A sad day for newspapers; Is it too late for them to change?

Today marks a sad day for newspapers. First, today's print edition of the Rocky Mountain News was its last.

Today marks a sad day for newspapers. First, today's print edition of the Rocky Mountain News was its last. After 150 years in business, the newspaper is closing, a victim of the Internet and the economy. Then, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, a pretty influential group of the nation's top newsroom execs, announced the cancellation of its April convention. Across the industry, the cancellation is being viewed as a symbolic event that says something bigger about the fate of newspapers. More on that below.

In my world, I saw an even bigger blow to the newspaper industry this morning: two people who could have been and should have been life-long readers - my mom and dad - canceled their subscription to the hometown paper today.

I never thought I'd see the day when my dad would be sitting in his recliner on a Sunday morning, cup of coffee on the end table but no newspaper in his hand. But, he'd finally had it. The content, he said, had suffered so much because of the newsroom layoffs and cutbacks that he just couldn't bring himself to read it anymore. Oh yeah, and the price of the subscription went up. There was no way they were willing to pay more for less.

I don't pretend to have the answers on how the newspaper business can salvage what's left of the business. Sure, I can point fingers back in time and talk about how they were late to the online game and unwilling to break hold of the old model and try new things - before the panic set in, that is. But that was then. What's done is done.

Is it too late for newspapers? Maybe. But I don't think it's too late for "news content providers." (Coincidentally, ASNE's members were going to vote at the April convention about dropping "paper" from the group's name.) I also don't think that journalism is anywhere near dead. On the contrary, I think there's greater demand for quality journalism, no matter whether I read it on a dead tree, a PC or my Blackberry. The need for a free press, one to watch over a government that has troops overseas and is injecting billions of dollars into economic recovery, has never been greater.

A blog post by the Knight Digital Media Center this morning looks deeper at the implications of ASNE's canceled convention and asks the question of whether newspaper executives have given up on learning. Michelle McLellan, who wrote the blog post, says:

Lack of innovation is a real crisis in the news industry and innovation requires that leaders turn from the urgent to the important. The traditional culture of newsrooms is one of command and control and the executive who never gets out of the newsroom epitomizes that. The traditional culture is also one that resists change, preferring instead to focus on perfecting narrow objectives.  It’s a culture that does not make time to learn to change.

She's right in that newspapers - no matter how late in the game - need to learn how to change. In this economic climate, no industry - from automakers to banks to newspapers - can afford to hold on to the old way of doing things. The world is changing. If you don't keep up and change with it, it will knock you down and move right past you.

In the newspaper industry, it happened this morning in Denver.