Dan Brogan's a Mile High on 5280

Most interviews done for the The Message column contain more information than can possibly be squeezed onto any given page, and plenty of what doesn't make the cut is very interesting indeed. Seldom, though, is it presented in such an easily digestible form as was recently the case with comments provided by Dan Brogan (pictured), the founder, editor and publisher of 5280 magazine.

Brogan was contacted via e-mail about 5280's recent hiring of Robert Sanchez, a young Denver Post reporter who decided that his journalistic future should no longer be yoked to the broadsheet; see the second item in the July 12 column for more details. In response to these and other questions, Brogan provided a neat narrative about his magazine, a flourishing project that qualifies as one of the more unlikely Denver-area publishing success stories of recent years. Below, he addresses staff additions, Sanchez's skills, increasing the emphasis on staff writers as opposed to freelancers, his goal to make 5280 the Texas Monthly of the Mountain West and his belief that financially struggling pubs often put their resources in the wrong places:

It's funny that you're asking about our staffing now. We didn't make many changes in the year or so after we last talked, but suddenly we seem to be in the midst of another growth spurt. In addition to Robert, we've recently expanded our photo editor (Steffanie Woodward) from part-time to full-time and brought on Amy McCraken (formerly of Wiesner Publishing) to start a custom publishing division. That brings our full-time head count to 32. In addition, we've been interviewing for an articles editor, two new ad sales reps, and an online manager.

As for Robert, we've wanted to add a staff writer for a while, but it took some time to find someone with the right mix. Robert is a very talented newspaper writer and we think he has what it takes to become a great magazine journalist. There's a common misconception that the only difference between newspapers and magazines is that the stories are longer. Nothing could be farther from the truth; there's an entirely different skill-set. Robert doesn't have all of those skills yet, but he *thinks* like a magazine writer and is willing to do the work it will take to learn the rest.

Why staff versus freelance? Staff writers can tackle certain kinds of stories that might not make sense economically for a freelancer, but we'll continue to use the best of both, of course (we've got a piece by J.R. Moehringer in the current issue).

Yes, hiring Robert (and all of our other hires) are definitely part of our ongoing efforts to continue improving the magazine. As I probably told you the last time we spoke, I'm convinced that 5280 can become the same kind of magazine for this region that Texas Monthly is for its part of the world. We've made big strides in the last few years, but we have a long way to go. To get there, we'll need to continue investing.

I have all kinds of civic and journalistic reasons for doing this, but there's a less altruistic reason as well. Simply put, good journalism is good business.

A little more three years ago, I decided to take the profits from 5280's success and reinvest them to make a good magazine great. Since then, we've more than tripled our editorial staff and doubled our freelance budget. In all, we now spend nearly $1 million more each year on editorial than we did in 2003. What have we gotten for that investment? Well, we've won a bunch of national awards and we've gotten to publish some very big-time writers (J.R. Moehringer, Hampton Sides, Christopher McDougall, Eileen Welsome, etc.). But we've seen some very important payoffs on business side, too. Since 2003, our paid subscriptions and newsstand sales have both increased by about 50 percent, and our ad revenue has doubled. In 2006 alone, ad revenue grew by 23 percent, and for the first half of 2007 we're up by another 30 percent. Good journalism begets more readers which begets more ad dollars. It's a pretty simple formula. Why the dailies (and, forgive me, the weeklies) don't get this, I can't say, but I think it's a mistake.

Web economics are changing rapidly. It won't be long before someone who is small and nimble will come along with a news product that is smart and useful and (most important) respects the reader. Heck, that guy might even be me.

A couple of months ago, I had lunch with a former DNA exec who told me that the survival of journalism is dependent on fewer paid journalists. I suspect that attitude is pretty common at the DNA these days, but I think it's entirely the wrong approach. I guess we'll see who's right.

True enough -- but right now, Brogan's baby is in a better place than anyone would have anticipated. 5280 appears to be winning the numbers game. -- Michael Roberts

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts