Don Rogers: Biting the hand
April 19, 2018
Something shifted with The Denver Post rebellion.
The journalists blamed their hedge fund owners, Alden Global Capital, for ruining the paper in an editorial April 6 headlined: "As vultures circle, The Denver Post must be saved."
The newsroom had just been told they needed to trim 30 positions by July. Their news staff of 250 in 2013 will drop to 70.
The gist was that the owners had taken profits out of The Post and other Digital First Media properties — including The San Jose Mercury News, East Bay Times and Orange County Register — to spend on other ventures.
In our business, the editorial was like that Delaware-sized iceberg calving off Antarctica's shelf. We give catty quotes to other media covering our internal affairs. We don't call out the owner in our own pages. We try to project strength, not whine to our readers about needing to support us.
The author of the editorial, maybe a little self-servingly, claimed there were all these profits available at his operation and still "many" wildly profitable newspapers. Really? Where?
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The New York Times, also long struggling, has made a business model out of fear of Trump among enough of the nation's population to surge in digital subscriptions and turn a small profit in 2017. The Washington Post under Jeff Bezo's ownership has grown its newsroom and like The Times its scrutiny of politics, though as a private company its financials are not publicly known.
Both are beacons for how what we know as newspapers today can evolve as businesses. Not to go to war with the sitting president, but in how to best adjust to the digital age and capitalize on shared interests.
Still, we don't have far to look to find many more media companies in trouble, not from evil ownership but the digital disruption, declining print circulation, and shifts in how advertising dollars are spent now.
The Denver Post newsroom might not notice, but their print circulation and revenue trends have run roughly in line with their staffing decreases. Same in Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Reno.
The smaller papers have not eroded nearly as much, but we're not exactly riding any delirious upswings these days. There are pockets of success — my paper in Vail did see its business surge after the Great Recession before leveling out these past couple of years.
In this region, however, Marysville, Auburn and we have been well challenged, let's say. We dismantled our printing press shortly before my time and joined a longstanding trend of contracting out our printing, as The San Francisco Chronicle did a dozen years ago and Reno Gazette-Journal did last year.
The Auburn Journal reduced its print frequency from five days a week to two. We've all tightened staff, like pretty much everyone in news media, including online-only organizations.
I don't say this as boo hoo. We actually added a position to our news staff at The Union a year and a half ago. I am saying The Denver Post journalists have more than apparently rapacious ownership to blame for their troubles.
And their editorial, this open revolt, is remarkable beyond a staff that apparently hasn't followed the news about their own industry very closely.
This is part of a shift, maybe, about how we talk about our work and the future of journalism. By the way, how we talk about the future of journalism probably isn't so different than how we talk about the future of the world. Mother Earth will do just fine if she shucks off her human infestation; and journalism will find its means of expression, eventually, if newspapers as we have known them disappear.
There's simply too much demand for news, along with all that other stuff posing as news in a sort of cheese-food fashion. Journalism does not require a specific medium to express the results of gathering and checking empirical evidence for its worthiness to report.
The way our society has funded the effort, through business, is changing along with the explosion of ways to distribute news and views.
It may well go all to ashes and require some new phoenix someday to meet the need, I don't know. Or the existing organizations will find new means of funding the meat of journalism, the actual reporting, the expensive part no one including Facebook or Google wants to pay for.
The Post's editorial, and others I'm starting to see, are dead on in recognizing that ultimately this comes down to you, the reader supporting the work. I'm not sure how much the specter of losing the paper will work as a sales pitch. I do think we're taken for granted, by advertisers as well as readers in still the largest gathering place for community information.
We'll see. But I am kind of glad the papers no longer are acting like these unassailable castles untouched by progress and economic reality. It's just not true.
We do need you to support us. Really, we always have.
Don Rogers is the publisher of The Union, Lake Wildwood Independent and Truckee Sun. He can be reached at email@example.com or 530-477-4299.