A Modest Proposal for the Rocky Mountain News

I love the Rocky Mountain News. Like many in the community, I am saddened that the selling block seems more like the chopping block.

Can the paper be saved?

Probably not, if we take the “paper” bit literally. But I do think that the Rocky could be saved with modest funds (I mean, “modest” for the various rich people who could swing the project), if the publication were converted to an internet-only source of news and political commentary.

The first simple fact to recognize about newspapers is that practically nobody reads them cover to cover. Some people pick them up for news, while others pick them up for sports, entertainment, advertisements, or political commentary. The classic newspaper model is to combine all of those elements into a package that many people will buy. Well, that model is failing (or at least weakening) in the internet age.

I believe I’ve purchased a single newspaper in the past year, and that’s because I had an article published in it. I get my news and commentary through a variety of online publications (including the Rocky) for free (well, for the cost of looking at ads). I get my classifieds through Craigslist. I get my entertainment news through Westword and Fandango. I don’t care about sports, but if I did I’d turn to ESPN or some such.

I’ve heard that Boulder Weekly is doing okay in print, and I assume the same holds true for Westword. Those are specialty, weekly print publications that focus on entertainment news and regional issues. They are not “news” papers. They’re also free. They follow a different model than what the Rocky needs to embrace.

Another fact about the Rocky is that most of its content can be had elsewhere. Any college graduate can chase ambulances. Basic sports news is ubiquitous. I typically read outside columns that appear in the Rocky days before they appear in print. The fact is that I read only a small minority of the news articles that appear in the Rocky.

Just to give a quick example, I’ll offer a run-down of the headlines now available online in the Rocky’s local news section, along with my immediate reaction.

“Survivor meets cops who saved her” — Don’t care, and if I did I’d watch TV.
“Driver on cell phone rolls semi, jams I-76” — Don’t care. If I want traffic news I’ll listen to FM.
“Weather: Big meltdown sets stage for more snow” — Hello, weather.com.
“Secretary of state candidates narrowed to three finalists” — Okay, that’s interesting.
“Patrol names new lieutenant colonel” — Yawn.
“Extra!” — Extra lame.
“Jury convicts man in shootout at Vietnamese restaurant” — Don’t care.
“Mansion matter mulled” — You’ve got to be freaking kidding me. Don’t care.
“Man survives snowstorm in camp restroom, but dog dies” — Tough luck.
“LEAP offers shield from winter’s wrath” — I had to read the description for this one: “Patty Hancock’s ancestors rumbled across the plains to Colorado on a covered wagon.” Don’t waste my time.
“Study lauds state’s disease watch system, but faults vaccine supply” — This is potentially interesting, but not to me.
“$286 million Justice complex ‘going smoothly'” — Potentially interesting.
“Boulder rape crisis center taking more calls” — Interesting, but isn’t this available through the Daily Comrade?
“‘Call in gay’ aimed at public awareness” — This is barely interesting.
“Secretary of state finalists narrowed to three” — Because I want to read the same story twice.

The upshot is that most of the Rocky’s news section is wasted effort, and most of the rest is duplicated effort. Where’s the market niche?

Yes, a city does need a basic news service. We have that. I at least want to run down the headlines to see generally what’s going on. But I don’t need the Rocky to do that.

The Rocky excels at offering political commentary and deeper analysis of news stories. That’s why I read the paper. There is no other reason I need it. So I suggest that the Rocky stick to what it does well, and cut the rest.

Dump the entertainment, dump the cartoons. Dump the basic sports news. Dump the ambulance chasers. Dump the weather. Dump the AP and all outside content.

More importantly, dump the dead trees and ink. Dump the distribution trucks. Dump the newspaper boxes.

Do what you do well, and do it where it’s cheap and most convenient for your readers: the internet.

Notice that my proposal would eliminate the overwhelming majority of the newspaper’s costs.

I’m talking about a total staff of perhaps twenty people in a minimalist facility.

The cornerstone of the Rocky is Vincent Carroll. You have to keep him. Generally the commentary section is outstanding. I can live without Paul Campos, and I rarely read Tina Griego or Bill Johnson. On the news side, people like Lynn Bartels write interesting, original stuff that I can’t get elsewhere. The Rocky has actually let go some of its best talent in order to keep the stuff that nobody cares about.

The focus of the publication should not be to cover all of the stories, but to cover some of the stories very well. The Rocky should not hire writers to fill in gaps; it should hire good writers and then turn them loose on the city and state. (The publication should also make available its archives.) I’m not even opposed to entertainment and sports writers, so long as they offer some sort of unique value. For example, I’ve taken to reading restaurant reviews that Jason Sheehan writes for Westword. Hire talent.

The financing? I don’t know. Obviously an internet-only publication will lose most of its advertising dollars. I think a nonprofit is probably the way to go. Clearly some people make money through internet advertising. These are not details that I’ve worked out.

I do know, however, that I’ve heard of no better plan for keeping the Rocky alive.

2 thoughts on “A Modest Proposal for the Rocky Mountain News”

  1. The Christian Science Monitor is going to go all-digital in April 2009. If they can pull it off, then they could set a model for other papers like the RMN.

    Given their tradition of quality and their loyal subscriber base, I think they have a reasonable chance.

  2. Excellent business/marketing analysis of RMN. I am not a localite -so I cannot relate to the content of this specific newspaper, but I can definitely relate to what is happening across the country at most all newspapers. As someone who is very interested in the newspaper/media business and have been following the various newspapers and other publications (both paid and free)in Raleigh, North Carolina, in an effort to understand the market and come up with a viable business model that could build on a niche readership, I find this particular blog very enlightening.
    Newspapers who decide to go to the internet to cut print and distribution costs (most are going to have to make cuts of some sort in print production, irrespective of size-there are these days continuous business news pouring in of these happening at all the big media establishments-they had become too heavily leveraged -with advertising dollars reducing because of the current slump and the credit crisis making it impossible to renegotiate debt, they are having no choice), as also change focus of their publication by becoming less news oriented and more issue focused will have to find sources of revenue to survive -whether that be some free articles and others only open to subscribers, archives open for subscription fees, paid reprints, of course the online ads and different ways to partner with businesses, perhaps books services, mobile device services, etc. Technology will have to be exploited full blast to create revenue generating media businesses. WSJ had a good piece few days back on Newsweek’s attempt to refocus, which was very interesting read. The article mentioned that The Economist has been doing better in this crisis than most other news establishments are facing. I am planning to research how The Economist has focussed on its core market niche and flourish in its business model. Of course part of it may be that Economist I believe is Britain based and may not be as highly leveraged and may not have participated in the crazy bidding of News businesses that happened in the US.
    Great points in this newspaper blog -thanks.

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