Slack jaws hung open, sucking air saturated with “shock and disbelief” in the Rocky Mountain News building Thursday, as hundreds of journalists learned of their newspaper’s sale and stared the bleak future of journalism, and their own pending unemployment, in the face.
The sale of the Rocky, which owner E.W. Scripps announced last week and said will last for four to six weeks before the newspaper begins to “explore other options,” still has its newsroom reeling in shock, reporter Lynn Bartels said.
“I’m incredibly sad,” she said. “The Rocky is my family. I love these people, and I love this newsroom. . People call to talk to you, and you start to cry.”
And although Scripps’ decision to sell was “not a complete surprise,” reporter John Ensslin said, the announcement left the staff in a stagnant state of disbelief.
“We cover a lot of stories where people lose their jobs. It hurts when they’re your own,” said Jim Sheeler, a former Rocky reporter and lecturer in CU-Boulder’s journalism department.
The declaration of the Rocky’s sale was one of a string of financial tremors that shook the news industry this week, as word of near financial collapse from both the Chicago Tribune, which lost almost $122 million in its third quarter, and the Miami Herald came just last weekend.
The losses signify a larger problem that’s threatening to bring down old media entirely, and the local Rocky’s plight only seems to give faces to the struggle that’s been on the tips of every print journalist’s tongues, as they wait with baited breath to see what the future of news media holds.
As students today graduate into an era of economic uncertainty, so do future journalists inherit an age of mounting pressure to diversify and market themselves to newspapers that now require students to understand not just how to write the news quickly but also to give their audience a window into exactly what they’re seeing using every medium necessary.
Journalism, in short, is no longer just a pen and paper game.
A struggle to
Nearly 150 years old, the Rocky is the state’s oldest newspaper, and its for-sale sign put up last week is the result of both a suffering economy and changes to news media that have put print news in direct competition with online media — an alternative that can offer advertisers more exposure for less money. Web sites like Craig’s List, the faster, cheaper equivalent of the newspaper classifieds that were once a marketer’s best option, only result in more lost blood for journalism’s dying print breed.
Corporations are struggling to shift to online content in an effort to cater to their audience — one that wants immediate and accessible news — and restructure their advertising departments to meet profit margins that fulfill investor demand.
In light of these economic challenges, having two papers in one city, as Denver has, is just not feasible anymore, Rocky reporter John Ensslin said, and the Rocky was facing staffing problems even before Scripps announced its sale.
“We had a lot of empty desks,” he said. “It’s not a good time to be a daily newspaper.”
And the situation doesn’t look much better in smaller towns like Fort Collins, whose largest print publication, the Coloradoan, faces the same issues as larger metropolitan cities do: All struggle to compete for a shrinking readership, said Bob Moore, the Coloradoan’s executive editor.
“The things that are driving the Rocky’s decision (to sell) are the same that we’re facing here,” he said. “One of the predictions I’ve heard is that by 2010, we’ll start seeing some American cities without a newspaper. It’s a dire warning that I hope isn’t true.”
The Coloradoan, which had six news reporters this time last year, is down to four.
“At a paper our size, taking a body here or a body there out of the operation really does have an impact,” Moore said.
Though local advertising revenues are still healthy, he said, the newspaper is working to keep up with the growing demand for online content, as print becomes a smaller piece of the media pie.
Jobs are being given to those who can multi-task, which, by today’s definition means creating in written word, photography and video. Hiring just one person to cover all areas means lighter costs for major publications and makes uploading to the Web that much faster.
“New media, new media, new media,” Ensslin said. “This recession will fade someday, and when it does, those people will be ahead in line.”
This semester the Collegian has also been forced to work more toward creating a more prevalent online presence said Larry Steward, Rocky Mountain Student Media Corporation president.
“In order to be effective and to be among those who survive, if you will, in the media wars for readers, listeners and viewers, the Collegian will continue to change and evolve,” Steward said.
Steward said the Collegian faces less pressure to upload content online than most metropolitan newspapers do, as college newspapers have both a more community-oriented feel and a very specific audience.
“It’s an exciting time; it’s a great time for the students that want to learn and be a part of it,” Steward said, “but we don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water.”
The economic crisis has already hit campus publications, as RMSMC’s student magazine, College Avenue, has been forced to cut its fourth issue this year in a struggle to cut costs.
The Collegian may eventually face decreased numbers in printed content. For now, Steward said, cuts have been mostly minor things, such as less space for news content and eliminating travel to student conferences.
“It really hits home and reiterates that nobody’s invincible,” said Makayla Braden, College Avenue editor in chief.
Since the print news industry is losing money as fast and as often as each advertisement goes online, Ensslin said he is “not optimistic” that a buyer for the Rocky will be found.
“I read the news, too, I guess,” he said.
Ensslin said, despite the dire straits journalism currently finds itself in, the experiences journalists encounter, the people they get to meet and the cross section of society they are witness to is something unique to the profession.
“It’s a great ride. I wouldn’t have traded what I did these last 25 years for anything.”
Although the way they get news may eventually change, Sheeler said people will always have an appetite for compelling stories.
“As long as we still write stories, people will read,” he said.
For Bartels, this next month’s goals include doing her job well and enjoying her remaining time, however long it may be, at the Rocky.
As the fate of the job she’s held for the past 15 years hangs in the balance, her other goal, she said, is to “not charge a single thing on my credit card.”
News Managing Editor Elyse Jarvis and Senior Reporter Jim Sojourner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.