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Lessons from the Rocky Mountain News

Lessons from the Rocky Mountain News

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Published by jtemplermn
This is the text of my presentation at the UC Berkeley Media Technology Summit at Googleplex. Of course the actual talk differed to some extent from my prepared remarks.
This is the text of my presentation at the UC Berkeley Media Technology Summit at Googleplex. Of course the actual talk differed to some extent from my prepared remarks.

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Published by: jtemplermn on Oct 01, 2009
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10/21/2012

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Lessons from the Rocky Mountain NewsThank you for inviting me to speak to you today. I hope by sharing what I learned from my experience as editor and publisher of the Rocky Mountain News I can help get this conference off to a good start. Recently, when I asked my former colleagues at the paper for reflections on their experience since its closure, Bernie Lincicome, a fine sports columnist, wrote me back: “I feel like the cadaver being asked by the funeral director, how did you like the flowers?” I’m not sure what that makes this talk. Maybe the funeral director being asked to perform his own autopsy and offer guidance from the other side on how to save the lives of otherssuffering the same malady.First, a little history: The Rocky Mountain News was Colorado’s oldest newspaper,founded in 1859 when Denver was little more than a hamlet of log cabins. The paper went on to cover the news in three centuries, from the Civil War to the War on Terror. It became so much a part of the fabric of Colorado that many readers called it “My Rocky,” a term of endearment rare for any newspaper. It was owned for more than 80 years by a deep-pocketed company, E.W. Scripps, that still today iscontrolled by the founding family.Scripps started as a newspaper company, but navigated through the advent of radio, TV and cable - starting successful new media businesses each time. In the ‘90s, after going public, Scripps innovated with its free cash flow and hit a home run building lifestyle cable networks, including HGTV and the Food Network, now worth more than $5 billion.So some pretty smart people were at the top of the company that owned the RockyMountain News. Yet none of that was enough for the Rocky to survive in the Internet era. The Rocky published its final edition on Feb. 27 of this year, the first major paper to shut its doors after the economic crash of the fall of 2008.On the day the closure was announced, Scripps CEO Rich Boehne told the staff assembled in the newsroom: "You are the model of what a great newspaper should be.It
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s a tragedy for the industry that you disappear." He was talking to a staff that since 2000 had won four Pulitzer Prizes, a total topped by just six other newspapers in that same period. And the staff knew that from a circulation standpoint, when the papers competed head to head on weekdays, the Rocky came out on top.So, why did the Rocky disappear? Looking back now on that difficult day, the word that stands out in Boehne’s statement is “newspaper.” As one former Scripps executive told me in talking about what has happened to the newspaper industry, words that I think apply to the Rocky, “We had all the advantages and let it slip away. Wecouldn’t give up the idea that we were newspaper companies.”Well, Scripps isn’t a newspaper company anymore in what was its biggest market. And today I’m going to walk you through the lessons I think might be taken from itslargest paper’s failure. While this is going to be a newspaper-centric talk, I believe you’ll find that the lessons apply broadly across radio, TV, magazines and other media, too.But before I subject the past to scrutiny, you need to know I don’t exempt myselffrom criticism. I was the top editorial person for the Rocky’s final 11 years andpart of the business leadership team. I bear my own share of responsibility. It’seasy when looking back to see things that might seem obvious to us today, but itwas a lot more difficult when we were in the thick of the fight, and most of the revenue growth and almost the total revenue pie came from the main newspaper product. That said, the first lesson I hope people who care about the future of local news take from the Rocky’s experience is this: Being a “great newspaper” isn’t enough in the Internet era. You have to know what business you’re in. We thought we we
 
re in the newspaper business. Working on the Web, you need to think of now and forever. At a newspaper, people largely think about tomorrow. Thinking about tomorrow isn’t enough anymore. Consumers today want services when, where and how theywant them, and they want to be able to participate, not just receive.Look, it’s understandable that we thought we were in the newspaper business. In the 1990s, Denver was the site of what was sometimes called America’s last great newspaper war. The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News had competed for 100 years and each saw the grand prize close at hand. Each wanted to become the only newspaper in town - something we thought of as “owning the Denver market.” We thoughtwinning would guarantee a stable and profitable future. We misunderstood the competitive landscape and put the vast majority of our efforts into the print war.The problem was we were fighting the last war. We didn’t understand what was happening to the playing field. Media companies used to think they were in control. That they could “own” a market. What we didn’t take into account is that in this new era, consumers were going to be in control.So that brings me to Lesson #2: Know your competition. If we had spent more timetrying to build the depth of our connection with the community using online tools from the very start, perhaps the outcome for the Rocky would have been different. If we have time later, I can give you some examples of what I’m talking about.The Rocky’s first foray onto the Web came in 1995. The newsroom provided a Cox-owned site called Fastball with Colorado Rockies stories and data. To give you someperspective, that same year Colorado’s leading television station put up a Web site, but all it had was a picture of the station’s building, its address and phonenumber. No links or news at all. At that time, believe it or not, much of the talk about “new media” at many newspapers was about things like AudioText, where users could call in and select different categories of news. There was also fax on demand. And 900 numbers, for such things as out-of-state lottery numbers or sports scores, horoscopes and even a dating service.The Rocky had been burned in the new media world before. In 1990, it made what it considered at the time a major play, launching an electronic service called the A LA CARTE EDITION. The paper sent software to a few thousand users, many of whom had 400 baud modems.You can see from this introduction to our first electronic service that we thought of ourselves as newspaper companies right from the start. We wrote that the goal of the new edition, was “ultimately to strengthen and preserve the printed daily newspaper.”The service was shut down after about 9 months, but not before scooping the paper on the start of the First Gulf War, reporting 12 hours before the paper landedon most doorsteps that the war had begun. The project was halted, I was told, because “we just couldn
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t show that it was having any measurable impact on retention of print subscribers and it wasn
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t producing revenue.”Right from the start, new offerings were measured by what they did for the coreproduct, not on their own merits. A big mistake.The Rocky’s first Web site, this is the home page on the very first day, grew outof the newsroom’s night copy desk crew, a few of whom had learned some HTML. It was a bottom up effort. There was no advertising involvement. Under the directionof the senior night editor, a small team built a Web site that went live on March 1, 2006. The Post had put up a site late the previous year so we knew we needed to do it, if only because we couldn’t let them have a leg up on us anywhere.
 
The launch of the site was a perfect example of how the attention of the paper’s leadership was on print, not on new possibilities. We were wrestling with a decision to pull back print distribution to 13 counties adjacent to Denver, a money-saving move to match the $5 million in savings we believed the Post had achievedby narrowing its printed page. We cut about 30,000 circulation, or 10% of our total, in one day. The Post kept delivering to all 65 Colorado counties.On the day before the Rocky opened its doors to the world online, the page 2 column by the editor began: “I have never been much good at saying goodbye. But thatis my task today for many loyal readers of the Rocky Mountain News.” It wasn’t untilthe fourth paragraph that he introduced the Web site. He wrote: “Nonetheless, some of our key stories, features and photographs will still be available outside our new service area. This will be possible through our two new electronic ventures.”One was the World Wide Web site. The other was a wire service we had set up to give our content to smaller Colorado papers to print at the same time as it appeared in the Rocky. There was no promotion of the Web site. Our PR efforts at thetime were attempts to control the damage from cutting off 30,000 paying customers.The message to the newsroom at that time regarding the Web site: “Do not let it interfere with the print edition.” And as managing editor, I made sure that we keptour focus on the print competition.We knew the Web was a place we needed to be. But we didn’t have a clear strategy.Mission. Or objective. It was a “complement to the paper,” as we said in our initial“About us” page.Which brings me to Lesson 3: You have to have a strategy and you have to be committed to pursuing it. We perceived the Web site as a newspaper online, as a complement to the paper, not as its own thing. That’s not a strategy.Senior management’s focus in the 1990s was on keeping the newspaper alive. Again,to be clear, that’s understandable, at least to a point. We were fighting for ourlives and the money then lay in print. We didn’t understand the Web or new technology and didn’t have the time to learn much about it. We weren’t a consumer-driven company, except that we knew our priority was to get papers on the porch on time in the morning. Otherwise, we feared our subscribers would switch to our competitor.Without clear objectives, an organization stumbles from one priority to the next. The 4th lesson: You must know your goal. On the print side, we had a clear objective. But our online objective kept changing. Of course this is partially understandable, because what was possible in the online world was also changing rapidly.Because the Rocky’s newsroom was unionized, management felt it had to quickly makea decision about where to house the new service. The fear was that union rulesgoverning the newsroom would limit what we could do with the Web and potentiallyincrease operating costs at a time when there was no revenue to speak of associated with it. So the newsroom lost its role on the Web until five years later, after the “war” was over.Legacy labor/management relations and organizational structures cannot be allowed to dictate how a new operation works. Lesson #5: Keep new ventures free from the rules of the old. Over the years, the company had agreed to conditions it might not have liked but could accept because revenues of the newspaper made them possible. The problem was they would strangle a startup.

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