Rocky Mountain News Trims Print Distribution; Where Does Online Fit In?

By: Steve Outing

If you happen to live in a rural part of Colorado, you no longer can buy the Rocky Mountain News or have it delivered. As you may have read, the Rocky recently decided to confine distribution of its print product to the metropolitan Denver area and all or parts of 14 nearby counties.

The paper's move, which heartened spirits at the Rocky's crosstown archrival, the Denver Post (which still distributes papers regionally), is just the latest example of U.S. newspapers jettisoning unprofitable circulation zones. Similar moves have been made by the Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald and Chicago Tribune, according to a recent story in the Chicago Tribune. Further such announcements are inevitable as the newspaper industry continues to struggle with rising expenses and thinning profit margins.

So, this trend presents an opportunity for online services to serve those communities that no longer are being served by the print product, right? Apparently not in the Rocky Mountain News' case.

I called up the Rocky this week and spoke with Jack McElroy, a deputy managing editor who is heading up the Rocky's new media efforts. The paper is working on developing a Web service, due to launch around the first of March, he told me. But loathe to tip off the Denver Post about his plans, McElroy offered few details about the Rocky's Web site, except to say that it will supplement the printed newspaper. It will not contain full content of the paper and is not intended to offer a service that those affected by print distribution cutbacks might substitute as a primary news source, he said.

While designing an online/new media strategy that does not compete with the printed newspaper is generally wise, in this case it may not make sense. I can't help but think that the Rocky is missing an opportunity to hold on to at least some of those lost readers -- and take the lead in Colorado in creating a digital delivery vehicle for a full-fledged online news product.

If you've been reading this column this week, you'll know that the brand new New York Times On the Web site purports to have a dual strategy: 1) It supplements the print edition, offering Times ink-and-paper readers additional value for their subscription fees, and 2) it is designed to reach an audience outside of the boundaries of the Times' print distribution area -- particularly overseas. The Times can't afford to place printing plants around the world, but it can sell subscriptions to a digital service and gain new readers it otherwise would have to pass by.

On a smaller scale, the Rocky Mountain News faces a similar situation. It cannot afford to distribute newspapers throughout Colorado and surrounding states, yet there are many people who want the product. The paper's strategy appears to be to write them off, when an online alternative is available. (The News' Web site is likely to be of interest to Coloradans living outside of the Rocky's circulation area, but they will no longer be able to have the newspaper's news-gathering organization be their primary news source.)

Here's some unsolicited advice for the Rocky Mountain News and other papers that are shrinking their print distribution areas: Create an online service (ideally on the World Wide Web to ensure that the largest number of people can access it, or possibly a digital delivery service that sends out PDF pages) that offers a full-fledged digital news service. If you're really worried about the online service cannibalizing the print edition, charge for the news component. (But don't lock down the whole site; offer a good dose of free content to give non-paying visitors a reason to come back.)

Many publishers fear that creating an online news service that offers too much of their news product will encourage some people to abandon their print subscriptions -- especially if the news Web site is free. If your print edition is distributed fully to your target audience, it may not make sense to create a news component to your online newspaper service that could obviate the need to purchase the print edition. But if there is unserved demand -- as in the case of the New York Times and the Rocky Mountain News -- then not creating an online news service is throwing away potential customers.

The online medium supports many types of services and business models. For many newspaper markets, offering an online service that's heavy on news content may not make sense. Supplemental services offering such features as searchable archives, discussion forums, databases of entertainment reviews, etc. will serve their goals better.

For those papers who have interested potential (or former) customers unreachable by printing press and delivery truck, it's time to boldly move into cyberspace delivery.

Interactive crossword application

A few columns back I wrote about interactive renditions of newspaper crossword puzzles. You may want to check out Literate Software Systems' digital crossword products, which allow users to download a reader application and then pick up from a Web site a daily puzzle, which can be played offline. The Literate Software puzzle application is far superior to the Web-based crosswords I've seen at some newspaper sites, which require the player to be online to play and to enter answers into a dialog box instead of directly on the puzzle. The Literate puzzle applications are available for all major computer platforms. Samples can be seen at Literate's Web site,

Movin' On

The Associated Press has named 3 new managers for its multimedia services department:

Karl Tate of the AP Graphics department was named design manager.
David Beck was named content manager for the service. He was previously with the Los Angeles Times, where he was an online producer.
And Geoff Haynes, assistant to the managing editor of AP, becomes news editor for online services.

The AP formed the multimedia services department last November. Roll-out of the new service is scheduled for later this year.

Steve Previous day's column | Next day's column | Archive of columns
Presented 5 days a week by Steve Outing, Planetary News LLC.
Made possible by Editor & Publisher magazine.
Got a tip? Let me know about it

If you have a newsworthy item about the newspaper new media business, please send me a note.

This column is written by Steve Outing and underwritten by Editor & Publisher magazine. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here