Years don't get much rougher than the one Steve Foster is living through.
After the Rocky Mountain News shut down in February, Foster and a batch of fellow Rocky journalists started an online news site, INDenver Times, with the help of three investors. When that project faltered because a goal of 50,000 subscribers fell 47,000 short (and the investors decided against making up the difference), Foster and about half the survivors launched another web news operation, dubbed the Rocky Mountain Independent. But that ending isn't any happier. Today will be the last for original RMI content, and subscribers are being informed that they'll receive refunds. The total number who signed up? About 200, counting both annual and monthly deals.
After not one but two disappointments, is Foster, who served as the Independent's editor, ready to say the idea of financing a news operation via subscriptions is dead? Not quite -- but he's certainly realistic about the notion. "I still believe that subscription memberships online are essential to the quality of news," he allows. "But right now is a very tough time to ask for it. People just aren't used to paying for news."
The Independent crew started actively looking for investors in September, and Foster says there was some interest -- "but the reality is, many of our partners have moved on, which, frankly, we expected them to do. We expected that if we did this, people would continue to look for jobs, and fortunately, a lot of them found one. That left about four or five of us who've been actively engaged in the website the entire three months we were going, and that wasn't enough to produce the content we needed. So we made a decision that even if we could secure funding, we had run our course with this."
Obviously, Foster has learned plenty from his experiences, and in his view, "nonprofits and for-profits really run up against the same problem -- which is, the business model for making something like this work hasn't emerged yet. That doesn't mean it won't emerge, but it's not here yet -- and least not in a way that can provide the kind of scope and scale of news that so many journalists are used to.
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"The people who are having success online right now are doing it on a macro scale with a lot of money behind it, like the Examiner and the Huffington Post, which is now expanding locally. Those who've succeeded on a local level online, like Voice of San Diego, are rare cases."
The Independent won't be joining this select group, making Foster a free agent. What's he going to do? "My only plan right now is to enjoy the Rockies playoff run," he says.
May that run last a long time. After all, Foster could use some good news.