Q&A with Steve Foster, managing editor of In Denver Times
As noted in Tuesday's blog "Highlights from the In Denver Times Launch Announcement Press Conference," Steve Foster is among the driving forces behind the project, which will debut in May with a thirty-person staff culled from the Rocky Mountain News if 50,000 subscribers agree to pay around $60 per year for the service by April 23, the 150th anniversary of the Rocky's birth. Yesterday, Foster spelled out more details about the birth of this notion, the risks involved and its odds of success in the extensive Q&A below.
Westword (Michael Roberts): When did the idea of transforming IWantMyRocky.com into something more permanent first come up?
Steve Foster: The initial idea came, honestly, when we started it. We were realists when we started IWantMyRocky.com to save the paper. We realized that ultimately we might not succeed at that. And in the back of our minds, we said, "We need a place to gather after the fact" -- because we absolutely believed that we needed to continue producing a news product. Now, as far as transitioning it into In Denver Times -- into something specific -- that developed in the days after the Rocky closure, as we started meeting with interested investors.
WW: At this point, there are about thirty former members of the Rocky with In Denver Times. Is that about the same number who were involved with IWantMyRocky.com from the beginning? Or did some people drop out, and other people jump onboard?
SF: It's about the same. The core of the group that's involved with In Denver Times was also involved with IWantMyRocky. We've had a few people come onboard since the Rocky. And a few people have taken jobs. A few people have moved on.
WW: Were some people who used to work at the Rocky uninterested in getting involved in the project because they felt it was a longshot? Or did most feel that because they're getting paid through the period when you'll decide whether or not there's enough support to move forward, it was worth the gamble?
SF: Everybody's circumstances are different. Some people have bigger families. Some people have spouses who have health care. And so decisions regarding whether they were going to be involved in the new venture had a lot to do with their personal circumstances. It's not a question about whether people felt one way or the other about if it would work. It was really more about their personal circumstances, and whether they allowed them to take a gamble. And this is a gamble. There's no question about it.
WW: What about your decision-making process? What kinds of pros and cons did you weigh?
SF: Well, my personal pros... I came back to Denver, I came back to the Rocky and moved into web content after being a designer for most of my career. I did that in large part because I believe in the future of this industry. Everybody's talking about newspapers dying and media dying, and I just don't believe it's true. There's just too many people hungry for information for those of us who are providing information and news to suddenly be out of jobs. I moved forward, absolutely, with this idea because I believe it's in the best interest of our industry to do so.
Cons? I know it's a gamble. I know that ultimately we might not succeed. But more importantly, I think we have to succeed. Somebody has to do this. Somebody has to find a way to continue to bring quality news coverage not just here, but everywhere. I think that's the scary thing for me personally. I was laid off in Chicago from the Sun-Times last year, and surveying the industry at that point was kind of scary. A lot of newspapers that I would really have liked to have looked at were in danger of folding, closing, cutting back. I looked at a lot of jobs I would have liked, and across the board, the jobs kept getting cut or pulled back before they could be filled. That's not healthy, in my mind.
WW: There have been a lot of different ideas about how newspapers might be able to survive. Did your core group ever considering coming up with a way to put out a physical newspaper? Or was that so cost-ineffective that you didn't give it much consideration?
SF: That's a perfect way to put it: "cost-ineffective." We're all in love with the print product, and I feel a little emptiness when I don't find a newspaper at my door, and in particular, the newspaper that I was subscribing to as far back as '97, when I first moved here. But in this environment -- in the economic environment in general, but specifically for our industry -- it's cost-ineffective to think about starting up with a print product right now. That doesn't mean there's no future for a print product or it is impossible to revive it. It's just that right now, it just eats up too much cost. We need to focus on the journalism first.
WW: Another idea that's been bandied about involves a non-profit approach? Is that anything your group considered?
SF: Yeah, absolutely. There's nothing wrong with a non-profit approach. But for the next business model around journalism to truly evolve and emerge, it's going to have to have some for-profit aspect. Too much journalism right now is produced on a for-profit model to suddenly have everything go non-profit. I value highly the non-profit model. I think it's essential to the future of journalism. But I think for-profit's also going to be part of it. I don't think the non-profit model is going to be able to sustain a replacement for a major metro newspaper. For example, I think the Voice of San Diego is doing a really great thing. But it's a small enterprise.
WW: For folks here in Denver who aren't familiar with Voice of San Diego, could you describe it? And why didn't you think that specific approach was the one to go with here.
SF: Well, there's a couple of things. Voice of San Diego is a small, non-profit, online-only news organization in San Diego, and they do really great investigative report. Really focused reporting. But, for instance, they don't do much sports coverage, and in Denver, sports coverage is a big thing. I have personal doubts that non-profit models should be used to produce sports news.
Non-profit news organizations should be providing good government coverage, good investigative reporting -- and as big a sports fan as I am, and as much of my career has been devoted to sports coverage, for a non-profit to be producing that, I don't think it's for the good of the community that's supporting it. Sports coverage in particular to me is part of a for-profit model. And I believe that, at least in the city of Denver, to provide in-depth local coverage, it has to include sports. Look around every television station yesterday, and what was one of the top stories? It was Jay Cutler. I don't believe a non-profit serves the people who are supporting it by covering sports in that way. But we intend to cover sports in that way.
WW: At the press conference, there weren't a lot of specifics about how your group got together with Brad Gray and Kevin Preblud and Benjamin Ray. How were those connections made?
SF: Kevin came to me through Sam Adams. They met at some event -- I'm not sure which one. Kevin contacted me through Sam in the days following the Rocky closure -- specifically contacting me as a representative of the IWantMyRocky group. From there, members of the group had meetings with Kevin and his group and also other investors to talk about their visions of what could be created to fill the gap left by the Rocky Mountain News. Kevin and Brad and Ben's group is the one that matched our vision most closely, as far as creating an online news source that would be truly competitive as a major metro news source -- not just as a small, supplemental news source...
We met with a few other people, and they all had very interesting ideas -- actually, really good ideas. But for size and scope of a product, Kevin and Brad and Ben's group had a vision that mostly matched ours.
WW: As you know, most start-ups start small. And although I haven't done a survey to check the staffing at every newsroom in Colorado, my guess is that if In Denver Times goes forward, your thirty-person newsroom will be the second-largest in the state, behind only the Denver Post. [Note: I subsequently learned this isn't true. Around ninety editorial employees work at the Colorado Springs Gazette.] Was there any fear that you're starting out too big?
SF: No. In fact, I worry a little bit that we're starting out too small. We just left a newsroom of 230 people. To cover the city of Denver -- to cover it the way it needs to be covered -- it needs to be covered by a staff of some size.
WW: From a financial standpoint, though, you're setting yourself a large challenge to cover so many salaries right off the bat...
SF: Yes. It definitely makes it tougher. There's no question. But if we're going to provide the news coverage and the quality of the journalism the Rocky provided, we can't start too small. We have to shoot for what we really believe is needed, and this is what we believe is needed.
WW: In terms of the thirty people who are involved, does the breakdown in their specialties work out, so that you'll have enough feet on the streets and enough people behind the scenes? Or will some people who used to have one specialty have to work in another area because there's a shortfall?
SF: Everybody's going to need to be flexible. And everybody who's committed understands that. The group we're starting with didn't come on board because of their specialties. They came onboard because they all believed in creating something, and everyone's willing to try something new to make that a reality. There's a large group of people who are traditionally identified as copy editors. In this new world, they're not just editing copy. They're also reporting stories, and that is a key component for this. We need to be flexible, and everyone needs to be able to do what everyone else does in a pinch.
WW: How is the ownership set up at this point? Or has it been formalized? Is there any type of employee ownership? Or is it wholly owned by the three businessmen we just talked about?
SF: It hasn't been formalized, but the journalists will be part owners.
WW: Will the amount of that ownership stake be determined after you know that you'll be moving forward?
WW: The name In Denver Times: How was it chosen, and what does it signify?
SF: We are independent. We're innovative. We're interactive. We're in Denver. And these are changing times. The name came about through a lot of brainstorming and discussion.
WW: Was there a fear that if you used either "Rocky" or "News" as part of the name, even though you're in the Rocky Mountains and you'll be delivering the news, there might be a perception from a legal standpoint that you were using part of the Rocky Mountain News' intellectual property, which is for sale?
SF: That's part of it. Given the issues going on with the intellectual property of the Rocky Mountain News right now, we're very cautious of what names we would use. But the real debate regarding "Rocky" and "Rocky Mountain" and "Denver" had more to do with the nature of our coverage. The debate was, we believe we are the successor to the Rocky Mountain News -- so including that in our name was part of the consideration. But we're also covering Denver. We are intensely Denver-focused, and at this point, to call ourselves "Rocky Mountain" might be misleading. We are intensely focused on Denver. The name we ended up settling on was meant to reflect not the past, but the future. We are covering Denver news.
WW: How was the pricing amounts settled upon, and the amounts for three, six or twelve month subscriptions? And also, how did you decide on the date by which you say you need to have commitments from 50,000 subscribers?
SF: The cost structure is probably a question for the investors. I had input on that, but it mostly came from their side. As far as the date we settled on, that was a fairly unanimous decision on all sides. April 23 is an important day for us for a lot of reasons. It's obviously the 150th anniversary of the Rocky Mountain News, and its roughly the time span, too, that we need to have a full product launched by, or near by, in order to be competitive.
WW: In early December, when the announcement about the sale of the Rocky was first made, the folks at E.W. Scripps said, "We need to know something by mid-January" -- and back then, a lot of people felt, that's not enough time. I can imagine a similar reaction to this date: It's not enough time to get that number of subscribers. Did you fear people might have that reaction? Or do you feel that having so near a date will create a momentum and urgency of its own?
SF: Well, we're all reporters, and deadlines are important to us -- and we need to get it done by our deadline.
WW: Did you think that placing the date only about five weeks away, it would create more interest in the community?
SF: That wasn't really part of the thought process. The short time span has more to do with the amount of time we believe that's necessary to provide the news, not the time necesary to get the subscriptions or to actually do the development. We can do the development in that short period of time. That five week period had more to do with our belief that we need to be back producing heavy-hitting news by then. It's about producing the news. It's not about marketing, it's not about development time. It's about the deadline by when we believe we need to start producing the news the way we were.
WW: And it's not about the fact that most of you folks are still being paid through April 28?
SF: No. It's kind of coincidental. Obviously, April 28 is in everybody's mind, but the timing is coincidental.
WW: What kind of response have you gotten so far? Do you have any idea how many subscribers have signed up? And how is the word of mouth going?
SF: I don't have the numbers for the subscribers right now, but it's going well. Word of mouth is fantastic. It seems like everybody's talking about it. I'm getting a lot of e-mails from friends I haven't seen or talked to in many, many years, sort of wondering what happened and where did this come from. I think a lot of people outside of Denver and even outside of the industry are aware of what's happening. The timing yesterday was interesting, with the P-I [the Seattle Post-Intelligencer] announcing that it's going online only. I think that just raised awareness even further for everybody about the situation we're in. So the coincidence of their announcing a closure and our announcing an attempted resurrection spurred on the news.
WW: Although the P-I will have an online-only newsroom, it won't have a subscription component. Its content will be entirely free. Does that hurt you in the sense that it might make people think, if Seatle can fund itself based on advertising, why can't you?
SF: The product we're going to produce is going to be much different from what the online P-I is going to produce. We will be much more aggressive. I don't think they'll be producing the in-depth news the way we will. What we will be producing will be worth paying for.
WW: A few years ago, the New York Times made subscribers pay for premium products like columns -- and it wasn't a success. Readers were very unhappy that they didn't have access to those columnists without paying. Do you think that over the intervening years, times have changed, and that what didn't work then will work now?
SF: I think so. I believe when it happened that the New York Times gave up too soon. What they called Times Select was the premium content. They had the biggest name columnists, and people wanted to read them and were willing to pay for them. I paid for them. And I think it hurt them in the short-term, because page views dropped, and when your overall model for the website is based on Internet advertising, page views are really important. I think it just dropped too dramatically for them and they panicked and reversed. But I think they gave up too soon, because that's the way things are going.
WW: In your view, then, is the Internet revenue model based on page views simply flawed? It's not going to work anymore?
SF: Yeah, to some extent. I spent the last nine months looking at click-maps and heat maps -- looking at what people click on. It's fascinating, and it's educational -- and what news people value is important. But not everyone is reading the same thing. A story about an elk walking around with a barstool around its neck gets a lot of attention and a lot of page views. But that's not as important as great coverage of education in Denver. A model that's based on page views only is going to put too much importance on the quirky story, rather than on the important story.
WW: What's your pitch for why people should subscribe to In Denver Times? And if you line up 30,000 subscribers by April 23, do you think it would be worth going forward with some variation of your plan?
SF: We're going to get 50,000. I have no doubt about it. But if it comes to that point, we'll deal with it. We need the city of Denver's support to make this work, and I think our loyal readers will value what we're proposing. And my pitch? Help make it real. We've been talking for too long now about the death of journalism, the death of newspapers, and all the while, there's more and more information out there. It really is time not just for journalists to take control of the news again, but for the community to take control of the news again. That's what we're proposing. This isn't just us. We want the community involved in the journalism. We want them interacting with us. This is the time to bring the newspaper and bring journalism back to the community after years and years of it become more and more distant.