Rocky times for a Colorado institution

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By Rob Witwer

Recently, the long-rumored demise of the Rocky Mountain News took another step toward reality. Announcing the paper is up for sale, the E.W. Scripps Co. signaled what may be the end an institution that has been part of Colorado for nearly 150 years.

The news hit me harder than I expected. For all the other sources of information out there — and there are many — I just can’t imagine life without the Rocky. It’s been a part of my day since I learned to read.

As a young man, it was my window to a larger world. What I learned in the Rocky helped inspire me to become a public servant.

Founded in 1859 by William N. Byers, the Rocky is Colorado’s oldest major newspaper. At the time, the rival towns of Denver and Auraria competed to be top dog in the booming gold rush region. Wanting to serve both communities, Byers placed his printing press on the banks of Cherry Creek. When it was later washed out in a flood, Byers moved operations into Denver.

Since then, the Rocky has reported Colorado history as it happened. It bore witness to the gold rush, statehood, the Ludlow Massacre, the vote to resist the 1976 Winter Olympics, and the tragedy at Columbine High School. Through it all, the Rocky has been the eyes and ears of this state.

Sadly, that may be coming to an end. With the rise of online news sources, subscriptions have dropped precipitously. Today, the Rocky’s weekday circulation is 210,000, less than half of what it was in 2000.

Just as significant has been the advent of online classified services such as Craigslist, which cut deeply into a revenue source that for decades has sustained American newspapers.

The Rocky has hemorrhaged cash lately. It’s expected to lose $15 million this year, with no prospects for growth. To make matters worse, it is for sale in the worst credit market in decades. Finding a buyer with the cash to close a deal might be difficult. Scripps has said that if it cannot find a buyer by the end of January, it will probably close the paper.

Any source of information about the world around us is a thing of value. At their best, newspapers gather and synthesize information that wouldn’t otherwise be available to us. Moreover, journalists who adhere to a strict code of ethics and eschew bias are an essential ingredient of democracy. How else will we get the information we need to make wise decisions at election time?

Admittedly, the Rocky has offered less content lately, especially in the area of investigative reporting. But that was more a function of economic cutbacks than a conscious effort to water down the product. And even a diminished Rocky is a more reliable information source than many new-media offerings, which aren’t subject to rigorously enforced ethics codes (and are often bankrolled by people or interests with a hidden agenda).

Since the Rocky isn’t lucky enough to be owned by a failing investment bank or a near-bankrupt auto manufacturer, its prospects look bleak. But until it’s gone forever, we can always hope that something will happen to save one of the best things about Colorado, the Rocky Mountain News.

Rob Witwer, who grew up in Evergreen and currently lives in Genesee, is the outgoing state representative for House District 25.