United States Project

Denver’s new local site has the feel of a national startup

May 26, 2016
Photo of the Denver skyline via Wikimedia

This winter, Dave Burdick, then a 32-year-old deputy features editor for The Denver Post, got an email that at first he thought could be spam.* An investor in New York City had found him on LinkedIn and wanted to talk about an idea for a local online news startup.

On Wednesday, that startup, dubbed Denverite, made a soft launch with a news release, a placeholder website to collect newsletter sign-ups, and a call to follow the new venture on Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat. The enterprise comes with serious financial backing from a trio of investors in Business Insider. And Denver, the anchor to a metro area of nearly 3 million people, will actually be the test market for a potential string of for-profit news sites in other cities.

“Of all the areas in journalism that [have] been disrupted by technology, local journalism has been hit the hardest,” said Gordon Crovitz, an investor in the project and a former publisher of The Wall Street Journal.

He and his partners believe that’s created an opportunity at the local level. But one of the most striking things about Denverite is how much it resembles a contemporary national launch. That’s reflected in the cross-platform, distributed news model, the equity arrangements for early staff members, and the revenue expectations. Running the site will cost about $1 million in its first year, Crovitz said, but there are currently no business-side staff at the downtown offices. Instead, the startup will follow the model used by digital publishers and platforms like Medium: Pump seed money into content in hopes of rapidly gaining a loyal, engaged following, and then find a way to monetize that audience later. 

Crovitz’s partners include Kevin Ryan, who founded Business Insider, and publishing consultant Jim Friedlich. The trio tapped Burdick to helm an editorial department of around 10 staffers who have been hired away from The Denver Post, The Coloradoan in Fort Collins, the Boulder Daily Camera, Colorado Public Radio; other members of the team are former freelancers or recent graduates.

A Colorado native, Burdick comes from a journalism family. His father was editor of The Rocky Mountain News, a Denver newspaper that folded in 2009, and also served as publisher of the Colorado Springs Gazette. His mother was features editor of The Daily Camera—a job Dave held nearly three decades later. He’s married to a journalist, too.

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Burdick has worked at a digital-only site before, as an editor at The Huffington Post. He’s also seen the cutbacks in print firsthand: If all 26 Denver Post employees offered a buyout take one in the latest round of downsizing, his former employer’s newsrooms will have been cut by a third within the past year. But he is upbeat about the industry.

“I think it’s really easy for people to feel negative,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday. “I’ve had a problem for a long time with people talking about it being a bad time to be a journalist … I think that that’s sort of self-fulfilling in a way.”

At the new site, Burdick said, reporters will have broad beats—someone will follow city and state government, among other things; another will pay attention to real estate, another to sports—and they won’t try to cover everything. The original reporting will aim to offer “cool, thoughtful, explanatory, newsy pieces in addition to consumer-y fun stuff,” he told me, and Denverite will be trying to reach readers on their phones, and on social media.

Aggregation and curation is also a big part of the concept: If a local TV station is owning a story, Denverite will push its readers there with links, Burdick said. How to handle breaking news will be judged on a case-by-case basis. “Most people don’t have time” to follow local news closely, Burdick said. “So what we want to do is create something that enables people to look at one place and get a much richer view.” Some hints on the editorial outlook might be found on the Instagram feed, which already includes plenty of posts on development and nightlife, and some reported blurbs on the city’s growing Sikh community.

There’s a growing crop of other for-profit startups around the country, each with their own approaches to revenue and an editorial model to match. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, a small investigative newsroom charges readers a high monthly fee for aggressive and ad-free watchdog reporting. In a small Ohio city, upbeat community news is supported by local advertisers. Philadelphia’s millennial-focused Billy Penn, poised to expand to Pittsburgh, generates most of its revenue from live events. Charlotte Agenda, a North Carolina outlet aimed at millennials that’s expanding to Raleigh, generates most of its revenue from advertising and sponsorships.

Some of those other sites share Denverite’s focus on explainers, curation, and new platforms. What makes the new startup distinct are the deep pockets behind it at launch, and the ambition to attract a wider general-interest audience in a large city. For all the struggles of local media, it’s not launching in a news desert. A 2015 study by the Pew Research Center identified more than 140 news providers in Denver that included 25 digital-only outlets. Those figures are inflated by counting neighborhood associations and government agencies, but still, Pew concluded: “One distinct element of Denver’s news ecology is the breadth of coverage offered by its wider mix of new and alternative news providers.”

For his part, Crovitz is not daunted. “Denver has a highly engaged community that we thought was not being well served just by the existing publishers,” he said. And, given the goal of testing a model before expanding to other markets, “We wanted to start in a city that we thought was reasonably representative of many of the cities in America.”

Burdick is excited about the opportunity to make a mark in the city. And he’s glad he followed up on that email, even though it was a little hard to believe at first.

“Actually, some of the people I’ve hired had the same reaction as me—like, at first it sounds crazy, it sounds like a little bit of spam,” he said. “I feel incredibly lucky.”

* Correction: This sentence originally misstated Burdick’s age when he received the email. He was 32, not 33.

Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he teaches journalism at Colorado College. 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 writes about politics and media for the Colorado Independent and worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity; he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, the Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.