The Colorado Daily changes course

Colorado Daily reporter Richard Valenty is a self-described "political junkie" who has covered the doings of Boulder's activists and office-holders for years — so he was understandably thrilled when his supervisors managed to land press credentials in his name for the Democratic National Convention. But what he'd hoped would be the journalistic experience of a lifetime turned into something far different.

Prairie Mountain Publishing CEO and president Al Manzi — the de facto publisher of the Daily and its sister operation, the Boulder Daily Camera, both of which are owned by E.W. Scripps — recently instituted a series of changes to coincide with a vigorous redesign of the physical product and its website. Among them: The Daily will no longer report about most local or national political issues unless they deal directly with the University of Colorado at Boulder, the paper's onetime parent institution and still its primary market.

This edict meant that Valenty wouldn't be blanketing the DNC as he'd planned — and afterward, he could no longer work the beat to which he's devoted himself for so long. No wonder he feels that giving his notice at the paper was the right thing to do. His last day will be August 29, immediately after the convention concludes.

Valenty will become the third key Daily veteran to depart in August. Managing editor Oakland Childers and sports editor Eliot Dempsey have also resigned. And while Childers, who hopes to continue working in the journalism field, is very measured in describing his rationale for moving on — "I got to the point where I felt I'd done everything I could at the paper," he says — Dempsey, who's planning to go back to law school, doesn't hesitate to share his frustrations. "The website and the paper will look better," he acknowledges, "but content-wise, they're really dumbing it down."

The Daily's new model, Dempsey believes, is dirt, a Camera publication that competed with the Daily until the latter's 2006 purchase by Scripps, at which point dirt folded. During its existence, dirt tended to lead with music-, nightlife- or entertainment-oriented stories — many of them so determinedly "youthful" that they seemed forced or phony — to the exclusion of anything weightier. Dempsey saw things moving in this direction before he quit. "Al Manzi asked us to only have young, good-looking people in photos, so that's what we did," he maintains. "We put up photos of girls in bikinis and guys with their shirts off, because that's what they wanted." Dempsey expects this approach to continue, since Childers's position has been filled by Camera city editor Matt Sebastian, who served as dirt's editor at the time of its demise. In his opinion, "The Daily is going to become dirt 2.0."

Not so, counters Sebastian. Although he remains proud of dirt's accomplishments, he doesn't see it as the template for the new-look Daily. As for Dempsey's assertions about a mandate to put hotties front and center, Manzi denies it, and Sebastian insists he's never received such an order — not that he'd oppose photos of that type in appropriate situations. "The idea is that if we're building a paper for a certain audience, we want that audience reflected in the paper," he points out. "And we're putting together a paper for college students and twenty-somethings."

That's more true now than ever before. The largest portion of the Daily's audience falls into the college-age category, but thousands of Boulder residents continue to pick it up regularly (why not, since it's free), and Childers and Dempsey kept their needs in mind. However, Manzi believes that by trying to satisfy oldsters as well as youngsters, "the Daily wasn't serving the majority of its audience effectively. We found that out when we did research." For that reason, the paper will tailor its coverage for the 18-to-35-year-old demographic. If people beyond that range like what they see, fine. If not, well, there's always the Camera.

Not that Manzi and Sebastian intend to turn the Daily into a news-free zone. Rather, they want the newsier offerings to be more closely linked to CU and Boulder than to the world beyond. "Up until now, the Colorado Daily hasn't been filled with local stories," Manzi maintains. "There's been lots of Associated Press stories and lots of feature-y stuff picked up from syndicates, and not a lot of local news and local events. So we're re-allocating our staff to handle that."

By restructuring the newsroom, Sebastian adds, the Daily will be able to generate more of its own material as opposed to being so reliant upon wire copy. "Previously, there had been four editors and only two and a half writers — and even though some of the editors were writing, they weren't doing it full-time," he says. "Now we're going to condense editing duties to two people. For example, we're going to replace Eliot with a sports reporter who'll spend all of his or her time writing." Also on the to-do list: hiring a news reporter to take Valenty's slot (but report about CU happenings, not unconnected Boulder machinations) and expanding stringer budgets. By using such strategies, Manzi allows, "we'll be able to do an awful lot more with the people we have — be at events, be on campus, be involved with student activities and be involved with city activities that are directly related to the age group that the Daily's advertisers want to reach."

At the same time, Manzi wants the Daily to be more efficient, and that's where the decision to drop most political coverage comes in. In his opinion, the Daily has continued to operate as if it were still competing with the Camera — something the 115-year-old paper did vigorously after winning its independence from CU and becoming an employee-owned enterprise in the early '70s, and even during the period following ex-publisher Randy Miller's purchase of it in 2001. Now that each of the publications is in the Scripps portfolio, Manzi believes duplication of resources is unjustifiable, especially in light of the difficult economic realities the print-journalism industry is facing these days. Hence, Daily staffers have been told they'll no longer be able to go to or write about most events at which Camera personnel are planning to be present. And if Daily editors want the story anyway? They'll simply run the Camera's story, as has been taking place a lot lately — and that's fine by Manzi. "It just doesn't make sense to send two reporters from the same organization to a city council meeting or a football game," he says.

The pigskin reference isn't coincidental. As part of a similar policy (one that seems to contradict the goal of making the Daily as CU-centric as possible), Daily staffers won't be covering most Buffaloes' football or basketball contests, either. Instead, the Daily will run the Camera's reports about Buffs stuff and concentrate its athletic coverage on club sports and outdoor recreation. Signaling this switch: The Daily's sports section is now called "Sweat" — a moniker Dempsey sees as very much in the dirt tradition.

Sebastian understands that some longtime Daily readers — particularly those who remember its defiantly independent past — may not like where the paper is heading. Even so, he's confident others will feel differently. "We're trying to improve the Colorado Daily, make it more relevant to the audience we believe is going to be most appreciative of us, which is the college and twenty-something audience, and people in their early thirties looking for news, entertainment and information about outdoor activities."

Dempsey, 25, doesn't count himself among this number. At a company picnic a month or so ago, Manzi began serenading the staff while playing a guitar, and Dempsey admits that he desperately wanted to grab the instrument from his hand and smash it à la John Belushi in Animal House — and that was before he'd heard about Valenty losing the opportunity to cover the DNC.

"It's not even going to be a real newspaper anymore," Dempsey predicts. "It's going to be a party pamphlet."