The Excruciating Death of Local News

It starts with one round of cuts. And then another. And then some more. And then again. Until, eventually, not much is being covered at all.


Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

The exits come in waves.

Some waves are larger, some are smaller.

A former journalism student of mine lost her job at The Denver Post two years ago, though is luckily employed there again today.

Three editor friends left newspapers in New Mexico and El Paso last year, sacrificing their livelihoods to—for the moment—save the jobs of others.

A friend from my early newspaper days in the 1980s was part of a small wave of five tossed aside at The Dallas Morning News a couple of weeks ago.

The waves are adding up to a tsunami that’s decimating local news markets from Denver to El Paso, from the Bay Area south to Orange County and north to Oregon.

It’s tragic for not just the journalists losing their careers. It’s tragic for the public that depends on those journalists to keep them informed about city councils, local elections, sports teams from preps to pros, and plenty more. It’s tragic for all, save those who’d rather see their bad deeds go unnoticed amid a steady stream of happy content that suits their agendas.

I know about these tragedies because I’ve lived through them. When I first arrived in Colorado some 24 years ago, The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News were in a daily duel for breaking stories and investigative reports.

At my newspaper, the Daily Camera, up the road in Boulder, we viewed the two dailies as competition, especially on stories like the JonBenet Ramsey murder. We also sent a team of reporters to cover the 1999 Columbine shootings. We had reporters on all the pro sports beats: Broncos, Nuggets, Avalanche, and Rockies.

It turns out the late 1990s and early 2000s were the last of the heydays for newspapers in Colorado and plenty of other places.

Since then, I’ve watched colleagues leave in droves. Some abandon ship voluntarily, realizing they could make more money with relatively less stress in related fields. Others went to work for public relations firms out of necessity or got out of the business entirely.

The result was that fewer reporters covered local government at the Camera, pro sports coverage was cut back, and the editorial page staff shrank. We went from two reporters covering Boulder City to one. Eventually the state government beat I’d covered for a few years just... went away. It was all in the name of belt-tightening, meeting the bottom line.

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I made my exit in 2005 to teach at University of Colorado full time, also working part time for digital news sites such as The Colorado Independent and the late PoliticsDaily.com. And I spent nine months in 2008 and 2009 working part time on the copy desk on the Rocky Mountain News, moving from news to sports to features depending on the day.

The Rocky’s owner, E.W. Scripps, closed the paper in 2009, leaving more than 200 journalists out of work. A few of those folks got jobs at the Post or moved on to other news organizations. But many, once more, got out of the business entirely. Several work for the University of Colorado, nonprofits, and public relations firms. At least one went to work for a local brewery, another for a bike shop.

Meanwhile, The Denver Post staff continued to shrink as well, with wave after wave of layoffs.

But this isn’t just about the Denver market.

The New York Times and Washington Post may be thriving, garnering new attention and lots of subscribers in the Trump era by producing great content with still robust staff. But newsrooms in much of the rest of the country, like the Post, are being cut beyond the bone.

Today, the size of the print Denver Post is considerably less than what it once was, with fewer stories and less coverage, especially of significant suburban communities. With the most recent layoffs, the newspaper will have fewer than 100 journalists to cover a metro area of nearly 2.9 million people. It may not be an impossible task. But it’s pretty close to one.

Of course, there are politicians who don’t mind so much when newsrooms flounder or founder. When the Rocky Mountain News closed, Congressman Jared Polis, who helped fund The Colorado Independent before running for the House, declared victory for “new media,” saying “We killed the Rocky Mountain News.” (Polis is now running for the Democratic nomination for governor in Colorado.)

More recently, while many state legislators expressed concern about the deep cuts at The Denver Post, not all lamented the newspaper’s fate. A radio story about the layoffs cited a lawmaker who joked, “Hey that means we can do whatever we want.”

Many friends are still hanging in there at the Post, the Daily Camera, and other newspapers around the country. They’re nervous, angry, exhausted. But they’re still trying to do their best for the public, for their readers.

Last Sunday’s editorial calling for Alden to sell the paper illustrated that mission, drawing national and international attention.

On Thursday, there was news that a group of Colorado investors are trying to raise cash to buy the Post from Alden. It was a glimmer of hope. But there are still plenty of questions. Would any sale include the numerous smaller Colorado newspapers owned by Alden, which have faced similar pillaging? What about the Post’s printing plant, which prints a host of other newspapers? Even if the Post is saved, Alden still has plenty of properties from Boston to Oakland, from which to rob.

These journalists working for a hedge fund—and, frankly, virtually any journalist who works at a for-profit operation—remain at the mercy of the bottom line.

It’s profits first, news last.

That’s bad not just for journalists, but for citizens who need a reliable source of information more than ever before in our democracy.

What can you do? The Denver Post News Project offers some suggestions.