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April 2009

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A DEATH IN THE FAMILY


By H. HARRISON COCHRAN

Last month, before closure of the Rocky Mountain News, Aurora Sentinel Publisher Harrison Cochran contributed to A&M Reviews article on the future of newspapers, How the News final announcement reached many Colorado publishers generated these afterthoughts.

As often happens after a long terminal illness, the call comes unexpectedly and so it was with the Rocky Mountain News. As has been a custom for decades the Colorado Press convention opened last month with a publisher's luncheon at the Governor's mansion. Ritter is the fourth governor to host this event in my Colorado career, but 2009 will be recalled long after his term in office.

About half the publishers in the state along with editors and spouses were in attendance. Ritter spoke before lunch since he had real work to do in an hour pushing his hospital fee proposal. By the end of his no-free-lunch, self-serving remarks as the moment for questions approached Ft. Collins Coloradoan Executive Editor Bob Moore was eager as a Jeopardy contestant to go first, which the governor recognized.

“It has just been announced that tomorrow will be the last edition of the Rocky Mountain News,” Moore told a shocked but not surprised crowd, “What are your comments on that?”

A sweep of the room revealed no News execs and only two top Post editors.

Faster than you could say, “Get me rewrite,” half the room slapped leather to unholster their iPhones and BlackBerrys. Many began texting furiously - so much for telling my 18 year old what not to do in class. The supreme irony of newspaper publishers getting the death notice digitally was not lost on a room full of writers, but it'll dawn on you it illustrates a point.

In answering Moore's question, after expressing condolences, the governor said he regretted his children would not have a printed newspaper to read when they grew up.

Greenwood Villager Publisher Bob Sweeney, never too shy to lecture a governor, rose to remind all that, “Most newspapers in the country are doing just fine and plan to be around for a long time.”

That set the tone for the week.

The next three days were spent either trying to understand what is happening to newspapers or to explain why it won't happen to all, particularly community weeklies.

Many analogies were drawn beyond the death and dying Kubler-Ross parallels.

Some thought papers would morph into multi-media conglomerates although the Time-Warners and News Corps haven't found that balance

Others foresaw a day when newspapers would be subsidized like passenger trains while shoppers and mailers carried the advertising freight.

And still others thought that papers would discover they were the content providers for the Internet that threatens them much as movies were for television.

All agreed that no one has invented a digital model that provides profit enough to support a newsroom.

Dinosaur talk was directed towards the automakers even though most expected many papers, even whole markets to become extinct.

Sorting those ideas will take time and more than one column.

High point of the week was the standing ovation from publishers and politicians for Rocky Editor and Publisher John Temple who, as promised, addressed the legislative luncheon enthusiastically with final edition in hand.

The News has been part of my Rocky Mountain mornings for decades and perhaps yours. They were partners with the Sentinels and other Mile High Suburban Press Papers before the DNA was more than a gene.

Under the leadership of publisher Bill Fletcher and editor Ralph Looney they reached a commanding peak in profitability and readership from which they should not have fallen.

That is to take nothing away from the savvy management of The Denver Post, which took great advantage of News mistakes.

In the end, on the life support of the JOA, healthy competition was replaced by a battle for survival and hopefully the Post will win that one, too.

Comments to Harrison Cochran at publisher@aurorasentinel.com.


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