Today the Rocky Mountain News, Colorado's oldest newspaper, published its final edition. Despite the government incessant efforts to save America's car companies, banks, investment houses and a seemingly never-ending parade of special interests, newspapers aren't in line for rescuing.
In the long run, that's probably a good thing. The way so many in the media pander to wildly popular President Barack Obama nowadays would probably only worsen should he be seen as not just the savior of this nation, but also of their very jobs. The latter hits much closer to home.
The News is the first major newspaper to close. It probably won't be the last, even if the economy turns around as quickly and as robustly as President Obama's tremendously optimistic budget plan predicts.
The San Francisco Chronicle, announced earlier this week that it might close or be sold and revealed that the paper is losing $50 million a year. A line in a Wall Street Journal article on the paper's difficulties suggested that the paper could fire its entire staff and still not be able to cover that shortfall.
What's wrong with the newspaper industry? Certainly part of it is the general economic downturn hitting the nation. But a big part of it is the same thing that hit the banks and auto industry -- incompetent management. How out of whack does your budget have to be that, a la San Francisco Chronicle, you could reduce your payroll to zero and still be in the hole? The Chronicle has reportedly been losing money every year since 2000. How exactly is that possible?
All sorts of solutions have been offered by all sorts of pundits -- usually it involves some sort of pay-to-read model that is very unlikely to work absent unprecedented cooperation between most major American newspapers and magazines. However, that horse has probably already left the barn. There's a whole generation-plus of Americans who are comfortable reading the morning paper online -- for free. Newspapers will eventually die as a medium as the baby boomers die out. That's still a few decades away, but it's coming. Instead, the news will be delivered electronically, wirelessly.
The key, of course, is finding a way to make it pay.
Advertisers willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for full page color print advertising are unwilling to pay similar dollars for brief interstitial ads on newspaper Web sites. (Interstitial ads are those that take over your browser for a few seconds and usually have a link in a corner allowing you to skip them. They are the closest Web equivalent to a full page ad.) Until the day comes where advertisers will pay the big bucks for Web ads, the newspaper industry will continue to shrink. That's not good news for journalists like me. It's worse news for our democracy.