Paper Chase

Do newspapers have a future? This question is being debated throughout the journalism community, and given waning circulation numbers, sinking ad revenues and an aging readership, plenty of pundits are convinced that the ink-on-paper paradigm is as doomed as Pamela Anderson's next marriage. But others feel that while the Internet generation's belief that news should be free portends disaster for subscription-based dailies, giveaway papers should be able to survive and flourish in this new environment -- and Fort Collins provides the perfect test case. Right now, the Northern Colorado burg, whose population was estimated at just over 128,000 in 2005, is home to more noteworthy freebies than just about any city in the country. Among these publications are five -- count 'em, five -- weeklies that are fighting for a very similar audience: two independent offerings (the Rocky Mountain Chronicle and the Fort Collins Weekly) and three challengers affiliated with daily newspapers (Ticket on the Street, the RH Weekly and NextNC).

This situation may not fit Matt Lauer's definition of a civil war, but it comes pretty damn close -- and Chronicle editor Vanessa Martinez doubts that all the combatants will survive. "I think some of them are going to fall by the wayside," she says. "I've been here for nine and a half years, and I've seen so many papers come up and then go down really fast. Including my first one."

Martinez is alluding to the Rocky Mountain Bullhorn, an alternative pub she and Joseph Rouse co-founded as a monthly in 2000, around the time she graduated from Colorado State University; it went weekly three years later. Throughout its run, the Bullhorn took pleasure in afflicting comfortable city officials such as Fort Collins mayor Ray Martinez, who denounced the paper at a 2004 city council meeting for printing a cartoon of him that he found offensive. But editor Martinez (no relation to the mayor), who left the paper in 2005 to take a position at the Colorado Springs Independent, admits that the Bullhorn's business model "wasn't sustainable" -- hence its death this past February. In August, however, she was lured back to Fort Collins by investors who wanted to create a Bullhorn-like paper on firmer financial footing. The Chronicle debuted in October, and thanks to a decent-sized nest egg, Martinez is confident her staff of Bullhorn alums and newcomers has "a few years" to make its mark. "I hope that by establishing ourselves as investigative journalists, we'll be able to set ourselves apart from everyone else," she says.

At first glance, the Chronicle would seem to have much in common with the Fort Collins Weekly. After all, the latter is operated by editor Greg Campbell and publisher Joel Dyer, who cut their alt-journalism teeth at the Boulder Weekly before launching their Fort Collins operation in early 2003, a month before the Bullhorn changed its publication schedule. Campbell, though, emphasizes that "we don't consider ourselves an alternative paper. We're more like a news magazine, like Time or Newsweek, except our pool of interest pretty much stays in Larimer County and Fort Collins."

Campbell and Dyer weren't always such vocal proponents of localism. At the Boulder Weekly, Dyer remembers, "we were sending people to Sarajevo and places like that and interviewing guys on the FBI's most-wanted list." Laughing, he calls this focus "total vanity. We never wrote about Boulder."

In 1996, Dyer stepped down as editor in order to pen Harvest of Rage: Why Oklahoma City Is Only the Beginning, a book about domestic terrorism that was used as background material for the 1999 Jeff Bridges-Tim Robbins movie Arlington Road. Unfortunately, Dyer didn't make a dime from this distinction, since the filmmakers fictionalized any material they might have drawn from his tome. Campbell, who succeeded Dyer as Boulder Weekly editor, currently finds himself in the same dilemma. He, too, left the Weekly to write books, and one of his efforts, Blood Diamonds, about how a percentage of diamonds mined in Sierra Leone finance conflict and terrorism, was a major inspiration for the almost identically titled Blood Diamond, a Leonardo DiCaprio-Jennifer Connelly yarn scheduled to open nationally on December 8. But because of the film's fictional nature, Campbell won't get a piece of the action, either. In late November, he was still trying to wangle a pair of tickets to the premiere.

Even without help from Hollywood, Dyer and Campbell were making decent livings as authors, and could have continued on that track if they'd been game to keep traveling. But both had families and wanted to settle down, and they thought they could afford to do so if they started a weekly newspaper. In the end, Fort Collins was chosen as a setting largely because its daily newspaper, the Coloradoan, was owned by Gannett. "In a lot of medium and smaller markets where chain-owned papers are, actual penetration has gotten down in the twentieth percentile," Dyer says. "That means a lot of people aren't getting the paper." Adds Campbell, "Readers here are dying for good local news, and going up against the Coloradoan is like shooting fish in a barrel. Seriously, it's one of the weakest, worst daily newspapers I've ever come across."

Rather than surrender in the face of such fighting words, execs at the Coloradoan are going after Weekly and Chronicle readers with Ticket on the Street, a giveaway that repurposes entertainment and lifestyle coverage from the main paper. "We are trying to target the 18-34 crowd (isn't everybody?)," writes interim editor Joyce Davis, corresponding via e-mail. Ticket bowed in August 2005 and is mainly distributed at restaurants and hangouts near the CSU campus and in Fort Collins's trendy Old Town section. As such, the people picking it up most likely fit into a youthful demographic that's not well-represented among Coloradoan subscribers.

Trouble is, dailies in Loveland and Greeley, which form a tri-city area with Fort Collins, are trying this gambit as well. Conceptually speaking, RH Weekly, a product of the Loveland Reporter-Herald, is very similar to Ticket; contributions from Reporter-Herald reporters supplement wire copy that's heavy on movies, TV and lifestyle-oriented features. Lauren Lehman, chief financial officer for Lehman Communications, which owns the Reporter-Herald, points out that RH Weekly was "revamped" about nine months ago via additional color and a grabbier design intended to make it "livelier" than previous free weeklies her company has put out over the years.

Meanwhile, the Greeley Tribune, which is owned by Swift Newspapers, is behind NextNC, which hit the streets in March. Content-wise, it's more ambitious than Ticket on the Street or RH Weekly. "We have our own staff and produce our own copy," says Amy Nickelson, NextNC's editor. Nevertheless, the emphasis remains on entertainment and lifestyle. In Nickelson's view, "We're for people who want to go out and do stuff."

With so many rags aiming for such folks, the inevitable result is confusion and disorder at popular drop-off locations. That's why Campbell and Dyer have taken a different tack when it comes to distributing the Fort Collins Weekly. Yes, they stack papers in Old Town and the vicinity -- about 5,700 of them. But the rest of its overall circulation, which sits at 33,700 copies, is direct-mailed to households throughout Fort Collins. Dyer says studies he's overseen show that such editions are much more widely read than free delivery papers, which many homeowners consider to be the equivalent of litter. "Even though it costs us hundreds of thousands of dollars to mail the papers, doing it puts them right on the coffee table," he maintains. "It doesn't create a lot of clutter, and because it comes to you in your mailbox, you don't even have to bend over to get it. And that makes it a very viable advertising medium." Dyer thinks the move to bump up the direct-mail component, which happened last year, is largely responsible for a 60 percent growth in gross revenue at the Weekly from 2005 to 2006. Moreover, he's certain the plan will work in other markets and is currently mulling over when and where to export it.

"This idea is going to open doors for other models of ownership," Dyer predicts. "It could be good for journalism in the long haul."

At least it looks good on paper.