Disappointing day in Denver

February 26, 2009 § Leave a comment

We all pretty much knew how the story was going to end. Those of us who observe the U.S. media industry know that two-newspaper towns are a thing of the past. We saw that trend start almost 20 years ago, when all the big cities in Texas lost their second newspapers.

The new round started Thursday in Denver, where the Rocky Mountain News is, as I type this, in the process of producing its final edition. More than 150 years and four Pulitzer Prizes weren’t enough to keep the E.W. Scripps Co. from shutting down the paper.

The Rocky was the “failing partner” in that strange concoction known as a Joint Operating Agreement — an exemption from the antitrust laws, created by the Nixon Administration in 1970, to “protect editorial voices” in communities. The act allows two competing newspapers to share business operations in order to keep publishing both newspapers.

The idea hasn’t been particularly successful; as these agreements have started to expire in the last few years, so have the papers they were meant to prop up. This little economic blip, of course, isn’t helping.

I fear this signals the beginning of a trend. Hearst Corp. has put the Seattle Post-Intelligencer up for sale. Nobody’s buying. It will likely cease to exist soon. Hearst has also threatened to close the San Francisco Chronicle. The McClatchy Co., whose stock has tumbled from $80 to 50 cents, give or take, over the last five years, has put the Miami Herald up for sale. Nobody’s buying.

The fact that we saw this coming doesn’t make it any easier to accept. I left newspapers five years ago, but my livelihood remains closely tied to the industry. It’s a scary thing to watch, wondering if my company is going to have any customers in a couple of years. I worry somewhat less about that; I think there’ll always be a market for news, and as such, there’ll be a market for technology to manage that content delivery.

I don’t think Nixon had any particular passion for journalism. He was a savvy politician who knew about keeping his friends close and his enemies closer, at least until he sent those guys over to that hotel in Foggy Bottom. He got the newspapers on his side by signing the Newspaper Preservation Act, and they helped him get re-elected by a landslide in 1972.

But somewhere underneath that devious heart, I’d like to think that Nixon understood the importance of strong oversight to a healthy democracy. That oversight is weakening. That weakness does not bode well for our society.

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