In a March 24 Q&A, Kevin Preblud, one of three entrepreneurs backing INDenver Times, an online project featuring thirty former members of the now-shuttered Rocky Mountain News, declined to say how many people had subscribed to the service, but promised that the data would be released "shortly." Over three weeks later, and just one week before the Times' April 23 deadline to reach 50,000 subscriptions, "shortly" still hasn't arrived: Preblud now says the information will be made public on the 23rd. However, he suggests that whether or not this goal is reached -- and rumors continue to circulate that the total is well shy of 10,000 -- the project is likely to move forward anyhow, owing to the volume of visits to the INDenver Times website.
"I think what you'll find is that the subscriber number is ultimately not going to dictate the April 23rd go or no-go discussion," Preblud says. "What we will evaluate on April 23rd is a combination of subscribers and visitors to the site, and that ultimately our decision whether to make our May 4 official launch is dictated by the traffic we have generated in these first five weeks." He adds that there remains a possibility that the plug will be pulled next Thursday, but he calls the prospect "remote."
On the surface, this philosophy seems like a major change from the one espoused at the March 16 press conference announcing the INDenver Times' plan, when the assorted speakers resisted all efforts to get them to talk about contingencies should 50,000 subscribers not materialize -- and in a March 18 Q&A, INDenver Times managing editor Steve Foster responded to a similar inquiry by saying, "We're going to get 50,000. I have no doubt about it" -- although he did acknowledge that "this is a gamble."
Nevertheless, Preblud considers the shift in strategy to be more of an "evolution" than a wholesale break with the initial notion. "Ultimately, we believe in having a subscription model as a component of our offering, and I believe the national dialogue is catching up to us," he allows. "In some ways, I think we got out ahead of the curve, because we had our announcement on March 16, and the P.I. [the Seattle Post-Intelligencer] stopped publishing on the 16th -- and now other organizations are finding themselves in bad financial straits. But I think what's going to happen over the next six months is going to validate our business model."
Preblud mentions the six-month time-frame several times, suggesting that he and his fellow partners, Brad Gray and Benjamin Ray, may be willing to keep the operation going for at least that long in order to see if it catches on -- and he stresses that if that's the path they choose, the journalists involved will be paid rather than being asked to volunteer their services. (Most former Rocky staffers are only receiving paychecks from E.W. Scripps, the Rocky's former owner, through April 28, and a severance package still hasn't been finalized.) The idea seems to be that if INDenver Times becomes a big enough part of readers' lives, they'll be willing to pay for it down the line, instead of simply moving on to other free products.
"At some point, it'll be obvious that it's time to erect a subscriber wall," Preblud feels. "Part of the track along those six months will be to require you to be a subscriber. And whether you're charged for that, or at what point in those six months we begin charging, won't be the question. The question will be, at what point in those six months will we start step one -- requiring you to be a subscriber, paid or not paid.
"I think we have to educate everybody, like everybody's trying to do across the national landscape," he goes on. "Everybody's trying to set the stage, trying to figure out what the right model is, and what part of our content we charge for. And it doesn't matter to me if the horse has left the barn. It appears to me that the model requires a subscriber component if you're delivering online news, and whether you lead the subscriber there gently or whether you take him there abrupty is going to be the slope we'll have to navigate. And ours is the gentle approach."
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In the meantime, Preblud points to INDenver Times' traffic: 70,000 unique visitors and more than 311,000 page views in the first month, which he says puts the site among the fifteen most active media-oriented Denver-area web addresses. He's also pleased with the participation thus far in online chats featuring INDenver Times writers -- a major feature of the subscriber package. "It just continues to grow," he notes. "It varies depending on the topic, but I would say that in any given hour, we'll get at least half-a-dozen people in there, and it seems to get a little bit better each day." He also touts alterations in the Times site, which looks considerably better now than it did upon its debut. In his view, "it's much improved, more robust, and provides a much better environment above the fold. And we've segregated the top stories into categories, so it's easier for readers to get to those things that are of specific interest to them. Rather than relying on the sports button to get you to those, you can quickly go to the top story."
Even so, buzz for INDenver Times doesn't seem to be building much, despite grassroots promotional efforts like sending representatives into the crowds on opening day for the Colorado Rockies, plus trips to Denver Nuggets games, the 16th Street Mall and so on. Preblud thinks that will change over time with help from viral promotion via Facebook and Twitter, partnerships that he hints are currently in the pipeline, and more community outreach by way of events at coffee shops and other gathering places. "We're not going to be able to flip three switches and boom, we're back to where the Rocky was," he concedes. "But what's most important is the content, and with what we produce moving toward April 23, and most probably beyond April 23, you'll see those marketing efforts increase."
That's a necessity, since the if-we-build-it-they-will-come theory doesn't seem to be playing out quite the way Preblud and company hoped. "We've realized since the launch that there were a certain amount of loyalists to the Rocky Mountain News and to the writers there who were going to subscribe, and that got us a significant number of subscribers," he says. "Past that, people have to like your product. You have to prove yourself through breaking stories, and through word of mouth, in order to gain readers. And that's what we're trying to do."