FORT COLLINS, CO—As reporters and editors stream into the newsroom on a Monday morning in September, they glance upward at the pageview numbers beaming from the 55-inch, flatscreen monitor. The journalists savor the metrics, which indicate that Web traffic skyrocketed more than tenfold over the weekend as the newsroom scrambled to produce stories, photo galleries, and videos of the floods that ravaged northern Colorado.
Josh Awtry, the youthful-looking, slightly bearded executive editor at the Fort Collins Coloradoan, kicks off the morning news meeting with plenty of praise for the outstanding coverage, mentioning reporters who produced detailed stories and stunning videos and those who posted numerous updates on Twitter, Facebook, and the newspaper’s website. “The social component of this has been phenomenal,” Awtry says, turning to his online engagement editor, Paul Berry. “Paul, you crushed it. All the information we provided—talk about service journalism. That’s cool.”
While the numbers certainly aren’t all that matters, it’s clear that this small, 140-year-old newspaper now places a lot of emphasis on the metrics. And so far, it seems to be paying off. Not only has it been holding onto its print subscribers (19,912 daily and 25,919 Sunday, in a 151,000-person city), but a remarkable 70 percent of those subscribers have activated their digital access.
“If not our highest number in the company, it’s pretty darn close,” says Mackenzie Warren, a Gannett news executive who is helping the company’s 81 local newspapers, including the Coloradoan, implement a paid digital content model. Since the Coloradoan put up a paywall in April 2012 that limits non-subscribers to 15 free articles a month, it has attracted 1,115 digital-only subscribers. A third of the funding for the Coloradoan now comes from digital sources.
“We have much larger newspapers that don’t have that many digital-only subscribers,” Warren says in a telephone interview. The Coloradoan, like most Gannett newspapers, sees digital subscriptions as a vital part of its future.
Awtry looks at success from the perspective of the newsroom. The digital subscriptions result in an extra $100,000 a year in new circulation revenue. “That’s two bodies right there,” he says, explaining that he was able to add resources to the newsroom, which is now stabilized at about 30 full-time employees, including reporters, photographers, and editors. For years, the newspaper had been seeing revenue declines, which forced cutbacks and layoffs. “We turned the operation around in a year,” Awtry says.
New ways of doing business
Awtry, 38, says he hadn’t envisioned himself as an editor. He graduated with two bachelor’s degrees from Hastings College in Nebraska—one in communications with a print journalism emphasis and another in saxophone performance. While both competed for his time and passion, he moved toward journalism. He explains, “The notion of helping people, and playing with the still-fresh concept of news as it related to computers, felt like a fascinating and worthwhile existence.”
“Besides,” he adds, “if you think the job market is tough for journalists, try looking at the job market for classical saxophonists.”
He got his start at community newspapers in Nebraska, worked at the Sun News in Myrtle Beach, SC, and then became assistant managing editor at the Salt Lake Tribune. Before moving to Fort Collins, he was the editor of the Times-News in Twin Falls, ID, where he pushed the concept of civic engagement and listening to ensure a newspaper reflected its community. “Anyplace that would put a soup ladle or ice cream scoop in my hand—I’d be there,” he says.
He also pushed a data-driven approach to news, and using “actionable intelligence” from anecdotes, reader panels, and digital metrics to mirror a community’s passions. And he started a “cover story” concept—“one great, deep piece of enterprise journalism trumps multiple daily incremental stories.” He says he developed those ideas at the Tribune but implemented them first in Idaho. “Much of what we’ve put into practice at the Coloradoan are caffeinated, extra-strength versions of those concepts,” he says.
The Coloradoan’s emphasis on metrics and digital subscriptions, which began in earnest when Awtry took the helm in December 2011, extends to pushing for traffic growth through social media. Reporters tweet news updates from the field, keep their Facebook pages updated, and produce videos. They’re also encouraged to be more visible in the community, with marketing efforts putting their names and faces in advertisements and even at bus stops.
But the digital push is just one aspect of the Coloradoan’s major efforts to become an innovative newsroom.
Journalists pursue the “passion topics” of the community, located in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, such as beer, economic and urban growth, entrepreneurship, and outdoor-active living. Awtry reorganized the newsroom to increase reporting jobs and decrease editing jobs to get more bodies on more beats. Those reporters are allowed to focus on meatier stories rather than quantity of output.