In late February, I had just finished writing my twice-monthly media column for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, when I got an email announcing that the newspaper would be closing the very next day.
My column, which I had already submitted to my editor, was about how reporters were letting state Republicans get away with empty statements about how they planned to fix Colorado’s highway mess. They were attacking the Democratic governor’s plan to fix unsafe bridges, but the Republicans had no plan of their own. Reporters were covering the Republican attacks but not pointing out that they lacked a plan for a problem they agreed was serious.
So with the Rocky closing, my column would never run. Neither would the other stories that were planned or already written. One Rocky reporter, Laura Frank, wrote in the Rocky’s final edition about her articles that were ready to be published in the next few editions, which would never exist.
“We had stories ready to go on abused children in state custody, alleged misuse of public money, and the future of the energy boom in our state,” Frank wrote. So, the abused kids are still out there, and so is their story, but it may never be told, because the newspaper is gone. The public money is probably still being abused, and who knows?
Frank also wrote that on the last day of her job, she got a call from a citizen who wanted to contact a public official who was quoted in a previous story Frank wrote. Another citizen wrote Frank and asked that she investigate something. When journalism dies, fewer news tips get investigated. Fewer public officials are called by citizens. Stories don’t get told. Information remains private, stuck in databanks. Corruption goes unnoticed.
But when stories are never told, never see the light of day, their absence isn’t missed as deeply. And so the closure of a newspaper is missed less than you might expect by a community.
It seems that the loss of journalism is less tangible than, for example, the loss of a factory or a restaurant.
Newspapers themselves are products, but the journalism they contain is so current, so forward-looking, that its absence seems to have less impact on a community than it should.
When you start thinking about it, maybe that’s why there’s little panic in America over the dismantling or outright disappearance of newspapers across the country, and about the hits that serious journalism is taking on TV, radio, and elsewhere. Journalism faces a crisis, yet its slow death isn’t being taken seriously enough.
It makes you wonder if there will be a tipping point, when the absence of journalism will be felt so deeply, that the depth of the loss of a newspaper like the Rocky Mountain News will be felt with the force that it deserves to be felt by the community.
Denver still has a good daily newspaper, after all, in The Denver Post. So things could be much worse. But will people realize how much worse things are when we reach that point?
Jason Salzman is the author of” Making the News: A Guide for Nonprofits and Activists,” and board chair of Rocky Mountain Media Watch, a Denver-based media watchdog organization. Distributed by MinutemanMedia.org