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Altitude Check

As other pubs fall, 5280 is a mile high and rising.

In the nascent days of 5280, says editor and publisher Dan Brogan, the local dailies frequently publicized events pushed by the magazine he founded -- but such cooperation has waned. Not long ago, he reveals, the Denver Newspaper Agency, which handles business operations for the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News, initially refused to include a 5280 logo in an ad for a community event both organizations were sponsoring, and acquiesced only after "a little chat." To Brogan, this incident indicates that "they're definitely aware of us in a way that they weren't before."

As well they should be. At a time when a rapidly growing number of U.S. publications are downsizing staffs and/or news holes largely as the result of a shaky advertising market, 5280 is heading in the opposite direction. The mag recently added three employees to what's now a 28-person roster and is trolling for another -- and this crew works in a new downtown headquarters with double the space of its former digs. Such moves were made possible by a 20-percent boost in ad revenue last year, and Brogan's baby could do even better in 2006. After all, the February installment officially marked 5280's transition to a monthly publication schedule (the company had previously delivered nine editions per annum), and its heft, and that of the March submission that followed, suggests that the strategy will prove to be a winner. "We used to put out a combined February-March issue, and it's historically been our smallest," Brogan allows. "But this year we ended up selling more ad dollars in each of those issues than we did in the combined issue from last year."

Why is 5280 bucking trends? Deputy editor Cara McDonald concedes that, in some ways, it isn't. "City regionals as a whole are on the upswing," she points out, and there's evidence to back up her assertion. According to Folio, a trade publication, ad pages for city mags were up more than 11 percent during one month last year, as opposed to a 0.4 percent decline for national consumer magazines in general. McDonald believes that one explanation for this phenomenon is the reassuring format such magazines employ. "As life and media and messages get more fragmented and immediate, it's comforting to curl up with something that's physical and moves at a different pace," she says. But she also cites regionals' focus on news readers can use -- so-called service journalism articles that have long been a 5280 staple. As McDonald notes, "Service is the bedrock for us."

That's certainly borne out by recent issues. "Denver's Beauty Secrets," in the February edition, advises locals where to go for "Dazzling Teeth, Sexy Hair, Flawless Skin, Subtle Surgery, Perfect Style and a Happy Heart," and the March outing is dominated by the glossy's umpteenth dining guide. The April ish, meanwhile, touts home-decor tips and spring fashions. Press critics seldom give much love to formula offerings such as these, but they have tremendous appeal to people cruising the magazine section of their friendly neighborhood supermarket. Most general-interest mags shift about a third of the copies that are placed on newsstands. Last year, 5280, which has a circulation of 80,000, sold 56 percent of such issues, and its December 2005 sell-through reached a whopping 70 percent.

Such figures contribute to a bold claim made in a want ad for a web-editor position at 5280: "Based on total subscriptions and newsstand sales in Denver, 5280 ranks near the top for all magazines, even outselling such national magazines as Time, People, Oprah and Martha Stewart Living." Brogan doesn't back away from this assertion, although he acknowledges that it's "a bit of an extrapolation" based on interpretations of reports from the Audit Bureau of Circulations, newsstand sales information and 5280's own data. "Our circulation consultant put this together, and he says we're number two in the city," Brogan maintains. "I'm more conservative; I think we're top five. And we know we're the number-one newsstand seller at Whole Foods, Vitamin Cottage and Borders."

The dollars generated by such gains have helped justify the addition of investigative reports and long-form narratives to 5280 -- elements that Brogan insists he's long wanted in the mag's mix but couldn't afford in the beginning. A onetime Chicago Tribune reporter who came to Colorado in 1991, he financed the magazine's launch using his savings, loans from family and friends, and a fistful of soon-to-be-drained credit cards. The first issue, which came along in July 1993, made an impression via a list of the city's top doctors (a concept that remains a 5280 favorite). Still, Brogan had a tough time convincing advertisers to bet on his venture. Some had a problem with the mag's name; he remembers talking with one fellow who assumed that 5280 targeted people between 52 and 80. Others had been burned by the failure of Denver magazine, and defunct publications like it, and didn't want to stick their hands back into the flame. "There were a lot of people like that," Brogan admits. "They weren't going to put in any money until we were around for two or three years."

Since the mid-'90s, 5280 has reached beyond lifestyle features and the like on occasion; for instance, it ran profiles of Timothy McVeigh trial jurors and Columbine principal Frank DeAngelis. But the commitment to consistently serve meatier stuff wasn't formalized until the arrival of Maximillian Potter, an ex-staffer at Premiere, GQ and a heritage city magazine, Philadelphia. In 2003, Potter, working as a freelancer for Men's Journal, began researching a story about Douglas Meester, an Air Force Academy inductee accused of rape. Numerous publications, including this one, suggested as early as May that Meester had been cast as a scapegoat by the academy in the wake of scandals that broke earlier that year, but Potter expanded the story by gaining access to Meester and his family. Nevertheless, Men's Journal eventually passed on his draft, which might not have seen print at all if not for Brogan. The article appeared in 5280's February/March 2004 mag, a few months before Meester pleaded guilty to dramatically reduced charges (he re-ceived a $2,000 fine and a reprimand). It was subsequently named a finalist in the prestigious National Magazine Award contest.

When Brogan first talked to Potter about joining the 5280 team as executive editor, the latter recalls, "I asked Dan, ŒAre you prepared to get sued?' He looked at me and said, ŒI don't want to get sued. What do you mean?' And I said, ŒI don't want to get sued, either, but the sort of stories I migrate to seem to get mired in legally touchy situations.'" Potter credits Brogan for not immediately showing him the door at that point. He adds that he's turned down job offers from national publications since arriving here, in part because "this is a fertile crescent of great magazine stories that, for whatever reason, New York's not hip to."

Potter understands, however, that 5280 isn't about to toss its style pieces and fashion spreads and turn into the New Yorker of the Rockies. Even as Brogan sings the praises of Potter's portrait of Congressman Bob Beauprez in the February issue, he emphasizes that "Bob Beauprez on the cover is not going to sell. News stories have never sold on the covers of city and regional magazines. So we will always have a foundation of service journalism."

That's good news for grocery shoppers wanting tips on how to become sexier -- but not for the folks at the Denver Newspaper Agency.

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