This question is suddenly urgent in Denver, of all places, a thriving metropolis that used to be one heck of a newspaper town. Long after most places had settled on a single local paper, the Mile High City sustained a swashbuckling newspaper war, pitting the broadsheet Denver Post against the tabloid Rocky Mountain News. The Rocky finally died during the depths of the Great Recession, just shy of its 150th birthday. Now, a barrage of cuts and resignations in recent weeks may have left the Denver Post mortally wounded.
I would love to wax nostalgic about the Denver Post, where luck placed me behind a typewriter in the sports department at 17. Yes, a typewriter. It wasn’t even electric. And my long walk to school was uphill both ways.
But as the novelist Peter De Vries noted, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. The long-predicted demise of robust, self-funding local newspapers is upon us — a fact made clear by the arrival of so-called vulture capitalists to scoop up papers from coast to coast, including the Denver Post, and drain them of their remaining profits. This is no time for wistfulness. To imagine what will replace them, we need to be clear-eyed about why they are dying.
Lots of people inside the business blame the free-content ethos of the early Internet for the industry’s decline. That’s because lots of journalists don’t understand business — not even our own. Newspapers in their heyday did not grow rich by selling their content to readers; they grew rich by selling their readers to advertisers. To win at this game, however, it was necessary to collect the largest possible slice of the target audience, which allowed successful publishers to charge the highest ad rates.
Metro daily newspapers achieved this by offering a little something for everyone: local, national and international news, yes, and also sports coverage and commentary, a weather report, comic strips, a horoscope, recipes, puzzles, a movie guide, television listings, gardening tips, celebrity profiles, advice columns, bridge columns, chess columns, humor columns and opinion columns like this one. While I occasionally hear about people who plow through the entire amalgamation from front to back, no publisher ever expected typical readers to be interested in every element. It was enough that each reader found at least one indispensable.
The Internet has undone this strategy by allowing consumers to go directly to their desired content without opening a newspaper. Travel 50 years into the past, and you could find my father and me at the breakfast table divvying up the Rocky Mountain News. He took the sports pages and I took the comics. If he were alive today, he could get all the football news he could possibly want from football-specific websites — far more than he could find in any newspaper. And he wouldn’t be bothered with all the other newsprint that he cared nothing about. Nor would my 7-year-old self need a newspaper packed with mysterious stock tables and cryptic fishing reports to convey my precious “Nancy” and “Peanuts” to me.
There are two ways to make money, Netscape founder Jim Barksdale once observed: bundling and unbundling. What newspapers bundled, the Internet has unbundled. There are cooking sites for foodies, movie sites for film buffs, political sites for politicos and gossip sites for dirt-dishers. Because they specialize, these sites can offer more content in more depth, often with more expertise than a devotee could get from a wide-net newspaper, whether in print or, more often now, online. In the financially devastating case of Craigslist unbundling classified ads, the online content is also more accessible and easier to use.
A few newspapers, national in scope, may survive this unbundling by commanding armies of subscribers for their print and digital editions. Others may survive as philanthropic projects for civic-minded billionaires. But the prospect is very real that some of our most dynamic cities — including Denver, Austin and San Jose — could end up without a paper in the not-distant future.
Market forces will supply many of the newspaper’s former functions. Sports fans will find sports sites, fashion fans will support style sites, investors will seek out business news and so on. The challenge is to maintain coverage of subjects that are important but not necessarily commercial, such as local and state government, education, public utilities, law enforcement, land use and so on. Though admittedly a large task, this is not nearly as demanding as producing an entire newspaper.
Hopes remain in Denver that a deep-pocketed savior will come along to keep the paper alive, and my sentimental side is rooting for that, too. But the realist in me would suggest that potential saviors support instead such online startups as Denverite and the Colorado Independent. They won’t find the future of news in the bundles of the past.
David Von Drehle writes a twice-weekly column for The Post. He was previously an editor-at-large for Time Magazine and is the author of four books, including “Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year” and “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America.”