MISSOULA, MONTANA — All over the harsh terrain of the Rocky Mountains, local fears of rampant development burst with the real estate bubble, leaving communities to confront a new enemy: economic stagnation.
On the frontier of the struggle is New West, a six-year-old digital guide to news, analysis, and culture for the Rocky Mountain region. Based in Missoula, Montana, and Boulder, Colorado, the company’s network of writers and editors cover Montana, Idaho, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico. While focusing primarily on wildlife, energy, politics, development, and regional innovators, New West also celebrates the art and culture that define the area.
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CEO and publisher Lynn Ingham suggests that New West is “like Slate for the Rocky Mountains–we’re a digital guide to news, analysis, and culture of the Rocky Mountain region with a focus on energy, politics, development, and natural resources.” New West brings that Rockies-first approach to film, art, music, and literature, too–the site, for example, employs a book reviewer that only reviews Western writers or Western authors. “We really just look to be thoughtful, savvy and connected to why people make the choice to live in the Rockies, where it isn’t always easy to make a living.”
Jonathan Weber, who went on to help start The Bay Citizen in San Francisco, founded New West in Montana in 2005 as a totally for-profit enterprise that struggled in a brutal economy. New owners stepped in last year. “We ended up buying the brand–the old LLC, which was really disbanding. I really consider us, even with a six-year legacy, as a new project that launched like a new company in November of 2010,” Ingham says.
New West is now working toward a hybrid business model, pursuing grants that would specifically fund deep dives into the most time-consuming issues, while remaining a for-profit in every other regard. New West Publishing also produces conferences and other live events. Past conferences focused on real estate development and urban planning, but as the construction bubble burst, Ingham notes, the emphasis shifted toward ‘”How can we survive this downturn in a sustainable way?'” Conference speakers drawn from the regional ranks of climate change experts, sustainable farmers, experts in the locally-sourced food movement, venture capitalists, and marketers.
New West operates as a “virtual newsroom” with reporters posting stories every day, as editor Brad Turner takes story ideas and pitches them to a wide net of contributors and reporters. The operation will migrate from ExpressionEngine to WordPress this year, and nets 100,000 unique visitors per month.
Staffers try to offer the proper balance between quantity and quality, combining aggregation and original reporting. “We try and put something juicy and original up once a day,” Ingham says. The site, for example, has covered the movement of “megaloads” of oil drilling equipment through recreational areas, which turned into a New York Times story. However, certain divisive issues, like the medical marijuana debate, challenge New West’s attempt to offer a regional perspective. Three of the six states in New West’s service region legalized the herbal remedy, but opposition to the movement nearly matches support. “What we have to figure out is how do we cover the story in a way that honors both decisions and it’s not an easy thing to do.”
New West’s staffers are sprinkled across the continental divide. Montana native Ingham is a former vice president of sales for Interactive One, a division of Radio One. She comes from the San Francisco digital community, where she spent seven years at The Ad Age Group, opening its San Francisco sales office in 1997 during the first dot-com bubble.
Editor Brad Turner has reported for The Denver Post, MTV Online, and Boulder’s Daily Camera, while Courtney Lowery–co-founder, editor at large, and food and agriculture contributor–worked at the Associated Press before starting New West with Weber in 2005. Contributing editor Jule Banville taught news editing at the University of Montana School of Journalism and worked at the Washington City Paper, while contributor David Frey freelances from Carbondale, Colo., and has clips from The Denver Post, the Chicago Tribune, and The Christian Science Monitor.
Ingham says New West is hiring more freelance writers, and has high hopes for monetizing content going forward. She says she’s heartened by the apparent return of content as king. News like AOL’s purchase of The Huffington Post for $315 million, Newsweek‘s merger with The Daily Beast, and News Corp’s investment in iPad publication The Daily is “really good news for us content people. It means finally that digital content is mature enough. An emphasis is being placed on it again.” New West content is available for free syndication.
Funding is still a challenge, though: “There are many companies [like ours] looking for money. At the same time, look at the sweet spot we’re in.” The widespread adoption of mobile tablets is kickstarting local advertising online at rates that can be four or five time higher than rates for online display ads, she says. “We have feet on the ground in six Rocky Mountain states with a sales base that is largely ignored by national media.”
Ingham is betting that the well-educated, affluent professionals of the West–plugged in through the Internet–will clamor for what New West is providing. “People are still looking for quality content, looking for original content, well-curated and well-aggregated content,” she says. “While it’s been really dismal for producers, things are starting to shake out.”
New West Data
Name: New West
City: Headquartered in Missoula, Mont. and Boulder, Colo.David Downs is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. A former editor for Village Voice Media, he has contributed to Wired magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The Believer, and The Onion in addition to other publications.