guy, but I'd bet he'd put out a better paper than a bunch of neophytes who'd never been outside the academy before picking up their pen typewriter laptop.

I don't know, maybe its the fault of the corporate chains, I don't think its ideological, but common sense seems to be at a premium.
3.1.2009 7:39pm
Desiderius:
Oh, and a commitment to fairness doesn't buy you much if you haven't lived long, or wide, enough to get a sense of the various sides playing the game or the rules by which its played. It would be like hiring me to officiate a cricket test. I'd be doing my darndest to be fair, and would no doubt fail miserably.
3.1.2009 7:49pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
True. If it were me, all reporters and editors would have to know things like statistics and American history.

It's a smorgasbord, and you get what you get. When we outlived those old racist editors, we also outlived those old World War II combat vet editors. The very low level of reporting on military affairs today is largely the result of not having editors who know armies from the inside.

But the notion, frequently and loudly bruited about VC and the rest of the Internet, that reporters are consciously biased is just not true. I can count the numbers I've worked with over the years who were consciously pushing an agenda on the fingers of one hand. None of the ones I knew stayed in the business long.
3.1.2009 9:16pm
Happyshooter:
My local corporate owned paper was flat out covering up criminal acts by local black pols. They even went as far, several times, as interviewing the sheriff and prosecutor before spiking the story.

When the last event came out because the US Attorney got involved and brought federal charges, the publisher announced that her goal was to get blacks, black women more so, into office.

She was promoted. Booth Newspapers.
3.2.2009 9:55am

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