We'll lose more than a paper

Rocky Mountain News, Feb. 27, 2009

Farewell, my Rocky. You've been part of my life ever since I was 8 years old, when I started reading you to follow the 1968 presidential election and campaign of my hero Robert Kennedy.

You were part of my family even before I was born, from the early 1950s when my father was your notoriously tough copy editor. It's a good thing you were around then, since he had lost any chance to work for The Denver Post - having written a scathing editorial about the Bonfils family back when he was the editor of the University of Colorado campus newspaper.

You were born during the administration of James Buchanan, in a nation on the brink of a war of secession over slavery. You lasted all the way until the inauguration of the first black president. That's an awfully long time. You survived the Panic of 1873, the Panic of 1893, the Great Depression, the booms and busts of Colorado's resource-based economy, and innumerable newspaper wars. But even a cat with more than nine lives eventually runs out.

In retrospect, the 1990s and the early 21st century were a golden age for the Rocky and the Post. The papers were much better than they had been in the '60s and '70s. In the '90s they fought Denver's last great newspaper war, and put lots of resources into great reporting and writing. In the new century, the joint operating agreement allowed the papers to do even more.

I hope that every one of the Rocky's loyal readers takes out a subscription to the Post, because a city with one major daily is a lot better than a city with none at all.

Unfortunately, the demise of the Rocky is more than a 50 percent diminution in newspaper quality in Denver. There's the direct loss of the stories which the Rocky covered and the Post didn't, or which the Rocky investigated thoroughly and the Post only superficially. But there's also the less visible loss of how competition with the Rocky has made the Post a better paper throughout all of that paper's own venerable history. Having two newspapers is more than twice as good as having just one, because each newspaper spurs the other to better work.

One common dictum of why the Internet is killing newspapers is that "Free is not a business model." Papers may gain readers by publishing for free on the Internet, but they lose subscription revenue. The explanation is only half-accurate. "Free" actually has been a perfectly good model for broadcast television. And when you're reading a print newspaper, it's pretty hard to escape that full-page ad from Macy's/Foley's/May D&F/Daniels & Fisher (as the department store has variously been named over the Rocky's history).

Compared to a print ad, an advertisement on a newspaper Web site is only about one- tenth as effective, in terms of converting viewers into customers for the advertiser. So advertising rates are lower.

There are folks who say "I don't need newspapers. I just read the Internet." Well, if all you want to do is read opinion, the Internet today provides a wealth of high-quality, well- written opinion. Yet, in the long run, those opinion writers are dependent on news reporters.

With the Rocky gone tomorrow - and the Post perhaps gone within two years - who is going to report the news in Denver? The TV and radio stations only report a fraction of the number of stories that go into a daily newspaper, and the reporting is much less detailed than what's in the papers.

It's possible to have a republic without newspapers. But we've never done it in America, and there's no guarantee that we'll succeed at doing it.

Whatever the future brings, I'm very grateful for my eight years with the Rocky. No other major newspaper in the United States has opened itself up to weekly criticism from a paid columnist. Never have the editors suppressed one of my stories. The editors have helped me become a better, more precise writer. I hope the columns have helped readers become more discerning consumers of media.

Thank you, Rocky. You were a great newspaper, and we'll miss you forever.

Dave Kopel is research director at the Independence Institute, an attorney and author of 11 books. He has been a media critic at the Rocky Mountain News since 2001.  

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Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily representing the views of the Independence Institute or as an attempt to influence any election or legislative action. Please send comments to Independence Institute, 727 East 16th Ave., Colorado 80203. Phone 303-279-6536. (email) webmngr @ i2i.org

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