Learning Lessons from the Rocky Mountain News

This is the first in a series of guest blog posts on the future of news by former staff of the Rocky Mountain News, marking the six-month anniversary since the 150-year-old paper published its final edition. Join us this Thursday at 5 p.m. ET/ 3 p.m. MT to chat live with these writers.

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As reporters go, Tony was the type to make interns’ palms sweat.

He asked hard questions of his sources on the city beat, cranked out copy like a machine, and had a look that told a rookie reporter, “There is such thing as a dumb question, and you’re about to ask one.” Generous in stature and prone to raising his voice, he loomed large in the newsroom. As an intern, I knew Tony was the one to watch. Not that I could help it: I had the dubious honor of sharing the desk right next to his.

I made it a habit to listen when he conducted interviews over the phone. I paid attention to the questions he asked and the way he asked them. I noted how he triangulated information, bouncing it off one source and then another. He never made small talk; Tony was strictly business and utterly professional.

That’s why I was tuned in one afternoon when, without straying from his just-doing-my-job tone, Tony ended a conversation this way: “I understand, sir. And after you answer my questions, I’ll transfer your to our circulation department. They can cancel your subscription.”

I got it immediately. The source had issued a threat meant to influence coverage. “If you run this story,” the person may have said, “I’ll cancel my subscription. I’ll hit you in the pocket book.”

For Tony –- as with so many other professional, highly principled journalists I’ve worked with –- the bottom-line threat fell flat. Cancel your subscription if we run with this story? If you must. Pull your advertisements if we shine an unflattering light on your business? Not my concern.

Until recently, a heavy line divided newsrooms from business offices. Publishers –- the good ones, at least -– understood that good journalism also was good business. They tended to side with newsrooms when coverage ran afoul of the organization’s business interest, chalking up losses to the cost of doing business in the public interest.

But the economics of today’s media industry have changed that. Publishers – or, more often, corporate media owners – are less likely to support hard-hitting journalism at the expense of the bottom line. Many have shifted profits away from newsrooms and toward less-expensive, less-risky, entertainment-oriented ventures. Some, as was the case when the E.W. Scripps Co. shuttered the Rocky Mountain News six months ago, have given up on markets all together.

And while corporate executives divert revenue from the news, and while they lobby aggressively for antitrust exemptions and other favorable policies, journalists largely have declined to walk the halls of power and profit where the fate of our craft is being decided.

It’s easy to understand the reluctance. For good journalists, professional ethics and the pursuit of non-bias are sacrosanct. Most won’t declare a political affiliation; some decline to vote; nearly all maintain an arm’s-length relationship with sources, public officials and, of course, their news organization’s business office.

In December, when Scripps announced it would put the Rocky up for sale, I joined a group of colleagues in an effort to save our newspaper. Among the 30 or so editors, reporters and photographers who took part in what came to be known as the I Want My Rocky movement, one of the greatest debates centered on whether we, as journalists, could ask our elected officials for help.

It was a highly relevant question.

Much of the Rocky's fate unfolded at the U.S. Department of Justice, which, in 2001, had cleared the way for an antitrust exemption for the Rocky and competing Denver Post to enter into a joint operating agreement. Thus, the DOJ had to approve before the agreement could be amended to close the Rocky. With some reluctance, and at the eleventh hour, I Want My Rocky wrote letters to members of Congress, asking them to encourage the DOJ to act with careful attention to the public interest.

Only after the Rocky published its final edition did we learn that Scripps and Post parent MediaNews Group had been negotiating with the Justice Department for months. Incidentally, in the midst of those negotiations, an open-records request to the DOJ from Rocky journalists was turned down. The only party advocating for journalism was denied not only a seat at the table, but a view through the window.

For me, the lesson of the Rocky's closure is that journalists cannot be objective about our right to exist.

We must engage the forces that put profit ahead of public service, and we must do it by taking an active, informed role in shaping public policy and the business practices of our industry.

Does that mean reporters like Tony should change their tune when subscribers threaten to cancel or advertisers attempt to influence news coverage? Absolutely not. Journalists can and will evolve ways to maintain the strong line that protects the integrity of our work. But at a time when traditional revenue models are failing and corporate owners are giving up on the news, journalists must be willing to shepherd our industry through this transition by exploring new revenue models and ownership structures, and by being willing to advocate policies to support them.

As journalists, if we believe so strongly in the principles of our profession, we must be willing to defend them when they come under assault, as they are today.

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Kim Humphreys, formerly a copy editor and page designer at the Rocky, is director of I Want My Rocky, a nonprofit initiative working to stem losses in journalism.

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good