Who’s Going to Report the News?

Rooflines has been watching a disturbing decline in the newspaper industry as print media is falling victim to fewer subscribers, falling numbers in advertising, and increased competition from the Internet with the concern that as standard media outlets begin to disappear, thus begins a time when government, particularly local government, goes unwatched.

When The Detroit Free Press in December announced that it would reduce its print production to only four days a week, we worried that blogs and Internet news has come a long way, but perhaps not far enough to outright replace paid beat reporters who cover local council meetings, planning boards, zoning boards, school boards, and more.

And now we have news today that The Rocky Mountain News will cease production at the end of this month.

From Rich Boehne, chief executive officer of E.W. Scripps Company, co-owner of the paper:

Today the Rocky Mountain News, long the leading voice in Denver, becomes a victim of changing times in our industry and huge economic challenges. The Rocky is one of America’s very best examples of what local news organizations need to be in the future. Unfortunately, the partnership’s business model is locked in the past.

Scripps bought the Rocky Mountain News, which is Colorado’s first newspaper and the state’s oldest continuously operated business, in 1926. After a decades-long circulation war, the newspaper in 2001 entered into a joint operating agreement (JOA) with The Denver Post, which is owned by MediaNews Group.

You can’t place all the blame on newspapers for the industry’s decline, but it must be acknowledged that this is, at least in part, an unforced error — the equivalent of driving your perfectly reliable car into a parked vehicle, or, even worse, into a more efficient vehicle passing you in the left lane.

We’ve been complaining here for some time that part of the problem was a breathtaking unwillingness for the newspaper industry to adapt to the digital age, and, in some cases, even showcasing a wholesale resistance to Web users acquiring free, reliable reporting. Remember “Times Select”? Why would anyone who doesn’t subscribe to The New York Times print edition have any reason to pay for its online services? The Times has since wised up, but the damage was done.

Boehne says that The Rocky is “a victim of changing times in our industry and huge economic challenges.” While that might be true, there was plenty of time, from the mid-1990s to now, to have foresight and know that the Internet, just like color TV and the iPod, was going to challenge the current related medium. Newspapers should have adopted entirely new business models. It’s not Monday-morning quarterbacking — it’s understanding why we’re going to see a reduction in local government news coverage, and if there is, over time, an increased amount pay-to-play and no-bid contracts in local government.

Paul Starr, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University, recently wrote in the New Republic that Internet news was no substitute for print media:

Online there is certainly a great profusion of opinion, but there is little reporting, and still less of it subject to any rigorous fact-checking or editorial scrutiny. Other than news aggregators such as Google News—which link to articles from publications that still derive most of their revenue from print — the most successful news sites are oriented to specialized audiences. No online enterprise has yet generated a stream of revenue to support original reporting for the general public comparable to the revenue stream that newspapers have generated in print.

I mostly agree with Starr, but I think sites like Talking Points Memo are doing great work, providing much-needed muckraking through the benefit of paid reporters. Let’s hope that kind of online trend increases.

That said, it’s also important to trust your news source, to know it, and, in the case of local media, to know the reporters personally. In this regard, we are losing a very valuable component to sustainable communities when we see the demise of treasured local newspapers. Time will tell as to how this loss affects good government.

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