Denver Post editor Greg Moore dropped a couple of noteworthy digits -- $800,000 and 5 percent -- on staffers recently. The first was the amount he had been asked to slash from the paper's budget by corporate parent MediaNews Group. The second was the portion of editorial space (commonly referred to as news hole) that was sliced off by the Denver Newspaper Agency, which oversees business functions for the Post and the Rocky Mountain News under a joint operating agreement. Moore made his remarks during mid-March meetings, and while the 5 percent solution impacts the Rocky as well, John Temple, the tabloid's editor/publisher/ president, only addressed the topic with his employees via a March 28 memo after receiving a call on the topic from yours truly.
Moore and Temple both downplay the significance of these figures. About the budgetary reductions, which he declines to specifically discuss, Moore says, "They don't involve personnel; they aren't draconian; and they've been achieved." Meanwhile, the 5 percent editorial diminution, which went into effect March 1, "is going to be pretty imperceptible," he maintains. "When a big story happens, like the Pope's passing, we're able to do what we need to do." Temple, for his part, argues that the actual shrinkage of the Rocky's news hole will feel like considerably less than 5 percent because he's shifted so much content to the Internet and will continue to do so when it makes sense. "Since the start of the JOA, I've gone from publishing seven and a half pages of financial tables a day to three. That's 22 pages a week that have migrated to the Web," he allows. "I no longer run daytime television listings, either. Who needs them? It's too small an audience. And I no longer run dog racing to the same degree I used to. But it's available on the Web." Besides, he goes on, today's news hole is bigger than its 1999, pre-JOA equivalent even after the decrease, because assorted special features that have been introduced since then, such as the gardening supplement Dig, don't count toward the inches doled out by the DNA. The dailies receive identical editorial space by JOA rule, but DNA officials point out that they can purchase more at a price based on the current cost of newsprint and ink whenever they like.
Because of these variables, readers will have a hard time figuring out what, if anything, has been subtracted from a given day's papers, and the dailies' marquee editions remain hefty. As Moore jokes, "The Sunday paper will still kill a puppy." Yet certain weekday issues have felt slimmer than usual for some time now, and a likely culprit is ad sales, which have only partially rebounded from a post-9/11 drop-off that Temple calls "the worst advertising recession since the Second World War." This phenomenon is hardly unique to the local dailies. At Westword, for instance, page counts are down in recent months and have resulted in editorial belt tightening. Moreover, similar factors have led to major cutbacks at news organizations around the country. Last August, the Dallas Morning News got into trouble for overstating its circulation, and a few months later, its owner, Belo Corp., announced approximately 250 layoffs, with more than half of them earmarked for its flagship paper. And in January, the Seattle Times -- a JOA partner like the Post and the Rocky -- revealed that as many as 110 workers would be trimmed from its payroll.
No such cuts have been announced in Denver area, but the Post and the News have been using third-party sales (papers paid for by advertisers and delivered free to selected homeowners) to shore up slipping circulation numbers. Moore doesn't feel that the budget and news-hole numbers should be seen as harbingers of decline for the Post and the Rocky, or the print-journalism industry overall. "I'm hopeful that things are going to bounce back," he says. "Maybe they won't bounce back as strong as they once were, but the folks I talk to believe we're going to be okay. The challenge is going to be how the Web is going to work in our favor in terms of revenue to support the news-gathering organization."
The Rocky's latest vehicle, YourHub.com, is intended to do just that. The paper expects to launch 39 zoned Web versions under this name, each corresponding to a different portion of the metro area, with content provided by regular folks. Temple, in full promotional mode, makes the concept sound practically altruistic. "We can fulfill a role of helping to connect the community," he proclaims. "Readers will be able to share their lives -- and we're giving them a platform to do it." However, profit is clearly a goal here. DNA salespeople are already pitching advertisers about the concept, which will mate grassroots communication of the sort trumpeted by champions of citizen journalism with more obviously commercial components, like on-site sales. But contributors won't be paid for their articles or photographs, even though the Rocky will benefit from their labors.
Temple is confident the sites will attract lots of submissions, and he may be right. As blogging demonstrates, plenty of Web-savvy individuals are more concerned with being heard than being paid -- and a handful of companies nationwide are already using this knowledge to their advantage. Morris Communications Corp. has launched a website called BlufftonToday.com that caters to residents of Bluffton, South Carolina, in much the same way that YourHub.com proposes to serve surfers here. Likewise, the Memphis Commercial Appeal, a sister paper of the Rocky, puts out community-news sections known as Appeal Editions that are entirely reader-generated. Its articles are edited, as will be pieces in the fifteen zoned YourHub.com print versions the Rocky plans to bundle with its paper once a week in the coming months. Rocky personnel will determine what winds up on the various YourHub.com home pages, too, but they won't edit online pieces -- a decision that will help the paper avoid liability for anything questionable that appears. "If you're willing to register, you can post anything you want, as long as the language isn't vulgar or violent," Temple says. "We'll have a filter to identify that, and our users will let us know when something is inappropriate."
To handle these and other YourHub.com chores, the Rocky has hired four new employees so far, with more to come. These workers, who will be headquartered outside the main newsroom, aren't considered part of the staff as a whole, and they won't be compensated as well. According to the Denver Newspaper Guild's Tony Mulligan, whose organization negotiated the agreement, people working for YourHub.com will start at a minimum salary set at 70 percent of what a beginning staffer at one of the dailies would earn. Temple says "Their pay will be commensurate with competitors at community newspapers," whose advertisers he hopes YourHub.com will attract.
Once upon a time, the idea of an editor at a big daily targeting neighborhood publications would have seemed absurd, but with ad dollars so scarce, even slices of pie previously deemed too small to seek out are fair game. That concerns Brad Bradberry, publisher of Evergreen Newspapers, which encompasses publications such as the Canyon Courier. "I feel like David against Goliath, in a way," he says. "They've got more money than God." Indeed, he's stunned at the way the dailies spend their cash: "As a subscriber, it irks me that they send people all over the world proving whatever it is they're trying to prove. They'd be better off using wire copy for whatever's happening overseas and spending their resources locally, because people are more interested in hyper-local news than ever. They care more about what's going on in their school district than they do about Afghanistan."
Still, Bradberry isn't going to raise the white flag. His newspapers are redesigning their Web sites -- the new-look www.canyoncourier.com should debut within weeks -- and he hopes that blogging and citizen journalism will be a bigger part of his operation's future, too. As fo YourHub.com, he says, "It's a good idea, but it remains to be seen if they can execute it."
If Temple and company do, the Rocky will be adding even as they subtract. That's new math, journalism style.
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