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Behind the launch of the Rocky Mountain Independent

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The Rocky Mountain Independent, which officially launched today, is the latest online news project from former members of the Rocky Mountain News -- and many of the fourteen journalists involved were also part of INDenver Times, which fell about 47,000 paid subscribers short of its announced goal of 50,000. Steve Foster, one of RMI's editors, and the former managing editor of INDenver Times, admits that this legacy creates some credibility issues.

"There are definitely going to be people who will be reluctant to believe in us after what we went through with INDenver Times, and there's nothing we can really do about that," he concedes. "We made a bold effort, but we failed to create a site that would generate enough original content. And now, that's our focus. That's about all we will do is produce original content. And that was a big lesson that we learned from our time there. Anybody can aggregate news. But if you want to be noteworthy, have an original site, you have to produce original content that people want."

INDenver Times remains online as Kevin Preblud and the other entrepreneurs who backed it in the first place try to create a financially self-sustaining approach. But Foster, whose staff mainly works out of area coffee houses (Stella's on South Pearl and Common Grounds in LoDo are favorites) rather than the enterprise's small office space, is less concerned about competition with this operation than he is with building the framework for a worthy site and then sticking with it.

"I think one of the big weaknesses with the INDenver Times concept was that our plan changed too many times, and that really hurt our focus on coverage," Foster maintains. "It didn't help us trying to reach out to readers because our identity changed daily. I think our unofficial editorial policy was, 'We'll print whatever we get our hands on.' But now, we have a much more focused idea as far as what we want to cover and how we want to cover it with the Rocky Mountain Independent."

A pay component remains part of the Independent model. Subscribers will be asked to fork over $4 per month for access to columns and other walled-off material, as well as to chats with the journalists themselves. (Individuals who sign up during the next three month will be able to purchase a one-year subscription for half-price.) According to Foster, "Probably the closest model to ours is ESPN.com. You can still go there and get pretty much all the news for free, but if you want access to their columnists or some of their larger pieces, you need to be a member. Our business model recognizes that the industry is going this way -- that advertising alone isn't enough to support a news organization as large as ours."

The group of Independent fulltimers or partimers, many of whom have a financial stake in the site, include Kim Humphreys, who's also behind the repurposed IWantMyRocky.com website, plus David Milstead, Tillie Fong, Bob Findlay, Cindy House, John Moore, Alex Neth, Andy Piper, Melissa Pomponio, Matthew Roberts, Hank Schultz, Werner Slocum and Kyle Lynch, the only non-Rocky vet of this bunch. Lynch is a former Indiana journalist and web editor who helped design the INDenver Times site and has taken on a similar task for RMI.

In addition, a number of other notables are contributing. Among them: former Rocky film critic Robert Denerstein, cartoonist Drew Litton (he'll draw a weekly item), reporter Kevin Flynn, sportswriters Jack Etkin and Chris Tomasson, as well as Jeremy Pelzer, who once ran Colorado's now-moribund Politicker.com site and is in the midst of launching a new address of his own, MileHighPolitics.com. That site will partner with RMI, as will ex-Rocky fashion editor Lesley Kennedy's Denveralamode.com, which was featured in this space last week. Contributors are being paid when their pieces are used, but that's not the case with the core fourteen. "We're earning our equity in exchange for our time," Foster says.

That recompense will be provided by more than just revenue from subscriptions. Foster and company also want to earn dough via advertising, and they're currently in negotiations with a company they hope will take over the Independent's business operation. However, this initiative is being back-burnered at present. "The reality, especially with web advertising, is that you have to have some sort of metric to sell, especially when it comes to attracting advertisers to a new venture," Foster allows. "You need to be able to say, 'This many people are coming to our site at this time of day, and this is what they're reading.' That's an important part of the approach for advertisers, so we really have to have the site up for a while before we can do that the right way."

Editorially speaking, Foster says Rocky Mountain Independent plans to take the road less traveled, particularly for an online news enterprise. "Despite common wisdom, breaking news and sports might not be the best things to cover, because everybody's already covering them," he argues. "So we want to focus on larger, broader stories, rather than going out and covering every Rockies, Nuggets or Broncos game. The same thing goes for politics. We're not as interested in following somebody on the campaign trail on a daily basis. We'd rather step back and assess someone's chances in an election."

More in-depth reporting often results in longer stories of the sort that web users supposedly eschew. But Foster says the microscopic-attention-span theory has some holes in it. "We'll have some shorter takes on news that will be in journals on our website -- access to the journals is part of our membership," he says. "But there's actually interest in longer stories these days, in part because those longer stories once existed and they don't to a large degree anymore. I think reading habits on the web are such that early in the day, when people are busier, or on their way to work, they're less interested in longer stories. But my habits, and those of a lot of people I know, is that when I get home at night, I sit down with my laptop -- and at that point, I'm interested in longer stories."

The RMI crew will have time to prove their point. Foster says participants have provided enough money to keep everything up and running for at least three months, and if more money is needed as a bridge, he's confident folks will pony up again. In the meantime, the Independent remains a work in progress. In his words, "I think it'll take a couple of weeks before people will really get a sense of what our mission is."

And considerably longer to know if it can be accomplished.

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