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Under Weight of Its Mistakes, Newspaper Industry Staggers

The list of two-newspaper towns got shorter on Friday, the last day for Denver's 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News.
The list of two-newspaper towns got shorter on Friday, the last day for Denver's 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News. (By John Moore -- Getty Images)

"If all the big papers disappeared right now and we replaced them with 50 TPMs, it wouldn't come close to doing the job," he said. "But we're in a broader transformation where models like ours and others are going to evolve that can fill the void."

For now, though, most original reporting is provided by newspapers.

"If you don't have people out working as full-time reporters, there's this category of information that's not going to appear magically out of nowhere," said Nicholas Lemann, dean of Columbia University's School of Journalism, who argues that papers made a mistake by giving away their wares online. "In a world where all content is free, original newsgathering doesn't happen. We really need to face up to the fact that this is going to be lost."

On Friday, Hickenlooper, a Democrat who rode the Rocky Mountain News's endorsement to the mayor's office, visited the tabloid to say goodbye. He recalls an investigation by the newspaper that showed Denver's high school graduation rate was far lower than official statistics indicated. "They did cutting-edge coverage," he said.

Although E.W. Scripps Co. said three months ago that it might pull the plug, the Rocky's death still came as a shock. "A great watchdog is dead. . . . More stories will go untold," reporter Laura Frank told Columbia Journalism Review.

Longtime subscriber Harry Puncek, 68, told the newspaper that the shutdown was "like losing a relative." Another reader, Randy Brown, 56, who had tried to warn police about the Columbine High School killers, said: "Your newspaper made a heck of a difference in our lives . . . getting the truth out."

But most younger people lack such emotional attachment to their newspapers, and partisans on the left and the right call the coverage biased. With the old business model crumbling, some analysts say newspapers must find a way to charge for online content -- perhaps through "micropayments" of the kind popularized by iTunes, which offers songs for downloading at 99 cents apiece. Others say papers must go the nonprofit route, relying on donors to raise endowments, much like universities.

Private owners, freed from the short-term pressures of Wall Street, were once seen as potential saviors. But that was before the debt-laden Tribune Co. filed for bankruptcy in December, a year after being bought by Chicago real estate mogul Sam Zell, and before Philadelphia Newspapers LLC, which was bought by public relations executive Brian Tierney in 2006 and which owns the Inquirer and the Daily News, did the same last week.

Newspapers are killing sections and closing bureaus, particularly in Washington. The Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press have cut back home delivery to three days a week. The Washington Times has dropped its Saturday print edition. The Christian Science Monitor is switching to Web-only publication in April. Gannett Co., publisher of USA Today, is forcing staffers to take a week-long furlough. Hearst plans to close the Seattle Post-Intelligencer unless it gets a buyer.

The country's biggest papers have struggled as well. The New York Times has borrowed $250 million from a Mexican financier at 14 percent interest, eliminated its quarterly dividend last month to conserve cash and folded its Metro section into the paper. Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., which bought the Wall Street Journal in late 2007, has taken a roughly $3 billion write-down on the value of its newspaper unit, which includes the New York Post. Newsday is drawing up plans to end free access to its Web site.

The Washington Post, whose earnings dropped 77 percent in the fourth quarter of last year, has undergone three rounds of buyouts, killed its Sunday Source section and folded Book World as a separate section. Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli, who is merging the downtown newsroom with the Arlington-based Web operation, has cited the need to cut costs and focus on the core areas of the paper's coverage.

And on Friday, the American Society of Newspaper Editors canceled its convention, saying too many members planned to stay home.

Determined to adapt, newspapers are adding blogs, podcasts, online chats and contributions from local citizens. The New York Times will launch two Web sites tomorrow aimed at five communities in Brooklyn and New Jersey. The Post launched a similar "hyperlocal" site for Loudoun County in 2007.

Some newspaper executives say Google is eating their lunch by appropriating their content. But Jarvis, author of the book "What Would Google Do?," says the software giant is adding to newspapers' value by linking to their stories. "Google is the new newsstand," he says.

Jarvis, who now reads the New York Times on a Kindle electronic device during his subway commute, says print publications are the past. "Paper has become the comfort blanket for newspeople, and it's time to snatch the blanket out of the kids' hands," he said.

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