In Colorado, a small paper looks forward

The Coloradoan's new, young editor has been trying to reinvent the publication for the digital age--and it's working

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.

Sarah Jane Kyle, 24, who covers a new beat on nonprofit organizations, says the atmosphere in the newsroom changed tremendously when Awtry arrived. “He took the newsroom, blew it up, and put it back together,” she says.

In addition to reorganizing the newsroom, Awtry strives to involve other Coloradoan employees—and community members—in the paper’s daily workings. The lively morning news meetings, which usually open with a review of the Web traffic for the day, have become part critique session, part planning session, and part praise session. Anyone who’s around, from reporters and photographers, to advertising and circulation representatives, attend and contribute to the discussion.

Jana Knapp, the client solutions manager for the Coloradoan’s advertising side, often sits in on the news meetings and will contribute story ideas. “It’s interesting when it shows up in print the next day,” she says, indicating that she also will pass along press releases from advertisers. “We can’t guarantee that it gets anywhere,” she says, but the sales staff can offer advice on how to get news into the paper. She says the system helps both the news side and the ad side. “The corporate culture here is very different. It’s more like we are all in this together.”

Even readers are welcome to join in the morning meetings. Glenn Johnson, 70, a retired phone company worker, says he just likes to stop in occasionally. “I like to see how things are made,” Johnson says. He watches from a black leather sofa as the journalists discuss story ideas. Observing the journalists, Johnson says, helps make them more credible in his eyes. “I believe in their stories. They’re trying. They do a good job,” he says. “They’re decent people. They’re normal people.”

The media industry in Colorado and elsewhere seems to agree with Johnson’s assessment. Awtry’s work earned him accolades in 2012 as “Innovator of the Year” at Gannett’s annual awards ceremony at its headquarters in McLean, VA. Gannett, owner of USA Today and various other media and marketing entities, says Awtry reinvented the newsroom “in a profound way.”

Part of national efforts

That reinvention may well be spread throughout Gannett—the Coloradoan’s shift is part of a part of company-wide efforts to remake newsrooms.

“We’re trying to reinvent what a local newsroom is and can be,” Warren says. The plan includes creating more “metrics-driven newsrooms,” focusing more on what customers want, providing more service and value to readers, and developing a better brand for the news product and the journalists who produce it. “Every journalist is a marketer in addition to being a journalist,” Warren says. “It’s a new frontier for us.”

So far, Warren says, the Coloradoan is doing much of it right. “But even the Coloradoan isn’t where it needs to be,” he adds.

Back at the news meeting, Awtry gloats about the 1.1 million page views from the previous Friday, when the flooding was at its worst. Normally, the Coloradoan website gets about 100,000 page views a day.

As the meeting breaks up, Awtry shows off new analytic software that he was just learning to use. “It lets us know how many people are on our site this second,” he tells a few straggling journalists. He says it can track reader engagement better. “I don’t know how we’re going to use all this yet, but it’s cool to have it. It’s actionable intelligence. I love it,” he says, adding that he’d like to have six screens with all types of data in the newsroom. “I want this place looking like The Matrix,” he jokes.

Convincing the old-guard

Even reporters who have been at the newspaper for many years have accepted the changes, including the push to put work on social media like Twitter and Facebook as well as produce videos—generally, everyone is expected to produce at least three videos a month.

Pat Ferrier, 55, a business reporter who has been at the Coloradoan for 11 years, says she likes many of the changes, particularly having more reporters and fewer editors in the newsroom. Ferrier, who used to be the business editor, says she prefers being a reporter. Seeing her picture on billboards and at bus stops did catch her off guard, though.

“I’m not comfortable with that,” she says. “If I wanted to be a media personality, I would have gone into TV or radio.”

The active life and sports editor, Miles Blumhardt, who’s worked at the Coloradoan for 22 years in several different positions, says he likes all the changes.

“I think we had just gotten away from the community and became irrelevant,” he says. His young staff of five are all engaged with social media and are writing about topics that matter to readers, including outdoor recreation. Now, he says, things have never been better.

Reaction to changes

While the community overall has been receptive to the changes, Awtry and Coloradoan President/Publisher Kathy Jack-Romero say, not everyone has been pleased. One letter writer criticized the Coloradoan in May for its youthful focus: “Now readers, here’s the challenge: Can you identify that last issue of the Coloradoan that did not mention beer or bikes?” Another letter writer said in June she counted at least 30 liquor-related articles in two months. “The Coloradoan does not just report the facts; it emphasizes only the fun aspects of drinking.”

But the newsroom is quick to defend stories that have a lot of reader interest. Berry, 32, the newspaper’s engagement editor and the person most responsible for promoting the Coloradoan’s work on social media, says beer is part of the culture of Fort Collins, which has close to a dozen microbreweries and brewpubs, in addition to an Anheuser-Busch plant. “Beer is a very significant part of our business community and economy,” says Berry.

And Trevor Hughes, 38, a general assignment reporter at the Coloradoan, says the paper’s commitment to quality local accountability and watchdog journalism is still strong.

“It’s a fantastic newsroom,” says Hughes, who also is a correspondent for USA Today. “Nobody questions our commitment to journalism. I don’t write about cats and Britney Spears.”

Others recognize the quality of the journalism as well. For its 2012 work, the Coloradoan won 18 awards in the Colorado Associated Press Editors & Reporters contest, including five first-place ones. In the 2012 Colorado Press Association competition, the newspaper won more than two dozen awards in news and advertising, including 10 first-place awards in news—among them best public service for its new nonprofit-volunteerism beat and best sustained coverage for its reporting of the June 2012 High Park Fire. According to Samantha Johnston, executive director of the press association, the number of awards “is much higher than normal for the Coloradoan,” adding that the newspaper’s news staff won just two first place awards in 2011 and no first place awards in 2010.

The press association also awarded the Coloradoan its editorial innovation award. Judge Emily Walsh Perry said in her written comments, “I am in awe of the effort they undertook to get the best grasp on what their readers wanted and then they really delivered it.”

Journalists at the Coloradoan, who are hoping their newsroom’s efforts resonate with readers, certainly feel passionate about their work. In a tweet following a day of talking to rescued flood evacuees, Kyle, the nonprofits reporter, wrote: “Today was a day I feel insanely proud and humbled by this job.”

And Eric Larsen, the government and growth editor, who worked with Awtry in Idaho, was passionate enough to have followed Awtry to the Coloradoan. “Josh is the real deal in terms of where we need to go in journalism,” Larsen says.

(Disclosure: A few of Kodrich’s former students work in the Coloradoan newsroom.)

Homepage photo courtesy of Kris Kodrich

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Kris Kodrich teaches journalism at Colorado State University Tags: