Someone's going to get rich in Denver next week…

…and then, someone else will get rich later this year in San Francisco, Seattle, Philadelphia, Miami and Minneapolis if papers in those cities close, as they are rumored.

By now, you’ve heard that the Rocky Mountain News in Denver is publishing its final edition today. Owner E.W. Scripps is closing Colorado’s oldest newspaper, two months shy of its 150th anniversary. I write those words with a deep sigh, as I used to work for the Rocky, and consider my experience there essential to my development both as an online journalist and online entrepreneur.

For a little over three years I edited the Rocky’s website, and I remain darned proud of the work a tiny staff did during that period. But what does the Rocky’s closing have to do with someone getting rich? Hundreds of journalists just lost their jobs!

Yes, and hundreds of local advertisers just lost the publication that they were using to connect with local readers. Those advertisers have budgeted the money they would have spent, some have even written checks and will await reimbursement from the Rocky for ads never run.

With the economy tanking, some of those advertisers, I suspect, will just bank the money and forget about the ads. But smart businesses will not. They still need to reach local consumers.

Like lottery money falling from the sky, that advertising cash will land somewhere. The Denver Post will pick up some, I’m sure. So might local TV, radio and direct mail vendors.

But with thousands of now-former Rocky readers looking for a new daily news source, there’s a huge opportunity here for someone to get rich. Just put some of those readers together with some of those advertisers, using a fresh new online publication, and without the capital and corporate overhead, JOA obligations and debt that’s weighing down so many newspapers across the country.

Perhaps Scripps could have done that with rockymountainnews.com. But, according to Rocky website editor Mike Noe’s Twitter feed last night, JOA partner MediaNews (owner of the Denver Post) wouldn’t let them, undoubtedly eyeing a newspaper monopoly in Denver for itself. Still, Scripps retains its ownership of the Rocky’s masthead, archives and URLs and is offering them for sale to any interested third party, without the entanglement of the JOA that bound Scripps.

A new online news publisher need not capture all of the Rocky’s former readers, or advertisers, to do well. If a former Rocky reporter, or a small group working together, managed to claim just a few advertisers and a few thousand daily readers, they easily could clear more money than they did working at the Rocky. (Heck, I’m making more from my websites than I ever did working at the RMN.)

Yesterday, on Twitter I urged the Rocky to run today in print the URLs of its reporters who will maintain their own blogs and websites, so that Rocky readers can continue to follow their favorite writers, and to help these former staffers start building the readership that they’ll need to create profitable websites. I don’t know yet if they did that or not. But I would urge Guild leaders at other troubled newspapers to think about getting that into their contracts – if the paper goes down, you print our members’ URLs on the last day.

Unfortunately, I fear that most Rocky staffers will not build or become part of profitable Denver-area news websites. But long odds are not impossible. The Rocky has a long history of online innovation, and with Noe’s assistance and the leadership of editor John Temple, that attitude has spread throughout the newsroom, in ways that it wasn’t allowed to when I worked there.

The Rocky was one of the first newspapers in the United States to embrace user-generated content, with reader-driven interactivity in entertainment, features and opinion sections as far back as 1998.

In the late 1990s, the Rocky had what might have been the industry’s first proto-”podcast” – a local studio recorded voice actors reading the paper’s top stories before dawn each weekday, which we made available as an MP3 download on the site. There was no RSS back then, so people had to come to the site each day to download the file. And there were no iPods, either, in fact, we promoted that people could “listen to the paper on their Diamond Rio.” (You may consider yourself a true Geezer Geek if you remember that early MP3 player.)

And in 1999, we live-”blogged” the aftermath of the Columbine school shootings, before we, or anyone else, knew what a blog was. We just posted fresh line-by-line updates to the site’s homepage as we got them from any sources we could find, not waiting for a staff writer to flesh them into a traditional, narrative story.

In the years since I left, the Rocky’s developed rich, reader-driven prep sports applications, as well as gorgeous interactive narratives, driven by a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo staff that has embraced multimedia. (Click around “Best of the Rocky” on rockymountainnews.com.) And it helped build one of the industry’s first large-scale efforts at reader-driven “hyperlocal” news coverage.

There’s a hell of a lot of online talent at the Rocky Mountain News. And a healthy amount of advertising dollars to support it. And readers who want to follow that talent. Just because Scripps, cut loose from its cash-cow cable networks and outmaneuvered by MediaNews in its JOA, couldn’t make enough money off that combination does not ensure that some enterprising Rocky staffer (or staffers) can’t make a go of it.

I’m rooting for them. Someone’s going to land that former Rocky advertising money. Why shouldn’t it be a Rocky alumnus?

And journalists in Seattle, San Francisco and those other newspapers on the brink – ask yourselves this, looking ahead to the day when your paper might close: Why can’t *I* be the one to get a piece of those ad dollars in my community?

Why not?

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.

Comments

  1. 70.58.5.12 says:

    These papers and businesses carry too much debt, not that are not successful.. Excessive debt over cash flow will always cause financial failure. The debt is created by owners who load up the debt to pay out to themselves or their affiliated businesses.

  2. 144.30.70.25 says:

    Although most newspaper chains do carry a substantial amount of doubt, Scripps does not and is among the best when it comes to financial shape of all the newspaper chains. Unfortunately, the JOA made it where they couldn’t make the changes they needed to make to be successful in Denver.

  3. 67.162.145.191 says:

    The Denver Post’s website always was – and still is, because there is no more RMN site – better than yours, dude.
    That’s why it has had double the traffic.
    But go on tooting your own horn anyway.
    Oh, and good luck with this idea, former bitter RMN staffers.
    When you find out it takes real money to travel places to get stories, money and time, you’ll quit doing it, and turn into just another “opinion” blog like this one here.
    Real journalists go out and get news. Guys like the one here just sit back and opine on the work of real reporters. And THAT is the business model that is not going to last.

  4. Scripps washed its hands at the newspaper business when it separated the papers from its cash-cow cable networks.

    Scripps had the opportunity to buy out the Post when Times Mirror put it up for sale, and didn’t. It had the resources to buy out the Post with cash from its cable networks, and didn’t. Scripps, headquartered in Cincinnati, simply didn’t want to beat Denver-based MediaNews in that market as much as MediaNews wanted to beat Scripps. That’s why the Rocky closed first.

  5. 208.59.171.84 says:

    You are correct Robert.
    What is most poignant about the Rocky’s video obituary (http://www.vimeo.com/3390739) is that it demonstrates how powerful newspaper websites can be when they embrace new media. In this case, we’re talking about broadcast-quality video — a feature that could be central to a new web-based business model.

    The economics are compelling: Despite the recession, research firm eMarketer predicts spending on online video advertising in the U.S. will grow 45% in 2009. 15-second video ads can command CPMs (cost per thousand viewers) of $25 to $35, while the display ads found on news sites are typically priced at no more than $5 to $10. (And ad space the newspapers can’t sell is filled by ad networks at even lower rates.)
    Local news organizations that want to survive need to make their websites the #1 Internet destination in their region — a place the audience will spend more time and national and local advertisers will want to sponsor.
    That means not just articles with a handful of amateurish videos (typical of newspaper websites) nor TV with a little text (typical of local TV affiliates’ sites). It is a third animal altogether, combining the power and immediacy of video, where appropriate, with the depth and analysis found in the best newspapers.
    Local news websites will never generate the revenue newspapers did in the monopoly days before the Net. They will be smaller. They will be less ambitious. (Foreign reporting will be the province of national publications; lengthy investigative projects will require some form of non-profit model.) They will be less profitable. But there is a business model to be created here.

  6. It’s sad to see a very old community newspaper fade into the past; however, the relentless gallop of new Web and digital media will leave grand old newspapers in its wake. The only certain thing is change, the quality we must all embrace to grow, thrive, and survive.

  7. 70.223.230.82 says:

    A great deal of the advertising in the DP and the RMN was sold as package deals. So, Jake Jabs of American Furniture Warehouse will get fewer readers in just The Post than in both, and he probably will want to pay less. (Some of the RMN readership will leave the market. No surviving newspaper ever has picked up the full readership of a closed paper.)

    Per another post and much as I hate to admit it, RMN.com has been a better website for a few years. DP.com owes some of its traffic to having “Denver” in its name, and it has substantial out-of-market readership – much of it for Broncos news.

    – Todd Engdahl, former editor DenverPost.com, now with EdNewsColorado.org

  8. 67.162.145.191 says:

    Todd – sorry you’re still bitter at the Post for letting you go, with your unfounded shot at the Post’s website. The Rocky’s website certainly has not been better than the Post’s in the last few years.
    And, saying they got double the traffic than the RMN just over “out of state” clickers and “Bronco” readers is just silly.
    As to Robert Niles’ assertion that Scripps could have bought out Singleton any time if it wanted to from its TV business but didn’t want to, that’s misleading.
    Scripps’ TV properties are losing money now, too, and buying Singleton out likely would have called for them to become a leveraged company just like any other.
    The Denver Post has been subject to too many little potshots the last few days, either from bitter, out of work RMN people, sideline cynics like Niles who have an ax to grind and bias from previous work experience there and in general.
    The Post worked its ASS off in the 1980s and ’90s to get the circulation lead back from the News – when they were down by 117,000 copies to the RMN at one point.
    News people got fat and lazy, and smug. They would always have some snide little story about the impending “death knell” of the Denver Post and its reporters would openly chortle toward Post reporters at assignments, about how they would “be owning their notebooks” soon.
    Well, guess what? The Post just went to work and started putting out a better paper. While News execs like Larry Strutton tooled around town in a Porsche, wearing suspenders and calling himself a news man, others at Scripps made the disastrous decision to invest in a clunky, way-too-expensive printing press that put out blurry papers for about a year. Editor Jay Ambrose wrote a widely ridiculed “daily thought” on page 2 and hired a lot of reporters who mostly just around all day.
    There was a TREMENDOUS amount of money wasted by Scripps in the 80s and, especially, the 90s. Reporters, for instance, did not have to account for anything under $75 on their expense accounts. A reporter could claim to have a $74.99 breakfast if they wanted, when really it was only $5, and pocket the difference. Don’t think that didn’t happen – a lot.
    The Post had to account for anything over $10. While the News blew a lot of money and got lazy, the Post hired aggressive new reporters, started putting out a better looking paper and had a terrific TV ad campaign in the 90s (“It’s Bigger, It’s Better, It’s Free”) and finally overtook the News in circulation.
    Scripps then panicked, pulling out of statewide circulation and slashing subscription prices to a penny a day. All that did was hemorhhage them money, while the Post did not panic and, while having ridiculously low rates themselves, did not give away the store as much.
    Finally, the News cried uncle in 2000 to Singleton, paying him $60 million and ceding the Sunday paper in the JOA.
    That always put them in the loser’s position going forward. Until, finally, they died.
    Those are the facts of what happened, and I left out many more. Let the others try to rewrite history as they see it if they feel they must. It won’t change what the truth was.

  9. Oh, well some good news. Except that wall street went under 7000 points today.

  10. Well 67.162.145.191 (Comcast Colorado Broadband IP address), Todd and I had the guts to post under our names, so I think that gives us a bit more credibility than an (as Slashdot would put it) “anonymous coward.”

    The Post, like the Rocky to a lesser extent, built its print circulation in the late 1980s and early 1990s by grossly expanding its circulation area – even as far as the Dakotas. The Rocky bailed on that strategy in the mid ’90s, ceding the print circ lead to the Post, though retaining a slight lead in the Denver metro area.

    But I never maligned the Post in my comments. Nor would I. They put out a good paper and a good website. But the two papers’ obsession with print circ numbers left them blind to the markets that their online operations were creating, until after it was too late and the papers were locked into a innovation-crippling JOA (crippling on the business development side. Both newsrooms continued to innovate online, but that doesn’t directly pay the bills.)

  11. 67.190.30.83 says:

    So, lemme guess–you work/worked for The Post?

    If you don’t think that the Post’s website had an automatic advantage re: search engines because of the word “Denver” in the title, then you’re either hopelessly ignorant, deluded, or a willful liar.

    Keep on throwing stones.

    Or, maybe, go back to work and wait for Mr. Potter to cut your job. After all, we all know that there are shoes yet to drop in that newsroom…

  12. Newspapers are a dying breed. Only the ones who can embrace change and revise with the times will be left standing. Newspapers CAN make a living on the Internet; after all, so many other websites are doing just that. The problem comes about when people are resistant to change and want to just keep doing everything the way it’s always been done.

    There was a time when newspapers were the trailblazers. Now, it’s the Internet. Learn to grow with it, or get out of the business.

    Foot

  13. 63.201.188.178 says:

    LOL the Post will fade away soon also. I don’t think ad folks are going to run to them.

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