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Posted: March 03, 2009

Give Polis and the bloggers no credit for the Rocky’s demise

Congressman says newspaper's death 'mostly for the better'

Mike Cote

Note to self: Before dancing on a grave, be mindful of the mourners.

You can just imagine how the more than 200 Rocky staffers who lost their jobs Friday felt when they read Tuesday’s story in The Denver Post about how U.S. Rep. Jared Polis gave himself and bloggers “credit for the ‘demise’ of traditional journalism.”

Polis told a group of fellow progressives in Westminster that they could credit themselves for killing the Rocky and that it was “mostly for the better,” according to the story by Karen Crummy. (Hear the Polis recording for yourself.) He softened his stance somewhat by the time Crummy reached him, perhaps realizing he had been a bit, we might suggest, callous.

I try to walk this Earth with forgiveness in my heart –  as Polis might say: “for better or worse” – so I’ll suppress the storm of anger that welled up in me as I read this story with the bleary eyes that comes from restless sleep. My wife worked at the Rocky, and life is pretty scary right now.

The bigger issue here, however, is that Polis and his blogger buddies are just plain wrong. I neither will blame them for the death of the Rocky nor will I give them credit for it. Yes, the Internet and new media has transformed how we communicate and is changing the nature of journalism and public discourse. We have a powerful tool we’re only just beginning to master, and citizen journalism has given everyone a voice. Just don’t mistake that echo that bounces back when you shout down a hole as a real audience -- in other words, one that actually might challenge your particular political view.

"Rush Limbaugh blamed the Rocky's demise on being too liberal and too much in bed with Barack Obama," former Rocky staffer Mike Litwin said in one of his first columns for the Denver Post. "Which is it — too liberal, too conservative?"

What killed the Rocky is not a lack of readers. How else can you explain the Denver Newspaper Agency printing an extra 100,000 copies of the Rocky’s final edition after it sold out instantly?

As Post sports columnist Dave Krieger noted in one of his last columns for the Rocky, the newspaper’s demise comes as its audience was bigger than ever. It’s just that all those online readers don’t count for much when it comes to advertising revenue. Media companies bet online advertising would grow fast enough to replace all those lucrative print ads. They were dead wrong, and now they’re paying the price.

You want to blame someone for the end of newspapers as we know them, you can start with craigslist, a little mite that toppled an industry by giving away the golden goose of classified ads.  I have a love/hate relationship with craigslist – I learned about the editor opening at ColoradoBiz two years ago from a craigslist posting a fellow newspaper journalist forwarded to me (to whom I’ll be forever grateful).

Polis ought to know better. The Post described him as someone who “made his fortune selling greeting cards and flowers online.” Well, they’re right about the flowers. But the greeting cards? He didn’t sell any online – those electronic greeting cards were free – but he made millions of dollars for his family anyway.

Let’s review. Polis was the mastermind – and I say this with no sarcasm – who dreamed up an online greeting card site to promote his parents’ Blue Mountain Arts card company that quickly became one of the top 10 most visited sites on the Web. He ought to be in Malcom Gladwell’s latest buzz book, “Outliers,” which breaks down the factors that spell great success, including having the advantage of your particular moment in history.

For Polis, that was being a tech geek during the height of the Internet boom in the late ’90s – when venture capital companies couldn’t shovel their millions out fast enough in the race to gather eyeballs to websites. Excite@Home – the epitome of companies that rose and crashed from that bubble – bought bluemountainarts.com in a deal valued in 1999 at $780 million, $350 million of that in cash.

When Excite@Home exited with a fire sale a few years later, it sold bluemountainarts.com for $35 million to American Greetings – probably still too much for a marketing tool that had yet to produce a single dollar of revenue. Unless you want to count that $780 million to Polis and his family. I don’t begrudge them a dime. During powerful transformations in history, there are winners and losers. Good for you. But no one likes a sore winner.

Maybe the Rocky Mountains News would still be here – and my wife and her 200-plus colleagues would still be employed – had the Rocky endorsed Polis instead of Will Shafroth in the Democratic primary for Congress last year and not fueled the wrath of the mighty blogger nation, who Polis says "own the media" now.

But, hey, it’s easier to kill than to resurrect the dead. Rest in peace, Rocky Mountain News – as you soon as you stop turning over in your freshly dug grave.

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Mike Cote is the former editor of ColoradoBiz. E-mail him at mcote@cobizmag.com.

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Readers Respond

Thanks for the great link, Kate. I'm hoping Kindle catches on -- but I'm waiting for the price to drop down a bit before I make the leap. By Mike Cote on 2009 03 05
Mike - Good article, and good luck to you and your wife. I, too, am regrouping after a downsizing, and it looks like it's going to be fun. We have had this discussion in a different context - your earlier article on micro-payments for micro-stories. You did hit the nail on the head in this one. The business problem is not with the news product. Quality writing and journalism (blogs and "citizen journalism" excluded) are the same regardless of the medium of delivery. That writing requires the same research and writing skills, no matter how the end product is delivered. Electronic vehicles reduce the cost of the delivering the product, but it still costs as much to create it. (Please accept the generalizations.) The business problem is advertising product, which is traditionally the major revenue source for most success news products. What the world of electronic communication has done is create multiple venues and vehicles for delivering the advertising message. Electronic advertising is often cheaper to produce and can be delivered for next to nothing. It is also often more effective. I sold a car on Craigslist in two days after I had paid to advertise it for four weeks in a print publication. Traditional print news outlets have not figured out how to retain a sufficient share of the advertising pie to cover the cost of producing a traditional print news product. It appears that your publication may have that figured out. The question of greatest concern is how can we, as a society, continue to support professional journalism that will be able to keep an eye on Rep. Polis and 434 of his best friends in Washington with the proper sort of investigation and fact-finding and asking of important questions. Bob Stovall - Colorado Springs By Bob Stovall on 2009 03 05
Thanks for insightful article; but don't rush to order the grave marker for the Rocky just yet. See what's going on at www.iwantmyrocky.com. By DK Martin on 2009 03 04
Good column, Mike. My problem with the idea that bloggers can replace newspapers, in light of the Rocky's death, is that there is no way that the blogging community can provide the kind of investigative reporting and breadth of coverage that the Rocky did with its 200+ reporters and editors. Show me a blog that provides even a particle of the information the Rocky provided. Interested citizens in Colorado will be driven to the Denver Post, but what happens if the Post goes the Rocky's route? A free nation needs the kind of information daily newspapers provide. I just hope that newspapers can figure out how to make money providing that information. By Brad Smith on 2009 03 04
Paul, Would you let us know when you find it? We're turning over every stone. Thanks. Mike By Mike Cote on 2009 03 04
Mr. Cote: Well Written. This article accurately explains several things while being mindful of all involved. I have been involved in media and Internet finance for over 20 years. I would like to add. Most Newspaper revenue came from auto, real estate and employment ads. Bloggers do not enjoy a fraction of that revenue today which is why there is limited quality blogging in the area of General News. Google, Monster.com and other web services that connect buyers and sellers enjoy most of what has become a much smaller revenue stream. But they do not produce content. What I ponder (and genuinely worry about) is who will provide the watch-dog function and check the facts on a story? This is needed in a democracy. I don't think it can be a hobby or part-time job. I think we need a professional class doing this. I hope we find a sustainable business model soon. I for one will continue to look. By Paul Stapleton on 2009 03 04
I have to wonder about the glee for the “demise of traditional journalism.” Should there be joy because of all the trees we might be saving in our now “paperless society?” Or do the congressman and assorted bloggers dislike competition? By Cate Lawrence on 2009 03 04
The so-called "progressives" tend to arrogance, and a sense of self-importance that is in disproportion to reality. By Jawaid Bazyar on 2009 03 04

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