Since its September 10 launch, the Colorado Sun, an online publication staffed by former members of the Denver Post , has gotten as much attention for its unusual funding method, which employs blockchain and cryptocurrency, as its serious, steady and solid reporting.
Sure, the work's good, plenty of journalism observers acknowledge, but how many people are reading? And how long will this pricey experiment be able to pay its bills?
Sun editor Larry Ryckman doesn't provide a direct answer to the first question, in part because of his contention that "we're not really in the page-view business." As for the second query, he continues to express confidence that the Sun has enough resources to remain up and running for at least two years — a period during which he hopes the website will build enough of a subscriber base to sustain it well into the future.
"I'm cheering them on," Ryckman says about Civil, an ambitious organization whose sale of so-called CVL tokens is scheduled to formally launch on October 15, "but it doesn't necessarily have a huge impact on us in Colorado."
Why not? Ryckman maintains that seed money from Civil has allowed the Sun to make a strong start, as have the proceeds from a Kickstarter campaign, whose page states that 2,622 backers have pledged $161,493 toward the site at this writing. But in his view, "subscribers are really what it's about for us. We've been lucky in having good partners with Civil, and they've been very generous with us. But long-term, our success hangs with subscribers. That's where we're focusing our energy — making sure we bring subscribers into the conversation with us."
Ryckman won't provide the specific number of subscribers to the Sun at present (he'll only say "thousands"), and neither will he talk about the dollar amounts contributed by such folks: The four membership categories are "Sun Member Basic" ($60-plus per year), "Sun Member + Politics Newsletter" ($240-plus per year), "Sun Booster" ($360-plus per year) and "Sun Champion" ($1,200-plus per year).
But he does maintain that "the number of subscribers for our free newsletter, The Sunriser, has wildly exceeded our expectations, and paid subscribers are above our expectations, too. If you'd told me four months ago where we'd be today, I'm not sure if I would have believed you. It's gone very well."
When he was at the Post, Ryckman goes on, "we tracked page views every day. They were very important. We lived and died with page views. So the fact that I can't reel them off the top of my head shows how different things are at the Sun. And our engagement numbers are unbelievably high. At most media organizations, the typical engagement in a story is 30 to 45 seconds. So far, on our long-form stories, our average engagement time has been three to four minutes, which feels like an eternity compared to what we experienced before."
To him, "That means we're connecting with people. They're seeing these stories and wanting to take that journey with us and care about the people and places and issues we're reporting about."
Typical Sun fare to date has tended toward the sort of topics that journalists cover because they're important even though they don't generate nearly as many clicks as pieces about sports, restaurants or celebrities. Take a Karen Augé look at the link between some home-school parents and child abuse and Jesse Paul's exploration of alleged voter intimidation in Pitkin County.
Still, Ryckman stresses, "We're not about getting a million page views on stories that might generate clicks but don't build loyalty. We want readers to like what we do and want to come back for more."
He adds that the current story mix "is what we planned for — and it's amazing how liberating it is when you're free from the kinds of things we had to do in our past lives. We don't have to fill night shifts, we don't have to cover breaking news unless it really makes sense for us to do that. We're in a great place where we have the freedom to do these deep-dive stories that we've been sharing with Coloradans since our launch. Everything in life comes with a cost: If you do this, you can't do that. But this shows what we can do when we're free to focus on great journalism."
Coverage of the latter sort won't last forever, Ryckman concedes. "We're the new kid on the block, and there is a honeymoon. But at the end of the day, either you're doing good work and connecting with people or you're not. And that's our challenge right now. It's the same as if we were opening a food truck. You want to build awareness, but you hope people come back because you've delivered a great meal and great service."
In another example of the site's attempt to form a relationship with readers, Ryckman and the other Sunsters will host a meet-and-greet from 5 to 8 p.m. on Wednesday, October 24, at the Wynkoop Brewing Company, 1634 18th Street. There, Sun readers will get a chance to share their thoughts directly with journalists who are trying to create a new template for delivering news in the 21st century.
"I get that it's a gamble to start anything new," Ryckman says. "There are stats out there that nine out of ten startups fail, so I know it's a risk. But for us, it was less risky than staying at the Post. And we feel very optimistic, because we have great financial backers at Civil and our local support is growing daily. That gives me a lot of hope that we're going to be around for a long time to come."