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2009-03-06

Rocky Mountain News Ceases Publication as Other Newspapers Face Threat of Similar Fate

Guests

Bernie Lunzer, president of the Newspaper Guild.

Laura Frank, former investigative reporter at the Rocky Mountain News.

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A week ago today, the last issue of the Rocky Mountain News hit newsstands across Denver. The paper’s owner, E.W. Scripps Company, closed the Pulitzer Prize-winning paper to the shock of the paper’s staff and readers. Other papers could soon face the same demise. We speak to Newspaper Guild president Bernie Lunzer and Laura Frank, until last week an investigative reporter at the Rocky Mountain News. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

A week ago today, the last issue of the Rocky Mountain News hit newsstands across Denver. The paper’s owner, E.W. Scripps Company, closed the Pulitzer Prize-winning paper to the shock of the paper’s staff and readers. The 150-year-old Rocky was Colorado’s first newspaper and the state’s oldest continually operated business.

This is how Rich Boehne, the president and CEO of E.W. Scripps, broke the news last week to the staff at the Rocky.

    RICH BOEHNE: One thing I just want to make sure and say, it’s certainly nothing you did. You all did everything right. But while you were out doing your part, the business model and the economy changed. and the Rocky became a victim of that.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

Other papers could soon face the same demise as the Rocky Mountain News. The owners of the San Francisco Chronicle, Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Tucson Citizen are threatening to close the papers if new owners cannot be found. The owners of the Chicago Tribune, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New Haven Register have sought bankruptcy protection. The Christian Science Monitor will soon become a web-only publication.

AMY GOODMAN:

The New York Times and the Washington Post are also facing financial troubles. The Times recently had to borrow $250 million and is considering selling part of its new headquarters in Times Square. The Washington Post’s fourth quarter earnings fell 77 percent.

To talk more about the future of newspapers, we’ve got two guests. Laura Frank is with us, worked as an investigative reporter at the Rocky Mountain News up until last week. She joins us from Denver. And Bernie Lunzer is with us in Washington. He’s the president of the Newspaper Guild.

Let’s begin with Laura Frank, Laura joining us from Rocky Mountain PBS. Tell us about what happened to the Rocky Mountain News, your paper.

LAURA FRANK:

Well, a week ago today, Amy, the Rocky published its last edition ever. In fifty-five days, we would have reached our 150th anniversary. But as you just heard the CEO say, the economy did us in, and so we ceased publication, and a great newspaper is dead.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

Bernie Lunzer, I’ve heard estimates that as many as 12,000 journalists have lost their jobs in the last two years as a result of these downsizings and closings. What is the future for newspapers in the United States, and what is your union trying to do about it?

BERNIE LUNZER:

I think the future is troubled. The goal is to try to get to the other side, whatever that other side is — new products, new news organizations, where distribution is on any platform that works. We’re pursuing alternative ownership strategies. We’re pursuing changes in the law that would facilitate bringing foundation money in. We’re really working with any people that we can on forming alliances, on trying to find ways to sustain good journalism. But there are no guarantees right now. It is a very troubling and difficult time.

AMY GOODMAN:

Laura Frank, you are in the process of starting up a nonprofit news organization. Talk about what your plans are.

LAURA FRANK:

Well, I think, like Bernie says, we’re not entirely sure what is coming in the future. We’ve never been at a juncture like this before in our democracy. But I believe there needs to be a bridge so that the citizens continue to have the kind of in-depth investigative stories that we depend on, that can be delivered to whatever platform is next, whether it’s newspapers in some form, it’s electronic, it’s broadcast, whatever that is. So we are working with the University of Colorado as a partner to train young journalists and then deliver content to those media outlets that still exist in the state of Colorado, because this is an important part of our state, and the Rocky Mountain News was known for its in-depth and investigative work over the years, and we don’t want to lose that in our state.

AMY GOODMAN:

Can you talk about the piece you were going to have published in the Saturday Rocky Mountain News, which never came into being? I mean, you’re very well known for your series, “Deadly Denial,” taking on the government’s failure to take care of workers at nuclear testing sites, like Rocky Flats.

LAURA FRANK:

I’ve been working on that story over the years, well over the past decade. The story that was supposed to run Saturday was not about sick nuclear weapons workers. It was actually a follow-up to a series that I had worked on with several other reporters last year, a year ago December, looking at the giant oil and gas boom in Colorado and what that meant to the citizens and the state. And that was a — it was a tremendous impact on the state, both fiscally and socially, environmentally.

I had gone back with another reporter to the other side of the Rockies — we call it the West Slope — and we actually wound up almost sliding off the majestic Roan Plateau in a makeshift sort of road that had turned into a mudslide as a semi was coming down toward us. So we were quite glad we didn’t die for a story that would never run. But the story looked at what the state had — the effects of, actually, the collapse of the economy on this oil and gas boom. And what had been, you know, a national controversy over whether to drill on the majestic Roan Plateau had actually sort of fallen flat, because the companies were leaving on their own, because of the economy.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

Bernie Lunzer, I’d like to ask you about the general importance of newspapers. Some people would argue that, well, with the web and with all the information that is available to the public now, maybe newspapers aren’t as necessary as they have been in the past. But the issue of this independent local reporting and the number of people actually dedicated to coming up with stories is critical, isn’t it?

BERNIE LUNZER:

Well, yeah, there’s a huge misunderstanding right now. There is a belief that, you know, the newspapers are going to fail; so what? What most people don’t realize is what a critical part of the news food chain newspapers and print really have been. It isn’t the physical newspaper that matters so much as the content that it represents. The local coverage that could be lost in the next ten years, if there are no policy changes, if there’s no new model for revenue, is really kind of frightening. And I would go so far, and I know it sounds cliché, but I think democracy itself would be very much at risk if you have a culture where people literally won’t know what’s going on. You know, they’ll get entertainment news, they might get national news, they’ll get some of the things that they can get, but they may literally know nothing about their local community.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

Now, back in the ‘70s —

LAURA FRANK:

Juan, I’d like to jump in on that, if I might.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

—- the government had introduced the Newspaper Preservation Act -—

BERNIE LUNZER:

Right.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

— as one way to deal with failing papers at that time. Could you talk about that act and what it was able to accomplish?

BERNIE LUNZER:

Well, the act certainly — it allowed for joint operating agreements, so you could get two newsrooms that could basically operate separately, put out two separate products, but they would have one business entity. So all their advertising and all the commercial side was commingled, co-joined. The problem with it was, it really was perhaps — it did preserve some products, like the Rocky. It preserved the Seattle P-I for a period of time. But it still didn’t — it didn’t solve the problem. And it did, in some cases, it still let the owners believe that they had a monopoly on a market when it came to ad rates and things like that. So, maybe it forestalled the problem, and then, of course, the web came along and changed all the dynamics.

AMY GOODMAN:

Laura Frank, you wanted to get a word in there.

LAURA FRANK:

Yeah, I just wanted to say I think that Bernie makes a good point. And we — I want to tell you about an experience that we had several times over the past two months. You know, Scripps announced December 4th that the Rocky Mountain News was for sale. And everyone knew right away that that would likely mean, in this atmosphere, closure. And we would get letters and calls and emails and comments on our website saying, “Gosh, it’s terrible that the newspaper may go away, but don’t worry, we’ll keep reading you on the web.” I think a lot of consumers of news on the web don’t realize where that information is coming from. And the way that news tends to work in this country is that it surfaces at the level of local newspapers and sort of percolates its way up. And so, to get information to the masses, we really depend on those local — in most cases, those local newspapers. So we’ve not seen before in this democracy what is happening today.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

And Laura, even the papers that are surviving are surviving with fewer actual reporters who go out there and get the news, and more of the people now — I know that in many daily newspapers — now it’s the websites are the only ones that are growing, the people who design the websites, who regurgitate the news that they found someplace else. So, even those that are still around, the actual number of people who go out in the streets to gather the news is declining rapidly, isn’t it?

LAURA FRANK:

You know, Juan, the week before the Rocky closed, I did a quick survey, and in Denver in the last two years alone, there had been at least twenty-five investigative reporters, editors and producers who were no longer working, no longer with eyes out there watching out for what was going on. With the closure of the Rocky, you can add, you know, at least ten or twelve more classic investigative reporters to that list. But if you look at the overall number of reporters that have been lost in this city in the past couple of years, you’re probably looking in the hundreds. And that is not something — that’s been happening over several years; it’s not something that happened just last week with the closure of the Rocky. You’re right, it’s something that’s been happening across the country in incremental ways over the past ten years.

AMY GOODMAN:

Who will hold the government accountable, Laura Frank?

LAURA FRANK:

Well, we still have one newspaper. We still have some TV stations. We have citizen journalists. And we hopefully soon have the nonprofit investigative news network that we’re working on. And we hope some combination of that will continue to hold officials accountable.

Even the mayor of Denver, at the announcement of the closure of the Rocky Mountain News said, “Look, it’s not” — I’m paraphrasing him, but he said, “It’s not always pleasant to be the subject of the spotlight, of public examination, but it’s an important thing.” And we all realize that, and we need it to continue to happen, so we’re going to have to figure out a new way to work it.

But I don’t think it’s entirely new. I mean, citizens have always been a part of the news as it percolates up, as I said. And so, I think that we’re going to have to figure out a way to make sure that still happens and people are paying attention right now. The death of the Rocky Mountain News has gotten attention not only here in Colorado, but throughout the nation. And in fact, I did an interview yesterday with multimedia news in Bogota, Colombia. This has really been a wake-up call for people, so I’m hoping that there may be some good that comes out of it.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

And Bernie Lunzer — I’d just like to ask Bernie — we have about twenty seconds left.

BERNIE LUNZER:

Yeah.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

You were talking about possible new models that involve foundation and for-profit models.

BERNIE LUNZER:

Yes.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

Could you quickly give us a quick sense of that?

BERNIE LUNZER:

Well, if you Google the term “L3C,” you’ll see that we’re trying to push forth legislation that creates a socially oriented for-profit company that can take nonprofit foundation money. So, on that level, we’re trying to mix for-profit and nonprofit. We think it’s a major change in the LLC structure, and we think it has huge potential for the market.

AMY GOODMAN:

We want to thank both of you for being with us, Bernie Lunzer, president of the Newspaper Guild, speaking to us from Washington, and Laura Frank, former investigative reporter at the Rocky Mountain News. Her husband also worked at the Rocky Mountain News, which closed last week, would have celebrated its 150th anniversary this next month.

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