An old friend of mine died last week. We had worked together on many projects and my friend was always there, supporting me and encouraging me. And then last week, they just turned my old friend off. Pulled the plug. Click. Stop. End.I’m talking about the death of the Rocky Mountain News, a daily newspaper that had covered, reviewed, publicized, and criticized my adventures in music and comedy when I lived and performed in Denver from 1976 to 1989. One could say the paper was “easy” in those early days of my creative yearnings. If you submitted a decent picture and there was anything at all legitimate about what you were up to, they’d usually give you at least a captioned photo in the Weekend section. Or a short article with the times of your shows. And every now and then, a mostly gentle review of your work. I’ll argue that’s because the Rocky Mountain News was conscientious about reflecting the region it served. In those days, the News always had a robust page count. Denver was doing well then, in the midst of yet another of its historical boom periods. This time instead of minerals, it was energy and the focus on domestic sources of oil. The News embraced all the new business, but it also paid attention to struggling singer-songwriters who had an upcoming ‘gig’ at the Denver Folklore Center. And now that newspaper is gone. As you might have heard, a lot of newspapers are in trouble. At least 10 major papers are in bankruptcy, including The Los Angeles Times. And at this moment when many propose just going ‘Darwin’ on American automakers and letting them fight on their own to survive, we should recognize the very real costs of our large metro daily newspapers becoming online only… or dying.I don’t buy in to the notion that we’ll ever engage with online newspapers the same way we connect with their hard-copy progenitors. It’s true that in the battle to survive many newspapers are sinking waist-deep into a swamp of empty features and piffle. Having sampled the Rocky Mountain News during its last years while waiting out Denver airport layovers, I know that it was guilty of every complaint we might make about the current state of newspapers. But other media will never replace metropolitan dailies. Spend an hour with FOX News and another with CNN, and then tell me that they are your best friends for reliable information 24/7. Then there’s the dimension of selection. You can hunt and peck the Internet, but you’ll make choices that reflect your needs. The concept of a front page edited to intelligently present the state of the planet, your country, and your city… that goes away. Entire rooms filled with articulate and probative writers, guided by experienced editors: You’re going to replace that with Lou Dobbs followed by Nancy Grace?! Public radio presents intelligent information and boots-on- the-ground audio reports, but much of its reporting is instigated by newspaper accounts.And who will blow the whistle on bad people doing wrong things? Newspapers perform a watchdog function that TV news vendors will never emulate because of their corporate affiliations. (Count the Disney product references in any KABC newscast.) Worse, TV news has greater motivation to internally promote their upcoming specials and programming than they do to present any rational BBC-like menu of intelligent daily news. As good as NBC’s evening news product is, it cannot distance itself enough from news division effluvia like “To Catch a Predator.” And all televised news is vulnerable to the sex factor: Is the product sexy enough, in both the media and the traditional sense of the word? Printed newspapers can pander, but they can never literally shake a pop star’s butt in your face like TV news can and does on a regular basis.A printed major city daily, no matter how far it has sunk or shrunk, recognizes that it must deliver in several departments: International, national, state, regional, sports, business. Try as they might, they can’t actually shove the Octo-Mom into all of those. As lean as the L.A. Times has become, it still has a business section that is even now delivering the grim news of American business.There’s a daily newspaper out of Miami that makes it impossible to tell which items are news and which are recipes for a pie or cake. But even that terrible Florida paper does something that printed hard-copy newspapers excel at: Finding human stories that matter and making them matter to us. You’re thinking, “Man, that’s all I see on TV… ‘Human interest.’” I don’t mean “runners” about freak births and the mentally ill mothers involved, but rather the human pain of hard economic times or drive-by shootings. The loss, the heartbreak, and the moving forward with life after unfair and inexplicable tragedy. Other media must cut that material to meet their theatrical presentation standards. But because it’s all they can do, newspapers use only the strength of words and still pictures to report human events. And that inhibits the reductive malarkey that contaminates other news sources. There is a critical need for our society to receive that material straight up, no chaser. It’s just harder for print to go all drama queen on you. And we’re so past that now.Editor’s Note: On Monday, the L.A. Times announced it was folding its CALIFORNIA section into the A section of paper, thus eliminating a separate state section.
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