Post Mortem For A Dead Newspaper

from the looking-backwards,-not-looking-forward dept

John Temple, the former editor, president and publisher of the now shuttered Rocky Mountain News, has been running a great blog about issues from the newspaper industry over the past few months. He consistently has been saying stuff that made me wonder why the Rocky Mountain News didn’t seem to do the sorts of things he seemed to constantly talk about… and now he’s explained why. He recently gave a talk at Google about lessons from the collapse of the Rocky Mountain News in both text and video form. It’s long, but well worth watching/reading:

You should take in the whole thing, rather than just reading my summary, but he basically goes over the last decade and a half or so of mistakes that the Rocky Mountain News made in terms of trying to figure out the online business. The key takeaways aren’t that surprising if you’re a regular reader around here. The company kept defining itself as a newspaper company, not a news organization (or, better yet, a community builder). Everything it did was based on how it would impact the paper edition. The focus was not on competing with web properties and services, but on the other major newspaper in town, the Denver Post. Things got so bad that when the Columbine Massacre happened, the newsroom refused to give any news to the web people, because they were afraid that the Denver Post would “steal” it.

It seems like pretty much everything was based on looking backwards, not forward. There was little effort to figure out how to better enable a community, or any recognition that the community of people who read the paper were the organizations true main asset.

The talk is amazingly honest, coming from someone who accepts a share of the blame for what happened, and should be required reading/viewing for anyone in the media business, new or old. The same game is playing out not just in newspapers, but in a number of other businesses as well. Like the Rocky Mountain News, those businesses are looking backwards and defining themselves on the wrong terms, while newer startups don’t have such legacy issues to deal with.

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Comments on “Post Mortem For A Dead Newspaper”

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Ima Fish (profile) says:

when the Columbine Massacre happened, the newsroom refused to give any news to the web people

Oh my god how fricken stupid were these people?! They had a huge story. But instead of getting it to the people immediately via the web, they printed it on paper and delivered it via trucks so that everyone could read it the next day. This “news” paper deserved to die.

ondigo (profile) says:

faster media

For half the 20th C, newspapers admitted that TV got hot stories out to the people faster, but then trumpeted that they did a better job of covering the story with depth and context. The lag time required to write, print, and deliver were a feature, not a bug.

With the web, they could have had the best of both worlds: get something out immediately (as in the Columbine shootings) and then do a fuller analysis subsequently in the print (and online) editions. But that backwards-looking attitude prevented that happening.

I am somewhat encouraged to note that the Washington Post seems to be avoiding that trap, content-wise. But I don’t think they are capitalizing on the potential ad revenue from their mobile edition they way they could be.

Dark Helmet (profile) says:

Re: faster media

Building on what you’re saying, I don’t understand why these former newspaper businesses can’t utilize the web properly. One great way to do it would be to staff your internet team with the base of “reporters” who get out the stories with speed, and then for those that they believe are the top stories, tag them with something proclaiming “An indepth and detailed explanation of the key points in this story will be available in tomorrow’s paper” or something along those lines.

I think eventually the papers are going to become more textbook like in that they will be delving into the specifics of the key/popular storeis on the web.

ChurchHatesTucker (profile) says:


The ‘SEO’ mention set off alarm bells (that’s a good way to get de-ranked) but I still have to wonder what they did that made their site ‘invisible’ to google. Probably made it all Flash. In which case good riddance.

That points to a larger problem with institutions trying to adjust to change: the people responsible for managing that transition are almost by definition incompetent at the task.

Robin (profile) says:

Rocky Mtn News

Anytime I hear newspaper people talking about social media, the collaborative web and what is next for media companies, I’m amazed that they are still missing the bigger issues. They are still just dabbling in this stuff and only a few people at the organization are involved. They really have not gotten creative at developing completely new models.

streetlight (profile) says:

In addition regarding a paid news subscription model

I read this AM in Google’s news site Google Reader, The Denver Business Journal reports:

“The Rocky Mountain Independent, the second attempt by former Rocky Mountain News staffers to start an online news publication, announced Thursday that it will stop producing new content on Monday.

In a letter sent to “members” who had purchased an online subscription that allowed them access to certain features, owners of the website said they could not continue producing their product with their current revenues.”

Obviously not enough folks were willing to pay for what is probably free on the web elsewhere.

When will they learn!

streetlight (profile) says:

Re: Re: In addition regarding a paid news subscription model

What do they need to learn?

I listened to the whole audio-video presentation as I had been a subscriber to the Rocky from the time I moved to Colorado in 1982 until delivery was stopped outside the Denver area and switched to the Denver Post. Temple gives 10 reasons why the Rocky failed. Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned is that one must pay attention to what your clientele wants. Charging a subscription fee for web site to reprint what can be found anywhere for free is not a very good business model and will be very difficult to attract advertisers for supplemental revenue. Value must be added. I’m not sure what that “value” may be, but lessons can be learned from successful web sites, particularly those without a fee. Find out how they are monetized, likely through advertising because the sites attract a large, interested customer base that is willing to respond to the ads. All this requires a great deal of creativity and not just the required technical and artistic skill at web site design – another of Temple’s points. You can name a large number of successful web sites that have made its creators and employees rich because they had these talents.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: In addition regarding a paid news subscription model

The key point is that they weren’t providing anything unique.

Take a look at I’m seeing the same recycled wire copy I can get anywhere.

Meanwhile, two free papers (the Westword and the relatively new Denver Daily News) were thriving long before the Rocky went into its death throes. Newspapers still have a valid business model, but step one is to provide unique and valuable content.

ArtFart says:

It's the money, stupid!

In all of his post-mortem analysis, Temple concentrates on editorial quality (and the cost of maintaining it) and makes reference to competition for readership in Web space, but doesn’t seem to be paying attention to the importance of advertising revenue to pay the bills. For at least the last three-quarters of a century, the want ads have been a major portion of most if not all urban dailies’ cash flow. Furthermore, in more recent times they’ve been raking it in from the major real estate brokerages. The credit/housing collapse took a huge chunk out of that, after the likes of Monster, Craigslist et al had taken away most of the car, employment and general-merchandise traffic.

The JOA certainly didn’t help, either. Generally where one of those has been tried, the stronger paper has devoted itself to running the other one out of business. In Seattle, the Times recently succeeded in killing off the Post-Intelligencer, but the fight left it in such tenuous shape that it’s not likely to last another year.

jim pruett (profile) says:


I can’t hear the talk.

This may sound wierd, but all the content I steal from TPB has nice high audio that sounds great on my laptop. I actually think the overdrive the audio, but the net result is a good experience coming out of my tiny laptop speakers.

All the audio that I get from Youtube, etc uses some normal and useless audio levels.

I have to add this jab, but I apologize for it…

I think it ironic that your multimedia is disappointing me…

Take care

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