Colorado Springs's High Plains Messenger is both an Internet newspaper and a fiscal experiment. "There's nothing like what we've done in the United States so far," says Joseph Coleman, the site's co-creator and resident moneyman, "and that can be dangerous. But if things go well, and we think they will, this place is going to blow up."
At first glance, Messenger doesn't seem revolutionary. The project, accessible at www.HighPlainsMessenger.com, is comprised of news briefs, commentaries and long-form articles, and most aren't terribly dissimilar from those found in alternative weeklies or magazines. The business model is, though. At a time when traditional publications are having trouble translating online readers to dollars and cents, Messenger aims to support a full-time editorial and advertising staff solely from revenues generated by its website. There's no print edition now, and none is planned. And unlike online publications such as Slate and Salon, which boast a national reach (if not a consistently high profit margin), Messenger means to focus on a much smaller market: the Springs, a burg with a population just over 360,000.
How the hell can this work? Among the keys Coleman names are unconventional marketing, e-commerce services and a product that appeals to Colorado Springs as a whole, rather than only one or two groups. "If we had to pick an ideology, it wouldn't be the left or the right. It would be what's good for the community," he declares.
High Plains Messenger
The resumés of the three main folks behind the enterprise are lined with eccentricities. Coleman is the owner of the Blue Star, which remains a popular Colorado Springs restaurant despite a menu that changes monthly. "If you'd have to pick a niche, it would be Pacific Rim Mediterranean," he allows, "but we're a little schizophrenic." As for Don Goede, who's handling many of the artistic and technical aspects of the site, he's friends with an actual schizophrenic, singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston. The co-founder of Soft Skull Press, a Brooklyn publishing house specializing in liberal lit, Goede served as Johnston's caretaker and tour manager for several years (he's in the recent Johnston documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston) before moving back to Colorado, his home until the early '90s. "I may lean left personally, but I don't want to push that down anybody's throat," Goede says. Finally, there's Noel Black, a onetime writer for the weekly Colorado Springs Independent who birthed the Toilet Paper, a highly enjoyable rag known for irreverent features such as "The Church Kicker," in which a mostly nude woman was photographed booting houses of worship.
Last year, Black tried to expand the Paper's distribution beyond Colorado Springs to other Front Range cities but was smacked by reality. Although the paper's blog remains available at www.ToiletPaperOnline.com, he put out the final print edition last month. His experiences with the Paper convinced him that Messenger would have a better chance of flying if it stayed on the 'net. "We would've had to add $1 million to our budget to go into print," he says. Besides, more than half of Colorado Springs is wired, and online ads present businesses with some clear advantages. "They cost less," Black says, "and allow you to track your returns more accurately."
Of course, few fingers will do the clicking if Messenger doesn't give people reasons to visit, so Black and company launched the site on April 10 with a story that raised eyebrows -- and some hackles: "Dating Doug Bruce," by writer Julie Imada. The article concerns anti-tax drum-beater and El Paso County Commissioner Douglas Bruce, a longtime single who tried to change his status by placing a profile labeled "'Leave It to Beaver' Traditionalist Seeks Mate" at www.GreatDatingSite.com. Rather than simply reporting about the post, however, Imada answered the ad and joined Bruce for an April Fool's Day dinner date at a Johnny Carino's restaurant. At no point during the evening did she tell him she's a journalist. Indeed, she admits to "fudging" the details in a personal ad that described her as an unemployed woman in search of a "mature man," and she maintained the fiction in person. Imada revealed the truth only after Bruce declined to take her on another date; in an e-mail, he noted that he felt no "spark" between them. But she told the truth in print, not in person.
In a defense of the story on the Messenger site, Imada argues that she was sympathetic to Bruce, and several passages support her contention; she writes that he's "a man with a sincere and deeply rooted sense of traditional family and unwavering belief in the value of public service." In Black's view, this opportunity to see a new side of a familiar figure validated Imada's approach. "I'm more interested in pushing the boundaries of things than I am in necessarily adhering to the hard-and-fast rules of journalism," he reveals.
Nevertheless, assuming a false identity for the sake of a scoop remains controversial under the best circumstances, and since Imada wasn't trying to save lives or expose secret governmental duplicity, her account invited the sort of criticism dished out by Jeff Thomas, the Colorado Springs Gazette's managing editor. Thomas called the article "clever voyeurism; suspect journalism" in his paper's blog. Independent publisher John Weiss disliked the piece, too. He says that it didn't justify violating Bruce's privacy, since it failed to unmask any hypocrisy on his part.
But such condemnation is mild in comparison with Bruce's reaction to his duplicitous date. He hated the illustration of him that accompanied the piece -- "It made me look like a fat midget," he says -- but was more offended by Imada's actions. He characterizes her as "a homely, skinny woman with bad teeth" who "lied to me. She ripped me off for the price of a meal, and now she wants to publicize that. That's pretty sick." He considers the stunt to have been "contemptibly sleazy -- and I don't think you should be writing about it, either. It's beneath your newspaper -- and that's saying something."
Irony flash: The Messenger wants to build a bridge between Colorado Springs conservatives and progressives via a forum for posts by public officials. But don't expect Bruce to participate. When Imada tried to interview him for a subsequent story, he rejected her, just as he had after that meal at Johnny Carino's.
Even so, Springs residents are talking about Messenger -- and Coleman feels confident their interest will rise along with that of investors. He says he gathered a six-figure sum during a two-week round of fundraising, and while he's currently looking for more backers, he insists that he's got enough of a nest egg to keep the operation running for three years no matter how much (or little) cash it attracts. Not that he expects to wait that long. "I'd like to break even by August," he declares.
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If he does, it'll be one successful experiment.
Whipple It: In the April 25 Rocky Mountain News, writer David Milstead reported that the Rocky's parent company, E.W. Scripps, lost $5 million on the paper during the first quarter of 2006 -- and two Scripps spokesmen offered comments implying that much of the fault lay with the Denver Newspaper Agency, which handles financials for the Rocky and the Denver Post under a joint operating agreement. The next week, DNA president and CEO Kirk MacDonald announced that he was leaving his job to start iM&I (Interactive Marketing and Innovation), a firm that will outsource marketing for sports franchises and media companies such as the Post's owner, MediaNews Group, iM&I's first client.
These items aren't related, MacDonald asserts. Without addressing the Scripps quotes, he says he's been planning the move for months. He adds that while the first quarter was "difficult," the future of media here and elsewhere is so bright that he wanted to get in on the action with a business of his own. MacDonald's successor, Harry Whipple, who previously helmed JOAs in Cincinnati (where he worked with Scripps) and Salt Lake City (a MediaNews stronghold), is just as upbeat. Far from bemoaning the historical transition of journalism from print to online, and the financial agonies that might result, he effuses that "these days are the most exciting I've experienced."
Is Mr. Whipple right? Or has he had his Charmin squeezed one too many times?