Newspapers' Woes Worsening

Copies of the final edition of the Rocky Mountain News sit in the Washington Street Printing Plant of the Denver Newspaper Agency in Denver on Thursday, Feb. 26, 2009. The Friday, Feb. 27 edition was the paper's last after 150 years of publication. AP Photo/David Zalubowski

The venerable Rocky Mountain News published its final edition Friday, just two months shy of its 150th anniversary.

Colorado's oldest paper is just the latest to succumb to severe, industry-wide financial pressure stemming from declining ad revenue and circulation.

Other high profile publications, including the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Tucson Citizen, and, perhaps most importantly - because its home is already a one-newspaper town - the San Francisco Chronicle. Thirty-three U.S. papers have filed for bankruptcy protection.

What does it all mean for the nation, and where is the trend headed?

The demise of the Rocky Mountain News is, says Columbia Journalism Review Executive Editor Mike Hoyt, "quite sad." He told Early Show Saturday Edition co-anchor Erica Hill it not only cost many people their jobs, it's "a voice lost. Newspapers are very tied in with the community, and "The Rocky" had a personality. It's a big loss.

"I'm sure the Denver Post will pick up a few staffers and will profit economically, and it will help them in the short-run," he said. "But in the long run, it's bad for the city."

When a city only has one paper, Hoyt said, "you lose competition, and you lose the edge, and you lose energy. Competition is good. It sharpens the news gathering, and the investigative reporting."

Should the Chronicle fail as well, it would be "a big blow," Hoyt observed to CBS News.

"Now, in cities like San Francisco and Chicago, there are alternative newspapers, and there are online papers - small ones, but many of them, and they have their niches, whether it's political junkies or sports fans, whatever. Would all those outlets add up to something approximating a newspaper? It's a good question, but I'd doubt it.

"The daily newspaper in a major metropolitan market is the voice of a city. It provides a civic forum that everyone can relate to and come together to talk about. And it can take on complicated problems, and be a watchdog for the community." He adds, "You need big institutions to cover big problems and big situations."

Even surviving papers are suffering staff cuts. Hoyt says the CJR puts the number at more than 12,500 editorial jobs cut since January 2007.

That is, he says, "a tremendous amount. And it hurts the caliber of reporting. You just can't keep cutting without hurting the effectiveness of a newspaper. And if newspapers go under, you lose the transparency of government. Journalists are the watchdogs, and being able to shine a spotlight on corruption or scandal is vital to our democracy."

Newspapers are, he says, feeling the impact of the recession on their ad-based bottom lines. "Meanwhile, there's a longer-term shift toward the Web, and newspapers were slow to wake up to it. They're wide awake now. The problem is, there's not much money there. Web advertising is climbing, but it's not climbing fast enough. The amount of money they get is not enough."

A complicating factor is papers offering their content on their Web sites - content they might want to charge for, but that people are used to getting for free. "About ten years ago," Hoyt says, "newspapers around the country made what amounts to an historic mistake. They believed it would be wrong to charge extra for online customers, and thought they could rely on advertisers for all their revenue."

Now, he adds, the consensus is shifting. "You can sort of feel it moving toward, 'Maybe we should sell our content.' It's an unknown (whether that could work). Content's gotta be good enough to buy."

The New York Times had been charging for online access to its columnists, but has stopped that, for now at least. Newsday is reportedly readying to charge readers for online content. If it catches on, it would create a model. But the jury's still out on whether people will pay for something they're used to getting for free. In the meantime, they have to hope the money will come from more traditional sources.

Still, Hoyt says he's "actually optimistic" about the future of papers. "And the biggest reason is - we're based at the Columbia School of Journalism, and there are a lot of young people there who are committed to solid journalism. And they're eager to learn and even re-invent the craft. ... There are students who still believe in newspapers and want to work there. And the recession won't last forever. People will buy cars and refrigerators again, and when they do, advertising will pick up, and advertisers will spend again and newspapers will be healthier. There will always be a need for newspapers."
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