Highlights from the In Denver Times launch announcement press conference

Categories: Media

At around 11 a.m. today, two prominent churches on the Auraria campus were hosting very different functions. A group of down-on-their-luck people stood in a line behind St. Elizabeth of Hungary to receive a donated lunch. Meanwhile, several hundred yards away, thirty former Rocky Mountain News journalists and a trio of businessmen gathered in front of St. Cajetan's Center before a slew of electronic and print reporters to announce a new project: In Denver Times. The proposed online newspaper, which is touted in the YouTube video above, grew out of IWantMyRocky.com, a website created this past December, after the Rocky was put up for sale by its owner, E.W. Scripps -- a move correctly seen by most observers as a precursor to the venerable tabloid's eventual closure.

Sports columnist Sam Adams, a comic in his free time, warmed up the crowd with a few jokes, mentioning that grumpy Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler had been invited to attend but couldn't make it. "Jay Cutler wants out of Denver," he added. "But the people behind me -- we're here, and we're here to stay."

Adams, who started at the Rocky on August 30, 1996, admitted to feeling frustrated over his inability to weigh in on l'affaire Cutler and other news that's broken since February 27, when the tabloid delivered its last issue. But fortunately, he went on, many of his peers spent the time between then and now working on "something creative, something new, something credible, and something we hope will last for years."

Next, Adams introduced Steve Foster, previously an assistant sports editor/interactive at the Rocky, who helped co-found IWantMyRocky.com and has emerged as a spokesman for the new project -- speaking to yours truly on Friday to suggest that early rumors about In Denver Times weren't wholly accurate. He credited copy editor Kim Humphreys and presentation editor Mel Pomponio with doing a lot of the heavy IWantMyRocky.com lifting, and saluted Kevin Flynn and others scribes for continuing to report the news even though their official platform had vanished beneath their feet.

As for In Denver Times, he called it a "real-time, locally focused news source" on which the news content would be free but columns and assorted interactive content would only be available to subscribers -- in essence, the information contained in a press release published in this space a little more than an hour before the St. Cajetan's event got under way. But this dream will only come true if 50,000 sign up to subscribe by April 23 -- what would have been the Rocky's 150th birthday. If that goal is met, In Denver Times will debut on May 4. Foster made it clear that word of mouth represented the site's best chance to survive. He urged those present to "share our vision" and to "spread the word."

Next up: Kevin Preblud, an entrepreneur who enjoys taking a major role in prominent community happenings. (Among other things, he's served as secretary/treasurer for the Cherry Creek Arts Festival.) He got involved, he said, because "as a fourth-generation Denverite, I couldn't imagine the Rocky Mountain News ending so abruptly." But just as important, he believes that "great journalism can still be good business." After emphasizing the importance of subscribing -- something everyone who ventured to the podium did at least once -- he maintained that "we've kept the spirit of the Rocky alive by getting together with these amazing journalists."

Moments later, Preblud introduced Brad Gray of McAleer Gray, an executive search firm -- and while Gray didn't unveil a lot of specifics, he did address the dire economic situation currently afflicting the traditional journalism industry. "It's not rocket science, folks," he said, before detailing the ways in which the old print model no longer works. According to him, 70 percent of the costs associated with running a newspaper go toward paper, presses and the like. In his view, however, this structure is "upside-down...journalists ought to be the ones getting the 70 percent" -- an assertion that drew applause from many in the audience, as well as the Rocky vets. So, too, did his pledge that "there won't be any printing presses at In Denver Times." He sees the reporters, editors and so on as being the true "stars of the show.... In all honesty, they are the product." For that reason, he wants to build an operation that "will sustain careers and livelihoods" for these news gatherers.

After making another subscription pitch, Gray gave way to Benjamin Ray, the third of the money men -- and the possessor of a strong Colorado journalism bloodline. His father, Garrett Ray, was a longtime editor and publisher at the Littleton Independent before becoming a journalism professor at Colorado State University, as well as a mentor to, among others, Jim Sheeler, who won a Pulitzer Prize while writing for the Rocky. Benjamin read an e-mail from Garrett, who was also in the crowd, pledging a $72 subscription toward the cause, before noting that he felt it was his "civic duty" to lend a hand to In Denver Times. Skeptics were sure the plan wouldn't work, he acknowledged -- so "we have to prove them wrong."

The final featured yakker, Tustin Amole, who currently works as a spokeswoman for the Cherry Creek School District, didn't talk about having a direct role in the project. Instead, she was there mainly for symbolic purposes, as the daughter of the late Gene Amole, a longtime Rocky columnist. She said she was glad her father hadn't been alive to suffer the pain of watching his beloved Rocky falter, but she was certain he would have been cheered by today's announcement. Had he written a column about it, the first word would have been "Tickled," she said -- and he would have happily subscribed as a way of lending his support.

With that, Adams took the microphone again and opened the floor to questions -- at which point it became clear that the principals in the deal either didn't have all the answers yet, or weren't prepared to share them. A reporter asked Gray how much investment capital he and his partners were putting into the Times. "As much as it takes," he replied -- but that was immediately contradicted by comments from Preblud. He said April 23 was a "hard deadline," and for the project to work, the coordinators had to "show there are 50,000 people who believe" in the concept. But Gray wasn't quite as unequivocal in response to a variation on this inquiry. If, for example, 30,000 people signed up by the deadline, he suggested that the backers might at least consider developing a scaled-down way of moving forward. Still, neither he nor Preblud wanted to seriously entertain failure. Like a football player or coach, they didn't want to say what they might or might not do if they lost the big game.

At least the meter hasn't started running. Foster revealed that none of the journalists who are part of the In Denver Times team -- including David Milstead, Gary Massaro, Aaron Lopez, Mark Brown, Mary Chandler and many other notables -- will be paid up until the April 23 decision day. They're volunteering their services, and they can afford to do so for at least that long. Although the amount of severance they'll receive remains unknown, Scripps is paying them through April 28. In a sense, the company that shut down the paper is financing their new venture.

Regarding the name, and the absence of either the word "Rocky" or "News" in it, Foster said the matter was "complicated" -- an allusion, no doubt, to Scripps's stated eagerness to sell the Rocky's intellectual property, not to mention the desire of Texas businessman Brian Ferguson to purchase its assets. But he and his colleagues had "moved past that" -- because reporting the news couldn't wait. Gray then reiterated that the name didn't matter, because the journalists were the brand that counted.

What about the cost -- approximately $60 per annum? Is it really possible to raise about $3 million in five weeks given the current economic circumstances and the easy availability of news content for free via the Internet? Would a quarter of the people who subscribed to the Rocky really pony up that much dough without receiving a physical newspaper in the bargain? Foster thinks so. "Until a few weeks ago, Rocky readers were paying more than we're asking them for now," he said -- and he believes that the web provides a corollary for the user-friendliness of the Rocky's tabloid format. Both are all about accessibility, he said, and he thinks "readers will be able to find the Rocky-ness in how we're going to deliver the news."

As a bonus, the approach is much more cost-effective than the alternative. Gray said he knows of "ten to twelve newspapers in major trouble" around the country, presumably including the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which just announced that its last print copy will be delivered tomorrow. And just because the Rocky is gone doesn't mean the Denver Post will have smooth sailing from now on. Indeed, Gray expressed doubts that most cities can sustain even one major metro daily over the long haul.

The partners clearly believe the time has come for a fresh news-delivery model, and they believe they've come up with one -- and if it's successful, they don't dismiss the possibility of replicating it in other locations across the country. Not that Adams seemed especially interested in such entrepreneurial prospects. He's more focused on kicking journalistic ass again -- and he's confident that the offerings he and his In Denver Times staffers produce will be better than what's available from that other newspaper in town.

Now if only they get the chance. They aren't asking for a handout, like the people at St. Elizabeth of Hungary. They just want to be paid for doing their jobs.

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