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Phil Anschutz's Denver Gazette: Inside Billionaire's News Site

Phil Anschutz is the man behind the Denver Gazette.
Phil Anschutz is the man behind the Denver Gazette.
Free Lunch Photography

For years, Phil Anschutz, one of the richest people in Colorado, has flirted with the Denver journalism market. Among other things, he purchased the name and assets of the Rocky Mountain News, which closed in February 2009, and used his Colorado Springs newspaper, the Gazette, as the launch pad for Colorado Politics, which has challenged the Denver Post, still the state's largest news operation despite drastic downsizing dictated by its vulture hedge fund owner, for hegemony regarding its chosen subject.

Now, Anschutz is finally making a direct assault on the Mile High City media market. At 5 a.m. Monday, September 14, the online subscription news site Denver Gazette will go live, and while its president and publisher, Chris Reen, insists that its goal isn't to take down the Post or the Colorado Sun, which is marking its second anniversary September 10, he emphasizes that the effort is well-financed and aggressive. In Reen's words, "We're committed to this for the long haul."

Reen describes the Denver Gazette as "a daily, digital, interactive newspaper. And I say 'newspaper' because it's designed and edited like a newspaper, sectioned like a newspaper, with local news and Denver and state news and opinions and commentary and national and world news and sports and comics and puzzles, just like a newspaper, even though it's 100 percent digital. And I say 'interactive' because it's very intuitive. As you go through the stories, you're going to be able to engage a video or other multimedia, like photo galleries, that really add to them. You can also print it, post it on social media, even change the size of the font. And if you don't want to read an article, we have audio functionality that will read it to you — and it can also be translated into twenty different languages. It's really a next-generation newspaper."

Here's an introductory video about the Denver Gazette.

The Denver Gazette has publicly boasted that it will have "over fifty staff and contributors based in Denver," including sports columnist Woody Paige, political expert Joey Bunch and longtime journalism hero Lynn Bartels, who took a buyout from the Post in 2015 and spent several years as a spokesperson for former Colorado secretary of state Wayne Williams and has been writing a column for the Gazette.

Of course, Paige, too, has already been writing for the Colorado Springs Gazette (in addition to his regular gig on ESPN), and Bunch is on the staff of Colorado Politics — and Reen remains cagey about how many of those fifty folks will be new to the payroll. "We've hired an appropriate amount of people in Denver to launch a news product with high-quality content," he says. "We've hired breaking-news reporters, general assignment reporters, page designers. There have been specific folks who have been hired and will focus on the Denver Gazette product. We do have other resources: twelve different journalists who are currently writing for Colorado Politics and will be contributing, a statewide investigative team, sports columnists like Woody Paige and Paul Klee. But this is the beginning. So while we think we have hired an appropriate number of people to kick this off, we're going to continue to grow our resources specific to the Denver Gazette, and over time, we will add to them."

Right now, every news organization, including this one, is struggling with revenue losses associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Reen says that's one of the biggest reasons why the Denver Gazette's model is based on subscriptions: Readers can register for three months of free access, after which they'll be charged $9.99 per month or $99 a year. "The Denver Gazette is essentially ad-free," he maintains. "There will be a very limited number of full-page ads that will run in between sections. But the news pages won't have any advertising on them whatsoever."

Problem is, the average consumer is pinching pennies right now, too, and with many of them having to decide how many streaming services they can continue to afford, finding a sizable number with a hundred bucks a year to spend on another digital service won't be easy, especially with so much free Denver news available from TV stations and other sources. That's why "we have to give them a strong alternative," Reen says. "We're committed to producing a high quality, high volume of local news, commentary, opinion and sports, and the market will tell us whether or not there's an appetite for that. But if we do that, we feel there's certainly disenfranchised readers in the market — people seeking an alternative."

Another issue: The Colorado Springs Gazette is editorially conservative, matching the worldview of Anschutz politically and in terms of topics such as legal marijuana, which that paper has repeatedly blasted. This approach is a better fit for the Springs than mostly liberal, pot-friendly Denver.

Reen, for his part, insists that Anschutz has never interfered with editorial decisions in the decade or so he's been in his employ — but he won't characterize the Denver Gazette's editorial stance other than to say it will offer well-considered takes on important developments that will be delineated from standard reporting. "Many outlets have blurred news and opinions," he allows. "Our news will be fact-based and non-agenda driven, and our editorials will be clearly marked. We will have local Denver opinions daily and national opinions daily and op-ed pages every day that offer a wide variety of viewpoints and voices. We think we're going to add to the conversation in a meaningful way, and we think there's room for that debate and dialogue in Denver."

Why not just call the site the Rocky Mountain News? "The short answer is that we've invested an enormous amount in the Gazette brand since 2012," when Anschutz bought it, Reen explains. "But having said that, you will see several things that hearken back to the Rocky Mountain News on the Denver Gazette. It's laid out like a tabloid, not a broadsheet newspaper, just like the Rocky, and we have access to the archives and own the trademark. So every day, you'll see an archival article or historical front page and other things that will remind people of the Rocky Mountain News, an incredible brand that was the oldest newspaper in the state."

Reen insists that the Denver Gazette will be an "additive to the journalistic ecosystem of the city," as opposed to something that will undercut the Post or extinguish the Colorado Sun. But, he concedes, "Expanding the Denver Gazette the way we're doing it — digitally — is a lot more cost-effective than taking on legacy costs and a legacy brand. So sure, it establishes us in the marketplace, and we think it gives us a platform and a springboard to only grow from there."

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