Who We Are
Westword is an independent local newspaper and website whose small but scrappy staff of journalists have covered the Denver stories that other media outlets ignore since 1977.
From the day we were founded, Westword has been free to our readers. We remain dedicated to providing our reported local journalism to everyone at no charge, regardless of their financial status.
How can we do it? We've always relied on advertisers to generate the revenues that make our rent and pay our staff. Most of those advertisers were local mom 'n' pops, and their support meant we were able to give our newspapers away. We've never put up an online paywall, either.
That advertiser-supported model worked very well for a very long time, helping us endure severe economic downturns from the Reagan recession of the early 1980s to the crash that followed 9/11 and the Great Recession of 2008. We were able to bounce back from those setbacks because as local businesses recovered, they started advertising again and we all made it through.
Through it all, Westword has always embraced change. In the late 1990s, we were among the first alt-weeklies to commit to digital journalism, restructuring our workflow to publish stories web-first. That decision turned us into something we'd never been: a daily newsroom. Through the aughts, we continued to build up our online presence, publishing multiple stories each day about local news, music, arts and food. For the first time, we were competing against major local daily papers for breaking news -- and often winning.
Another change occurred in 2013, when a group of longtime employees purchased Westword's parent company from its previous owners, who'd acquired us in 1983 as the first step in building what became the nation's largest chain of alternative weekly publications. Faced with an array of challenges posed by a bruising business environment for media organizations, the new company, Voice Media Group, set about shoring up pillar publications like Westword, rededicating itself to their success and their survival. Several out-of-state publications were sold, and a new digital marketing agency was created to help generate new revenue streams. A commitment was made to distribute our journalism widely on social media platforms, engaging readers where they lived. Our progressive approach to social issues allowed us to lead the way on issues such as marijuana legalization.
One result of Westword's forward-looking approach was a growing number of readers who didn't necessarily live along the Front Range but appreciated what we were doing. Whereas in the early days of print our distribution was limited to metro Denver -- thanks to those eye-catching red-and-yellow newsracks! -- our stories were now available to anyone with an internet connection. Some of these readers were Colorado expats longing to read about their hometown. But many were people whose connection to our journalism was more gut-level than it was geographic. Just like our loyal hometown supporters, they were drawn to our pointed coverage of immigration and other hot-button political issues, our freewheeling approach to writing about pop-culture, our sophisticated understanding of the city's ever-evolving restaurant scene, and our irreverence and willingness to highlight this city's most creative spirits.
Innovation stems from talent. And talent is one thing Westword has always had in abundance. From the start, Westword has hired a special breed of reporter. Our music and arts sections have long offered the city's most sophisticated perspective on Denver culture thanks to writers like Michael Paglia and Susan Froyd. Back in the 1980s, we were one of the first alt-weeklies to hire a full-time restaurant critic. Since then we've only strengthened our commitment to covering the food scene, and the rest of the world has noticed; former food critic Jason Sheehan was a winner and three-time finalist in the James Beard Journalism Awards and now writes for Philadelphia Magazine; before that, John Kessler also started his career at Westword before going on to spend two decades as the restaurant critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Over the years our news reporters -- people like Alan Prendergast, Michael Roberts, Julie Jargon, Robin Chotzinoff and Joel Warner -- have regularly taken home national and regional journalism awards. Seven Westword writers have been finalists in the Livingston Awards, the country's most prestigious honor for young journalists, and Jargon won the award in 2003 for her groundbreaking coverage of sexual assaults at the Air Force Academy. And our editor-in-chief, Patricia Calhoun, a true icon in the industry who's been at the helm since Westword's founding, is one of the nation's most prolific writing editors, having taken home dozens of national awards herself and in 2019, being named the inaugural recipient of the Association for Alternative Newsmedia's Lifetime Achievement Award.
The State of Media Today
For several years now, media organizations large and small have been hit by a perfect storm of financial pressures. As readers shifted from print to online, advertising rates dropped steeply. Tech giants began sucking up most of the remaining local advertising dollars. More recently, huge numbers of our advertisers have either closed entirely or temporarily stopped spending in the wake of the coronavirus. That has led us to completely rethink how we operate. We remain committed to keeping our journalism free and avoiding paywalls or mandatory subscriptions. But the long-term challenges organizations like ours face in generating advertising dollars aren't going away. That's why we're now working toward a goal of generating at least as much revenue from readers as we do from advertisers.
Today we remain as dedicated as ever to developing Denver's best journalistic talent, and to figuring how to keep growing at a time of great challenges in the media business. We want to grow the right way -- by doubling down on our commitment to serving our readers, without whom we couldn't do what we do. If we can keep writing stories that are important to you, and that tell you important things about the city we all love, we think we can survive this latest crisis, too.
Some core beliefs underpin that effort. We believe that in a modern age of disinformation when a large part of society is openly at war with the press, it's more important than ever for cities to have locally based reporters keeping an eye on the powers that be. We believe that fact-based reporting can help people see through the cynicism so prevalent in modern politics and inspire in them a more hopeful approach to participatory democracy. Our standard in framing and reporting stories is intellectual honesty. A crook is a crook, a liar is a liar, a hero is a hero, and these are demonstrable things.
We're the only Colorado media organization that revealed the secrets of the Rocky Flats grand jury, a story that won a Silver Gavel award from the American Bar Association and figuratively blew the lid off a troubled nuclear weapons plant that nearly gave Denver its own Chernobyl. We've provided the country's most in-depth coverage of the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum or ADX, the highest security pen in the federal prison system.
But from the beginning Westword was about more than hard news. We also believe in celebrating Denver culture, covering our city's music, arts, dining and marijuana scenes with the same attention to detail that we devote to our news stories. We were the first publication in America to hire a pot critic, and have since locked in our position as the state's most authoritative source for marijuana news.
We've given you definitive stories about Bob Dylan's ill-fated summer in Denver; penned odes to Denver's most legendary bars; walked you through Denver's 100 Best Restaurants; and inspired the Colorado Legislature to kill a bill that would have set THC-inebriation levels ridiculously low when our pot critic tested nearly three times over the proposed limit – sober. We believe a special kind of culture thrives in the mile-high atmosphere, and we want to keep helping you discover it.
What You Can Do to Help
We're calling our membership campaign "I Support," and we're basing it on a simple premise: Good local journalism requires interest and demand from engaged local readers, and we know we have a loyal audience that wants to support our efforts.
We want to keep covering Denver the way it deserves to be covered. That means remaining independent and avoiding paywalls – but still bringing in enough money to fund our journalism.
You can help by contributing as little as $1, or by signing up for one or more of our email newsletters. And if you commit to becoming a monthly or annual recurring member, we'll throw in something extra: an absolutely ad-free online reading experience. That means you can read your favorite Westword news, music, food and arts stories with no digital interruptions.
We'll put whatever money you contribute toward producing high-quality local journalism. That makes you our first step in developing a viable, reader-funded editorial model.