December 2008


Grey Ladies, Sinking

Until I moved to Germany, one of the daily constants in my life was a newspaper.

Growing up in Denver, my family got the Rocky Mountain News and The New York Times, every day.

Some of my earliest childhood memories involve reading the Sunday comics in my parent’s bed. In elementary school, I would read the comics while eating breakfast, and in high school, I would retrieve the newspaper from the front step, and read the comics and the news, or as much of it as I could, while sitting on the radiator next to the front door, before leaving for school.

Naturally, growing up in Colorado, our history classes included aspects of Colorado and Denver history—one of those salient points being the establishment of the Rocky Mountain News. It was, at the time, a clever name because it fixated neither on Denver nor on Auraria, two competing and growing cities on either side of Cherry Creek. To help prove its bi-city emphasis, its offices were built upon a bridge crossing the creek, a prime location for flooding which would sweep the newspaper’s printing presses elsewhere, gumming up the machinery with sand, grass, and corrosive water.

Later, after the two cities merged, it would have been more practical to have the unified city name, something like, oh, The Denver Post. However, tradition kept the name the same, often flummoxing outsiders, especially since the paper chose, at some point, to be the unusual tabloid size—usually tabloid sized papers had the quality of the Weekly World News. However, while I was growing up, it had lots of quality.

Sometimes a miserable job...

Sometimes a miserable job...

Eventually I started delivering The New York Times and reading both the News and the Times.

Once I moved to Germany I gave up my daily newsprint habit. Fortunately for me, The New York Times, Rocky Mountain News, Casper Star-Tribune, and Bloomington Herald-Times, were available online, and with a diverse set of locations interesting me, web access was certainly handy, and more convenient than print access.

But here’s the funny thing: along the way, the Bloomington newspaper started charging to access the website and I stopped reading it. I can’t say that I miss it. I can still get my Hoosier news from the Indianapolis Star, the Indiana Daily Student, and from occasional glances at Scott Tibb’s website (I disagree with him on about 80-90% of the issues).

So last week, when I was in Denver, I renewed my acquaintances with the print versions of The Rocky Mountain News and The New York Times.

Now I have to confess, I don’t look at the Rocky Mountain News’ website daily—maybe two or three times a week. Seeing the actual print edition was somewhat of a revelation: Since leaving Denver, the Rocky’s become incredibly shitty.

I have a unique way of reading newspapers: I ignore all the advertisements. Ignoring all advertising, I then look for interesting news articles, and I read them. I do this in an orderly fashion, from front to back, reading first the news section, then the business section, followed by sports, and closing with lifestyles (“Spotlight” or “Arts”), and the comics. I use this method for all newspapers, even those I am reading for the first time. It’s similar to the way I read The Economist (front to back, skipping only the editorials and ads, and reading the editorials last).

Last week, I don’t think there was a single day when it took me more than five minutes to read The Rocky Mountain News. An astonishing percentage of the bulk was advertising, and on some pages with articles, advertising took up 80% of the space!

The New York Times, on the other hand, took a heck of a lot longer to read.

Based on my casual observation, I would assume that The Rocky Mountain News is rolling in money, but apparently it’s not. Apparently it’s losing millions of bucks and the Rocky is for sale. Apparently, if nobody nibbles, it will be closed.

Which actually brings a thought I had last week to mind: I don’t actually miss newsprint that much. The difference between reading the Rocky Mountain News online and in print was the newsprint on my hands—the web is better since I have adblock, and quite frankly there’s really not much to read in the Rocky. The New York Times is just as interesting online as it is in print, minus the newsprint. I actually told my sister that if the Rocky started charging for access, I wouldn’t pay (see Bloomington), but that I would be willing to pay (say $10 a month, maybe more) to access The New York Times.

It always crushes my soul a bit when I hear about a newspaper closing—I think newspapers play a vital and important role in society, even in an increasingly blog-centric, citizen-journalist world. It’s also sad when a city is reduced to having only one local paper—as competition really does drive quality journalism and make better journalists. Newspapers, traditionally, have also had the resources to do in-depth investigations and expose problems. Remember, journalists from The Washington Post, not a television station, were the ones to expose Watergate.

Unfortunately I doubt there’s any saving the Rocky. In today’s diminished economy and with several years of poor management, it is probably impossible to change its destiny.

Dead at 150 years.

5 comments to Grey Ladies, Sinking

  • Coincidentally, the Victoria Times-Colonist turns 150 years old this week; the paper included an 80-page retrospective featuring past headlines and photos (as well as a fascimile of the very first edition of the British Colonist, one of its two antecedents, published on December 11, 1858).

    The paper appears to be doing OK, but the parent company, Canwest, is also having difficulties.

  • disenchanted

    Our paper cut ~35 jobs last month. Of course, I don’t subscribe to it because: (1) apparently, they don’t have proofreaders; (2) I can read it online and laugh at the funny comments; and (3) when we first moved here, the third page was a “Cliff Note” section — it summarized all the main articles into 2 sentences. Honestly, I was insulted by that. Blah.

    Now, we get the Wall Street Journal every day in paper — and I read the NYT online every day (we had delivery problems with the NYT, so we cancelled it).

  • It’s a real shame what’s happening to newspapers. It all comes down to Craiglist, you know. Inserts and full-page ads brought in the bucks, but the bread and butter business of two-line ads selling bicycles and batons is no online for free.

    So how many papers did you have on your route? I had about 25 on the weekdays, 30 on weekends when they were heavier (!) and it took me a little over an hour to plunk ’em all down – up hill to boot… Did it for about five years from 8 yrs to 13.

  • @Jerry: Congrats to the victoria paper lasting 150 years! I hope it lasts another 150–and that it has content.

    @Disenchanted: Local papers in America seem to be getting progressively worse. It’s really discouraging…

    @ian: My New York Times routes varied tremendously in number, depending on whether it was a dense route or not; say from 100 on the low end to 250 on the high end, for Sundays. Weekdays were a whole different animal (much lower numbers, but there were auxiliary products being delivered that increased the pay).

  • jen

    I have a unique way of reading newspapers: I ignore all the advertisements. Ignoring all advertising, I then look for interesting news articles, and I read them.

    I do the very same thing. Truth be told I don’t even read news in print unless it’s on the iternet…most of my news I get from The Daily Show or the Colbert Report.