At this time of great disruption in the business, I hope it's encouraging for those caught in the storm to see that there's life after your newsroom has no place for you anymore.
I begin with the incredible story of someone I've known and worked with for a long time. ME Sprengelmeyer used to be a stringer for me when I was city editor of The Albuquerque Tribune 20 or so years ago. He went on to become the final Washington correspondent of the Rocky Mountain News. Today he's running his own weekly in New Mexico.
If you'd like to tell your story or know someone else whom I should ask, please let me know.
ME Sprengelmeyer - Former Washington correspondent for the Rocky Mountain News
I shed tears twice this year.
On Feb. 26, 2009, there wasn’t a dry eye in the Rocky Mountain News newsroom after we got word that we’d be working on the paper’s final deadline – just weeks short of its 150th birthday.
It meant the loss of Colorado’s oldest business and oldest friend. And for a couple hundred great journalists, it meant the end of something really special. The Rocky was not your typical big-city paper. It had a soul.
John might not like this, but I always thought the alternative weekly Westword absolutely nailed it with a May 25, 2006, description of the two Denver papers.
“Based on front pages from twelve days in May, the paper seems like a slightly off-kilter relative who’s prone to the occasional rant but is seldom boring, whereas the Post comes across as a steadier, more solid member of the community, albeit one apt to drone on drearily at cocktail parties.”
I’ll take that juxtaposition, especially when you consider the four Pulitzer Prizes the paper won under the off-kilter relative’s leadership, and the innovative coverage we tried (sometimes with success, sometimes not) day in and day out.
But it wasn’t just an institution that died in February. Hundreds of veteran reporters, editors, artists, photographers and support staff lost their vocations. Diving into the current job market is like going head-first into a kiddie pool in the middle of a drought.
I knew that long before the Rocky’s closure.
I saw the handwriting on the wall a couple years ago. As the Washington correspondent via Scripps Howard News Service, I watched corporate chain after corporate chain drain the talent pool at the national bureaus, which started being referred to as “cost centers” in corporate lingo. I watched “paper cuts” inflicted in newsrooms all over the country. It was clear, even two years ago, that if I ever lost my dream job in the D.C. bureau – the one that had led me to Iraq and Afghanistan and too many adventures to count – then I would be hard-pressed to find anything nearly as satisfying…anywhere.
So a few years ago, I hatched a harebrained plot.
I’ve known John Temple for years. He was my city editor when I was a stringer at the dearly-departed Albuquerque Tribune. And he became my big-boss editor for ten years at the Rocky. But here’s something even he doesn’t know.
In early 2007, after Denver was awarded the Democratic National Convention, I pitched a radical idea to pack up the D.C. bureau, move it to Des Moines, Iowa, and go start-to-finish following all the presidential candidates of both parties – including the one who would eventually be the star of our show in Denver. It was a bold, multimedia plan, and I’m proud of the hundreds of thousands of words that made it into the paper, into the “Back Roads to the White House” blog and my memory banks for political coverage after that.
But I had a quirky ulterior motive, too. I knew that the back roads would take me to little dots on the map where little weekly papers have been standing for just about as long as the Rocky Mountain News. I had the fantasy – and a whole lot of reporters I know have had the fantasy – of one day being a one-man newsroom at a tiny little paper like the one in “The Milagro Beanfield War” and so much great literature.
I landed in Iowa in April 2007 and would have to chase the candidates to places you’ve never heard about. As a reporter, one of the best ways to understand a candidate and a message she or he is spinning in that area is to wander into the local newspaper and get the lay of the land from the editor, publisher and staff (if there is a staff). So I’d rush ahead of the candidates, pop into little newsrooms and get the lay of the land. And, heck, while I was there, I’d always sneak in a few questions about the state of small town journalism.
How’s it going? Are the ads still flowing? What about the Internet? Is it much of a threat out in the sticks? How many people does it take to put out a quality product? What if you made some strategic investments in quality content here and there? Would your franchise do any better, or had it already maximized the local potential?
I didn’t always find healthy newspapers. But invariably, I saw potential, because if you look very closely, the small-town newspaper’s business model does and always has resembled a miniature version of the direction the big-city papers will eventually reach.
They have tiny staffs – only what the day-to-day cash flow can sustain. They aren’t afraid of reader-generated content. They outsource many functions, such as printing and distribution (USPS and a few boxes). By accident, they keep their communities addicted to the print product because they either do not give away a whole lot of material for free on the Internet (or they do not cannibalize themselves very well).
Some small town newspapers are profitable. Some are not. Location has a lot to do with that. But because they have a physical presence, provide intense local coverage, stay within their financial means and tailor their content quite intensely to match the needs of the people who wander into the front door to complain every day, they provide a service that has lost little value over the past two decades of stunning technological changes. If the Huffington Post, Gawker, Drudge Report, Craigslist and their friends decide to open up bureaus in thousands upon thousands of small towns across America, more power to them. But until then, small town newspapers are only increasing in importance to both readers and local advertisers. And in many, but not all, cases, they are capable of showing a profit.
And so, one week after the Rocky closed, I returned to D.C., hopped in my car and drove back to Iowa to kick the tires at some charming little papers that were for sale. I researched papers in every region of the country, spoke to publishers about intense financial details. I got some candid assessments of markets that had gone dry. I learned about some that are booming in the middle of the so-called “newspaper collapse” because the big-city papers have pulled back their ad-sales and coverage areas, leaving mini-monopolies out in the sticks.
In the end, I decided I needed to come home…home to New Mexico. This weekend I took over as editor, publisher and owner of The Guadalupe County Communicator. It’s the sixth-smallest weekly in the 36th most populous state. And there’s no place I’d rather be.
Over the weekend, a caravan of great journalists arrived to help me remake this paper, top to bottom. Rocky Mountain News copy desk and page design gurus Mel Pomponio and Kim Humphreys led the way, and they brought a dozen old Rocky Mountain News boxes I’ll use to expand my circulation up and down Route 66. Rocky (and longtime New Mexico) photographer Mark Holm made the trip, coming out of corporate-imposed semi-retirement to have the time of his life shooting the Guadalupe County Fair. Rocky cartoonist Drew Litton and his wife drove down, scouted some terrific local sights like The Blue Hole, county fair and Route 66, and began brainstorming on the local cartoons I’ll run on page two. (A week earlier, former Rocky photographer Chris Schneider made the pilgrimage and produced such stunning images of Santa Rosa that some local residents gasped at a preview.)
The “surge staff” and I held non-stop brainstorming sessions, did some training with the paper’s longtime page designer, “WWF Mike” Gallegos. And on Sunday, after our last family dinner, we walked out to the parking lot, exchanged the warmest hugs I’ve felt since a dark day in February, and my eyes filled with tears again.
But this time, the tears were different. It wasn’t sadness. It was mostly joy at having watched those great journalists casting aside the uncertainty of unemployment and showing off the talent they had at the Rocky – and still have.
And when they left, I cried some more, because then I was alone again, facing my first week on the job with the scariest boss in the world: myself.
Here's a link to the Facebook fan page for the Guadalupe County Communicator.