As expected, the Rocky Mountain News closed its 149-year run with its head held high and nothing to be ashamed of. A powerful paper delivers one last time.

Included in the last web update is this video, a wonderful piece (although not totally unbiased) that captured the essence of the paper.

That’s the press, baby. The press.

Final Edition from Matthew Roberts on Vimeo.


Remember when you were a kid? There you were, with a bunch of your friends, standing in front of an old abandoned house. The one you thought was haunted? And everyone said they wanted to go in, but nobody wanted to go first? And, after several “I dare yous” and “we’ll be right behind yous” you finally gather enough gumption to go in. So you take a deep breath, walk in and, in a moment of absolute fear, turn around to look at your friends, only to find they’re still outside?

Well, Newsday is taking the “triple-dog dare” of the pay-for-content debate by announcing they plan to begin charging for its news content on the web site. In essence, it’s going to go to its parent company’s cable television roots to develop an on-demand paid news site. With Newsday taking the step forward, we’re finally going to see if people are indeed willing to pay for news content on the web.

Or will we? Newsday’s gamble is grand, but can one newspaper in a highly competitive market pull this off? Will the New York Times and Daily News … as well as the other suburban and community news sites … follow Newsday into the unknown, or will they sit outside and reap the benefits of Newsday readers deciding to get their news from somewhere else?

I give Newsday credit for trying to do something. But the plan still underestimates the loyalty of readers … or, as we may likely see, the lack of loyalty. As long as they can get content from SOMEWHERE for free, they will likely gravitate towards that.

Again, instead of forcing charges on readers, why not give them products (packaging and distribution of your content) that they would be willing to pay for?

* My heart goes out to the editorial employees of the Rocky Mountain News, which ceased publication Friday. Ironically, word of the newspaper’s demise was first broadcast through Twitter before it was picked up by the mainstreet media.

And, again through Twitter, we were able to see the thoughts and emotions of the newsroom as they produced the final edition. I noticed that the story played closely to the plot of the movie “Deadline U.S.A.” — a movie made more than 50 years ago.

Both examples say loads about the dynamic shift in information dissemination. If only newspaper owners would take notice.

Chi-Town Daily News editor Geoff Dougherty created a small uproar this week by throwing down the gauntlet to the Chicago metro print media by saying that, for $2 million, he could build a newsroom that could provide equal, if not better, coverage of Chicago than the Tribune or Sun-Times.

His cost breakdown is here. Granted, the figures seem to be based on the assumptions that no one will read the Chi-Town Daily News for sports or features, and the regional average salary he uses will attract the type of talent you may find at the mainstream metros. But it is a challenge worth noting.

Dougherty notes his plan doesn’t include an “advice columnist, a suburban bureau, an auto writer, or a fashion critic” which the metros have on their payrolls. I should add it doesn’t include any columnists, like a John Kass or Mary Mitchell. Folks that can give personality and perspective to the news.

Yes, columnists drive the payroll up, much in the way a star athlete skews up the team’s payroll. But yet they both serve a purpose, to do their job extremely well and become a face of the franchise.

If the Trib and Sun-Times did unload their high-priced talent, then, yes, they could probably be much closer to Dougherty’s $2 million cap. Would they be any better? Probably not.

Dougherty’s plan would work for his franchise. It’s built itself a good base, and a $2 million infusion would certainly help it accomplish its mission. The metros, however, carry a broader mission and rely in its talent to draw in readers. I still believe readers come to the Tribune to read the likes of Kass, Zorn, Schmich, etc. Readers still like personality, attitude, authority that these folks provide.

And unfortunately, $2 million doesn’t buy as much of that as it used to.

* Speaking of personality, Eric Zorn offers an alternative to the paid/free content dilemma facing news organizations. His proposal is to use the cable TV model, that is, paying for a “bundle” of news sites. The more you pay, the more sites you can get.

I like this plan because it gets into three of the basic tenets of my new world plan last year:

1. Content is the core product, but not the revenue maker. It’s the way its packaged and delivered to the customer that makes money.
2. As a news site, you will need to rely on your competition to help you survive.
3. Readers don’t care who produced the content. They want it given to them on their terms, and whoever does that best will earn their trust.

Zorn’s bundling proposal is probably one of the more logical plans presented so far. But can it work in a climate where competing publishers are still so protective of their products that they’re afraid or unwilling to share? That is the wall the needs to be broken and new alliances created before any move can be made to a truly innovative and potentially profitable venture.

Until we can get more forward-thinking people in positions of power in the industry, I’m afraid guys like Zorn and me are going to think about finding a second job.

Flotsam for today:

* Gotta love it when media experts smack-talk each other. Newsosaur Alan Mutter smacks online guru Jeff Jarvis’ assertion that content should be free by asking why his new book is selling for $26.99?

Cute, to be sure. But keep in mind that Jarvis is not selling his content. You can get a lot of what he says for free on his Buzzmachine blog any day. He’s packaged this particular content into a product that is convenient and is targeted to a specific audience. Those customers are willing to pay $26.99 for the product.

The product happens to be a book and the business model has been around as long as Gutenberg.

Hey, isn’t that a business model that newspapers can embrace?

* One unfortunate uptick for newspapers in these uncertain economic times is an increase in legal advertising — in particular, foreclosure notices. Just look at any newspaper and you can see pages upon pages of foreclosure notices … in many cases more so than classified advertising.

Surely, this will not bring newspapers back into profitability. But it’s got to be helping to stem the bleeding a bit.

More importantly, this is one area that Craigslist hasn’t been able to corner yet.

* You’ve probably noticed I’ve changed the name of this blog. No pressure from outside. Instead, the wife was concerned it made too much fun of how my name is pronounced (it takes cues from its Polish origins, so it’s KLITZ-key, not Klick-key).

So, to keep the marriage intact, I’ve reverted to a more conservative approach. I’ve also added “media” to the name, since I’ve been so focused on that.

Thanks for understanding!

Here’s a question I can’t seem to find an answer for:

What is the “minimum acceptable” number of editorial employees for a news organization?

Back in the “salad days” (called that in journalistic circles because, as a journalist, you could finally afford a restaurant that serves a salad with your meal) of the 90’s, the unofficial rule of thumb for newspapers was that you should have one editorial employee for every 1,000 circulation. Of course, larger metros and major suburban papers were well above that ratio, but it was a measure that the industry seemed to readily accept.

With the waves of newsroom cuts over the past couple of years, however, I wonder if newspaper executives have given thought to what is an “acceptable” level of editorial staff as they struggle to mainatin financial stability. In other words, do they have an absolute minimum that they feel needs to exist before the product eventually becomes useless to its customers?

Granted, there were a number of jobs that existed in newsrooms over the past decade that could be eliminated without adversely affecting the newspaper’s core mission. And, certainly, there was room for efficiencies in the editorial processes that staff trimmings forced.

But When you look at the numbers (15,333 jobs in 2008, and another 2,486 since January, according to the blog Paper Cuts), and consider that newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune have effective eliminated a third of their newsroom staffs, you have to wonder if there was THAT much inefficiency and redundancy in the newsroom processes, or if we have indeed crossed the threshold into endangering the reason readers still choose a newspaper or news web site.

So the question remains: What is the minimum acceptable number of newsroom employees for a news organization? If someone has an answer, I’d love to know.

Flotsam for today;

*I’ve been following with interest the revised issue of charging for content, or micropayments, as a way to make newspapers profitable. This week, Charlie Rose brought the issue to the public eye in discussions with Walter Issacson of the Aspen Institute (and former Time Magazine editor), Mort Zuckerman of the New York Daily News and Robert Thomson of the Wall Street Journal. You can read a transcript here.

While the idea of micropayments is not an original idea, as bloggers from Michael Kinsley top Mark Potts have pointed out, there are two serious questions I have about the discussion:

1. It seems to be assumed that, before the Internet came around, people were paying for content by buying a newspaper. That is simply not true. Though I have never seen it monetized, it’s unfathoimable that 50 cents covered the paper, ink, press, trucks, typewriters, pencils, notebooks, and … most of all … labor that went into the creation of the newspaper.

Plus, circulation directors played fast and loose with subscription rates, especially in areas where newspapers competed for audience. We practically gave away newspapers to readers, and the smart ones knew how to play the circulation game to keep from paying the standard circulation rate.

What paid the bills were the advertisers who wanted their message on the same pages with the content. The more people who read the paper, the more people who would see the ads. That’s ususally what set the market.

In other words, newspapers don’t sell content. They sell their audience. Always have, and most likely always will.

People will not pay for content today. It’s way too late for that. But technology has gotten to a point where newspapers should look at providing packaging and convenience products. That may get readers to fork out a few bucks to cover some costs.

2. The Rose interview was titled “The Future of Newspapers.” But where were the newspaper futurists? The entire interview relied on three old media people from East Coast operations, talking exactly like old media people. Where was Jeff Jarvis? Where was Mark Potts? How about Howard Finberg? Or Adrian Holovaty? How about people who are advocating or actually doing something new and exciting?

Let’s look instead of developing new products and packages that will make readers WANT to pay a premium, instead of trying to force our customers to accept something they haven’t accepted for decades.

* The full moon is out this week. As if legitimate organizations aren’t reaching for straws to try to save the industry, along come a call to shut down news web sites for one week to dramatize just how much newspapers impact society.

Now I certainly appreciate where this guy is coming from and his intent is sincere. But in all honesty, would it make sense for news organizations to shut down the one product that is continuing to draw in readership and revenue? And for one week?

But … and this is even more scary … what if he were to pull this off, and nothing changes in newspaper circulation? What would THAT say?

* I had the honor to be the ‘keynote’ speaker at the suburban Chicago High School District 214 Journalism Day, addressing journalism students about the future of the business and how they should prepare for changes coming down the road. Although I probably came across more like Jason Vorhees than the Bluebird of Happiness, it was still reassuring to see an auditorium full of young adults who have a passion for the profession.

Thanks to District 214 and senior Jessica Loveless for allowing me the opportunity. It was reassuring to see that there’s still a lot of enthusiasm and great potential for journalism in the next generation.

I just hope we don’t screw it up for them.

Do hacks and flaks still need each other?

News people vs. public relations/communications representatives. It’s an alliance that has been at times as comfortable as … say … dogs and cats. But each side knows the importance of the other’s mission and have operated as professional – and sometimes wary – partners.

However, with the industry is such a state of flux to the point that the many newspapers may cease to exist in the next couple of years, are those in the PR/communications field still consider newspapers as a viable vehicle to get their message out?

I posed that question to a number of public relations professionals recently to see if they were worried about the newspaper industry. The overwhelming response was, yes, they are. While many still say newspapers are among the best avenues to direct their message, they also realize emerging and new technologies … especially in social networking … also provide them with opportunities that newspapers currently don’t.

The message was, more or less, yes, we still believe in newspapers, but we’re getting the lifeboats ready if the ship sinks.

“Newspapers can reach a wide audience with lots of different interests. But if you narrow down your strategy, wouldn’t it be much wiser to focus on relevant media?
” says Michael Reuling of the Netherlands. “For every subject/interest, there seems to be a blog, magazine and digital TV-channel nowadays. Focusing on the mass is still important, but if you can reach your target-group otherwise, do you really need a (print)newspaper?”

U.S.-based PR professionals are a bit more cautious outlining their relationship with newspapers. Newspapers are still an important part of their overall strategies, they say, and credibility still plays an important role in that strategy. Ironically, only a few were willing to go public with their thoughts, many saying they did not want to jeopardize existing relationships.

“Newspapers add credibility to PR,” says Robin Parkinson, an L.A.-based marketing and communications consultant. “So … down the road, if printed newspapers disappear, that a news Internet site might be approved say, by The Washington Post, or the NYT, it thereby validates a news site.”

Parkinson’s observations back up a recent Poynter/APME survey that shows online readers will trust news sites that are branded by newspapers they trust.

That is certainly good news for struggling newspapers. If your brand is credible in print, it’ll remain credible wherever else you go.

But as newspapers trim down their sources, some PR people see their importance increase as publishers look for content to fill their pages.

“As first-level journalism resources, such as staff writers and wire services, are stretched thinner than ever before, newspapers are increasingly turning to public relations sources for material,” says Bob Dixon, and L.A.-based communications specialist.

However, Dixon also sees public relations taking up the flag if newspapers go away.

“P.R. will be more important than ever without newspapers,” he said. “The increased fragmentation within media, especially online, has made it even more important for businesses and organizations to understand how to identify, target, and deliver their message in appropriate ways through an ever-increasing variety of news channels.”

So it seems P.R. professionals still hold true to their relationship with newspapers. But they are also seeing the light and are adapting their strategies to get their message along other avenues of information distribution. In other words, the industry has a Plan B, and many are already using it.

The flaks will survive without the hacks. Can the reverse be said?