Denver Post launches new paywall, hopes for a steadier future

The Denver Post's downtown office. Most reporters are moving into a new office in a printing facility in a neighboring county as part of a cost-cutting effort. Chelsea Nesvig, via Flickr

THIS WEEK, DENVER POST STAFFERS rallied around their paper’s new $11.99-per-month paywall, optimistic that the move might bring more resources to a beleaguered Post newsroom. But the paywall goes up at a rocky time for Colorado’s largest newspaper, in which layoffs, an impending move, and the sudden resignation of its publisher have left some at the paper feeling destabilized.

Under Digital First Media, which is controlled by the New York City hedge fund Alden Global Capital, the Post has suffered through rounds of layoffs in recent years. They have cut into a newsroom that is now down two-thirds from its peak of around 300 employees. The latest layoffs came around Thanksgiving, without the option of buyouts, and were immediately followed by the departure of a longtime managing editor, which further rattled morale.

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By now, plenty of Post readers are likely familiar with the paper’s ownership situation and the effects of corporate cost-cutting on its newsroom. During one week in 2016, Denver’s 5280 and alt-weekly Westword each published in-depth stories that scrutinized the private equity firm that controls DFM, an entity that has drawn the ire of union organizers at DFM papers across the country. This week, The Los Angeles Times reported “significant” impending newsroom layoffs at the Southern California News Group, a DFM-owned constellation of nearly a dozen daily papers and as many weeklies.

“I don’t expect we’ll have a single area that will go unscathed,” one California editor told staff, according to the Times.

As The Denver Post asks its readers to pay for online content, some readers naturally might wonder if doing so will mean an investment into the newsroom and no more cuts, or a boost to corporate profits as layoffs continue. Even as Post journalists championed their new digital strategy and urged their friends and readers to buy in, some of those journalists have encountered versions of that question.

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“I’ve had multiple people tell me, ‘Well, I don’t want to buy The Denver Post because I don’t want that hedgefund to get any of my money,’” says Noelle Phillips, the paper’s public safety reporter and a member of the newsroom’s union. “I understand wanting to punish them,” she says of the paper’s owner, “but you’re hurting me. They’re not going to hurt. I am.”

ICYMI: At The Denver Post, it’s byline counts, union talks, and ‘a lot of anxiety’

Denver Post editor Lee Ann Colacioppo told CJR there is nothing in writing from corporate saying revenue generated by the new paywall will stave of future newsroom cuts, though she’s hopeful they will.

“The best I can say is: If we meet our subscription goals, we would expect it would stabilize our business and would allow us to stop the bleeding,” she said. “That’s the entire intent, that’s what we’re doing it for.” She declined to specify the Post’s subscription goals, but said she believes they are “absolutely achievable.”

These days, money the paper hauls in from print subscriptions and advertising just isn’t enough, she said. A digital subscription model brings another leg to the financial stool. “If we doubled—or in some happy world quintupled—our revenue, it’s not a situation where all of that just goes to the owners,” Colacioppo said. “They want something over the cost of operating the business, but it’s not like they just siphon everything.”

This isn’t the first time The Denver Post walled off its online content. The paper raised a paywall in 2013 only to take it down during its 2015 trial coverage of the Aurora theater shooter. The Post left the paywall down until now.

Colacioppo says the new paywall decision was made locally in Denver, and was not a top-down edict from corporate. The editor declined to give figures, but said so far she is pleasantly surprised by the number of readers who have already started digital subscriptions even before the metered paywall officially launched.

 

THE POST‘S NEW PAYWALL approach comes as a majority of the paper’s journalists move out of their iconic downtown office building across from the statehouse and into a printing facility in a neighboring county—another cost-saving maneuver. To mark the occasion, Post editorial page editor, Chuck Plunkett, penned a much-trafficked column in support of the paper’s new business strategy. As they move out of Denver, he wrote, journalists at the Post are “so over working for free.”

Days later, John Ingold—a Denver Post reporter for 17 years who has covered beats from marijuana to healthcare—unleashed a 30-post tweet-storm (with gif breaks) worthy of a read by anyone looking for a refresher on the bottomed-out business model of the modern day newspaper industry:

The posts came with a roll call of some of the paper’s recent stellar work, including a series documenting Colorado’s urban-rural divide, practical flaws in the state’s new aid-in-dying law, and a story about immigrants forced to wait until near-death before they can undergo kidney dialysis.

“But here’s the thing about all these good works,” wrote Ingold:

“As much as we at The Denver Post want to think of ourselves as a nonprofit community organization, we aren’t. We’re a business owned by a New York hedgefund that demands it gets its cut every year. And death is on our heels.”

On Tuesday, a day after Ingold’s plea, Post publisher Mac Tully announced his plans to resign at the end of the month. In a memo to staff, Tully—who is also executive vice president of Digital First Media—didn’t offer much of an explanation for his decision. He did say he wasn’t ready to retire, and wrote that, after 40 years in the newspaper biz, “I’m ready for something a little less stressful.”

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Plunkett was stunned. Tully had invested resources into Plunkett’s department, Plunkett says, filling out his depleted editorial board and allowing him to make a new hire. Plunkett also had just written his column championing the new paywall, and felt as though he had finally recovered from the holiday season layoffs, the staff departures, and the move.

“I felt like I had my legs back under me … which is important,” Plunkett said during a phone interview this week. “If you want to perform well, if you want to be at the top of your game, you need to feel like the company has your back and not has a knife in your back. It was good to have a sense that we were marching forward with a unified goal and everything—and then Mac’s gone. It was abrupt. And it’s painful.” Tully did not respond to messages for this story.

 

ONE READER voicing his support for the new Post paywall is Kyle Clark, a nightly news anchor at KUSA 9News, Denver’s NBC affiliate.

“I’m not sure this is a wise thing to be saying about our competition, but I would ask you to think about joining me in supporting them,” Clark said during a broadcast this week. “The death of The Denver Post might just be a rounding error for its hedge fund owner, but the loss would be immeasurable for Colorado.”

Upon the news of Tully’s impending resignation, Clark was back. Emails and social media comments following his segment the day before indicated “a good number” of viewers are “rooting for the demise of the Post,” said Clark during another segment. He offered another earnest call for his viewers to support those Post reporters who remain— “Good people, smart people, ethical people,” he said.

Jon Murray, who covers City Hall for The Denver Post’s politics team, is of two minds about having his stories go back behind a paywall. On one hand, fewer people are likely to read them, which could minimize their impact. On the other, those who subscribe may be more engaged readers, invested in his paper’s success. And surges in digital subscriptions at The New York Times and The Washington Post since the election of President Donald Trump lead Murray to believe the timing may be right for the Post.

“I don’t know what our numbers are particularly, but I see anecdotally more people kind of rallying to our defense and taking more ownership of the media in our town,” Murray says. “So I think if there’s a time when asking people to chip in some money from what they’re reading online is going to work, then now is the time.”

ICYMI: As staff shrinks, Denver Post cuts back on editorials

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Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity In vestigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.