Director of UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program
I feel like a ghost. I have one foot in a world that no longer exists. When my students look at me, they know not the world whence I come, and it disappeared only 10 years ago. I’m a survivor of the waning days of metro newspapers with knowledgeable beat reporters, journalists who spent years developing expertise in the courts, or local government, or schools.
One of the perks of working in a newsroom is hearing stories from the journalists around you. I was lucky to work at the Rocky Mountain News with one of the best storytellers, Gene Amole, a giant of Colorado journalism who as a young soldier had helped liberate Buchenwald. He used to tell me how he remembered the men who had died fighting alongside him in Europe in World War II. He almost sounded envious. While he’d had his ups and downs in life and was suffering the infirmities of age, in his mind the men had stayed forever young. They were frozen in his memory at a time when it seemed their whole life lay ahead of them.
It was 10 years ago on February 27 that the newspaper we affectionately called “the Rocky” published its final edition, and the spirit of the paper seems both alive in my memories and painfully absent from our world. Mine wasn’t the only newspaper that closed during the Great Recession. By July 2009, Business Insider reported, 105 had been shut down and 10,000 jobs lost. I was in the center of that storm. I don’t need to remind those who were there how dark those days were.
But as frightening as the economy seemed and as threatened as newspaper publishers felt at the time, I don’t think anybody imagined what would befall Denver’s surviving daily newspaper. The Denver Post is being plundered by its “vulture capital” owner, Alden Global Capital.
In the months, weeks, and even days leading up to the closure of the Rocky, I felt that its leaders needed to think much more radically about the stark financial situation before us. Taking steps to survive might be painful, but at least we’d be taking our best shot at success.
With two newsrooms producing two weekday papers and two news websites, and with a history of hyper-discounted subscription rates, we were bleeding red ink. The prospects for coming years looked bleak. The owners of the Rocky and the Post were 50-50 partners in the collective business, and they had different agendas. The Rocky’s owners felt they had to do something. The simplest thing, the easiest thing, was to shut one of the papers and move on. And that’s what they did. As the editor, president, and publisher of the Rocky, I helped them do it.
Fast-forward 10 years, and I still worry that journalists are not being radical enough about how to create vibrant local news organizations, without which the health of our communities will be at risk. One new study found that a municipality’s borrowing costs increase when local reporting dies. Without journalists, the risk of corruption, of mismanagement, grows. Another study found that communities with declining coverage have lower levels of voter turnout. People need independent, reliable, fact-based reporting to help them make good decisions. Democracy can’t function without it. I won’t quote Thomas Jefferson. But if you wonder what he would have said about the matter, look it up.
Today, on one hand, we have the company that now owns the Post extracting every cent it can get from the property, carefully managing the glide path to oblivion to maximize profits. Where once there were people who thought they were in the business of publishing newspapers, in Denver and many other communities we have people who are in the business of sucking them dry. That’s why those people will never sell the papers that some in their communities might like to buy and revitalize, because the price would have to be too high. There’s nowhere else they could get the return they’re getting for the price they paid. They can profit even in decline by selling off all of a paper’s assets, especially valuable real estate, and cutting expenses while gouging subscribers. They’re ruthless financial engineers willing to take steps even pirate publishers were not. They’d need a massive windfall from any sale to have enough to invest in something else that would provide them the same return.
On the other hand, there are people and foundations across the country investing in local-news initiatives, including in Denver. They believe—correctly, I think—that people need news and that the primary job of a news organization is to help the community it serves. I never left journalism, and after the Rocky closed, I joined this effort, first as the founding editor of Honolulu Civil Beat, launched as a for-profit site and today a nonprofit. Some are looking for what will or could replace daily newspapers, which were the best vehicle for giving a community an understanding of itself, an identity. Others are looking to build niche products that will be able to survive because they won’t have to carry the burden of providing something for everyone, as local newspapers have tried to do.
We’ve had different ownership structures for local news organizations over the years. Today it seems many are hoping for a rich savior like Jeff Bezos, who bought The Washington Post, or Patrick Soon-Shiong, who bought the Los Angeles Times. Or they hope the Trump bump for subscriptions to national publications will trickle down to them.
But what if communities experimented with new models, just as the Red Cross emerged to take care of the sick and wounded in times of war, or the United Way became a force? Or Habitat for Humanity or Big Brothers Big Sisters or Goodwill? What if communities saw the crisis in local news as an opportunity to create something new, something that they needed? All these agencies arose to solve a problem, to meet a need. All these ventures are based on community funding, on donations. We know there’s a problem. We know there’s a need. We know that civil society, at least on the local level, is in danger. We know that we risk not having an informed populace. Could a new movement address the information needs of a local community that would be remembered by future generations the way these nonprofits are?
There are already larger-scale national, even global, platforms showing what’s possible when people take information needs into their own hands, and though none is a perfect corollary for local news, all offer valuable lessons. Think of the Internet Archive. Or Wikipedia. Or even Nextdoor.
But if similarly successful initiatives are going to happen on the local level, we’re going to need to be more radical. I keep thinking that public radio and public television are best positioned to lead the way. They already have so many of the pieces in place. Membership. Multimedia outlets. Newsrooms with reporters. But as much as I admire what they do, I think it’s fair to say that they’re still mostly radio and TV outlets with websites on the side. That’s not going to cut it for the people I see on my BART commute in the Bay Area. They are living on their phones—or, better put, their portable computers—and headphones. In Philadelphia, a nonprofit owns the newspaper and is trying to turn it into a multi-platform publisher, and maybe other communities could do something similar. But while the news organizations are going to need to change how they approach their jobs, they’ll also need help.
What if local governments created local taxing districts to support local news, the way the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District in the Denver metropolitan area levies sales taxes to support cultural organizations? Not the only support, of course. But at least a base they can count on. Or what if states included capped opt-in donations on income taxes that could be directed by taxpayers to fund local news organizations in lieu of giving the money to the state? Britain has found a successful model to support the BBC with its license fee on television sets, for example. Americans typically reject the notion of any type of government support for journalism, but in fact we’ve used special postal rates and legal advertising to subsidize our newspapers. Couldn’t there be a new form of subsidy? Yes, these ideas—admittedly not fully developed—raise thorny questions, but I think they’re worth pursuing, because the alternative of losing local media entirely is unacceptable.
The Rocky didn’t die for lack of passion. I don’t think it died for lack of quality. I may be looking back with rose-colored glasses and seeing the newsroom and its relationship with the community through an unrealistic lens. But I don’t think so.
The Rocky died because the cost structure of two newspapers couldn’t be justified, given their revenues. So instead of inventing something new, instead of risking a different kind of failure, we killed a paper with a 150-year history. That’s a lot easier than trying to invent something new. What was hard 10 years ago, and what’s hard today, is that for local news organizations to be successful, it has to be obvious what they care about, and why it’s worthwhile to pay attention to them. They have to be passionate about something. And it can’t be everything.
I have my memories of the Rocky. They’re frozen in time. Safe. Warm. Maybe I’m lucky I didn’t have to suffer further. But I wish it were still alive, even if it wasn’t anything like it used to be.