Columnist: Denver Post Paywall Raising Morale as Newsroom Moves Out of City

The  newsroom that reporters for the paper will be leaving over the next few weeks.
The newsroom that reporters for the paper will be leaving over the next few weeks. YouTube
As we've reported, the Denver Post has put up a paywall over its content for the first time since the Aurora theater shootings trial. This change roughly coincides with most occupants of the paper's newsroom moving out of Denver, to the Post printing plant in Adams County, and editorial-page editor Chuck Plunkett, who penned a weekend column about the two subjects, believes the paywall is making plenty of staffers feel better about relocating.

"There is excitement among the staff about switching to a paywall — or a required digital subscription model, as we're calling it," notes Plunkett, corresponding by email. "What's been nice about the strategy is that the fundamental goal strikes us as winnable."

This same note was struck by reporter John Ingold on Twitter yesterday, January 15. Among a string of more than thirty tweets compiled at the bottom of this item, Ingold writes, "We need to join our community values as journalists with a business model for which those values are rewarded. We need to be able to make money *because* we (and you) care about our city." He adds that doing so is especially important now, since "death is on our heels."

In his column, headlined "As the Bulk of The Denver Post Leaves the City, We're So Over Working for Free," Plunkett notes that "this month, The Denver Post newsroom is moving out of its curvaceous white building across from the Civic Center at the top of the 16th Street Mall. The lion’s share of our journalists are leaving the city to headquarter nearby at our printing plant in Adams County," leaving Digital First Media, the Post's parent company, as the paper's main inhabitant of its old base of operations, at 101 West Colfax. Members of the editorial board, as well as reporters with what Plunkett characterizes as "Denver-centric beats," have already shifted next door, to offices in the Petroleum Building.

The column adds, "I won’t sugarcoat it: No one at The Post that I know of wants to leave downtown. Besides the convenience the location offers, we’ve loved the symbolism: Colorado’s largest news organization visibly standing watch over the seats of local and state government, commerce and culture. But the watchdogs can no longer afford the rent."

The old Denver Post building, at 101 West Colfax.
Photo by Michael Roberts
The downcast tone of these lines is contrasted by Plunkett's exuberance over the paywall. "We’re all done giving our content away," he enthuses in the column. "Those who read us online will have to pay" — and those who do so "should help keep us in notebooks and pens and on the job."

In his correspondence with Westword, Plunkett — who shared his views about newspaper economics in the February 2017 Q&A "Reasons You Should Pay for a Newspaper" — expands on his frustration over the system in place over the past two years-plus, which allowed free online access under the theory that ad sales would cover costs.

"For years we were tasked with hitting page-view targets," he points out. "But even when we surpassed them, cuts came anyway. It was never enough, and the explanation was just so daunting: industry-wide, the value of digital ads kept dropping out from under us, and we get it that the future of print advertising is almost certainly a limited one. So we know we can hit targets. Now we have the expectation that doing so will result in actual dollars that you can take to the bank."

He adds: "One aspect that many of us feel is that in this awful age of the whole fake news phenomenon, and all that has come to mean, we constantly hear from the public and from leaders of Colorado institutions that they desperately see the need for having strong, professional local newsrooms. I hear it all the time when meeting with sources and whatnot. But the younger generations we need to support us don't always gravitate to the idea of having a paper delivered to their door. The digital subscription model solves that problem for them. So while I would still wish to see a strong and even expanded commitment to print, there's real hope that this hybrid approach will carry us forward."

Plunkett concedes that his views aren't universally held at the Post.

"Certainly, when you're talking about a room full of journalists, you're talking about a lot of differing opinions," he acknowledges. "Will the switch bolster the damage to morale that the constant cuts and the move have created? We'll see. But overall, it gives us something to shoot for that makes more sense, and there is real leadership in the decision that isn't just coming from New York. Lee Ann [editor Lee Ann Colacioppo] and her digital team have crunched the numbers and done the math and tested the roll-out, and they believe we can do this. More so than some other initiatives, there is buy-in here."

That's certainly the case with reporter Ingold. Read his impassioned and revealing tweets about the importance of paying for a digital subscription to the Denver Post below, concluding with a link to sign up.

click to enlarge
Denver Post reporter John Ingold.
Denver Post via YouTube
Tweets by reporter John Ingold, January 15:

Friends, we are undergoing an exciting change here at The Denver Post, but it might not seem like a great deal at first. Please give me a minute to convince you otherwise...

Starting today, we are limiting how many stories you can read online for free and asking — begging — you to buy a digital subscription. It's a good deal: $11.99 per month.

But it's also something much more than access to articles. It's an investment in your community.

The Denver Post is not nearly as big as it was, and it doesn't cover as much ground. That makes me sad, too. But it's still the state's biggest news organization, it's part of Colorado's history and it produces dozens of important stories every year you won't see elsewhere.

Remember @KSimpsonDP's heartfelt portrait of the practical flaws in Colorado's aid-in-dying law?

Or @JBrownDPost's searing reporting on immigrants who have to wait until they are near death before they can get dialysis?

What about our Colorado Divide series showing how rural Colorado is being left behind — a conversation that @GovofCO picked up in last week's State of the State address?

I've been here 17 years, and in that time laws have been passed, bad people have gone to jail, crimes have been thwarted and good lives have been saved because of the work of The Denver Post.

I'm not exaggerating this. I once wrote a story about a woman suffering from HIV/AIDS and chronic pain. She felt alone, abandoned. Years later, I saw her again and she looked amazing. And she told me that our story, photos and video saved her life — by showing her someone cared.

But here's the thing about all these good works: As much as we at The Denver Post want to think of ourselves as a nonprofit community organization, we aren't. We're a business owned by a New York hedgefund that demands it gets its cut every year.

And death is on our heels.

The basics of our looming death are familiar: Advertisers are leaving print media, and pretty much every newspaper in America — including the New York Times — is seeing declines in print advertising dollars.

We and just about everyone else have tried to compensate for those losses by putting greater emphasis on online advertising. There's a reason the company that owns us is called Digital First Media.

But this won't work.


Because it does two things. First, it gives a lot of power to the tech platforms where readers find us — like Google and Facebook. And those platforms have been making decisions that stab virtual knives in our backs.

Take, for instance, Google's latest changes to discourage websites from hosting auto-play and take-over ads. That's great, right? I hate those things!...

...Except, annoying as they were, those ads brought in money that helped sustain our journalism.

Or what about Facebook's newly announced changes to the news feed — designed to make you interact more with friends and family?...

...Well, they mean you'll be seeing (and clicking) fewer Denver Post stories. Right now, Facebook accounts for about 13% of the traffic to my stories.

There's another thing this focus on digital ad revenue does: It can warp news judgment and news values.

Think about what kinds of stories you want your local newspaper to cover. Does that list include Golden Globes red carpet slideshows? What about bizarre crimes committed by Florida Man?

In a model where clicks = cash, you'll likely see a lot of those latter stories.

Here's an example: I've spent much of the last six months writing about health policy, Medicaid, CHIP, and Obamacare — big state and national issues that affect a lot of people. What's my most-clicked story? A goofy thing about eclipse glasses.

Meanwhile, this story looking at what Colorado Medicaid is doing to reduce opioid overdoses got fewer than 1,000 clicks.

I get that it's wonky and incremental and not at all sexy. But here's the question: Would you rather have someone reporting on this kind of thing or not? Because that's the choice. It's not between fun stories and dull ones. It's between community-centered journalism and oblivion.

There might be quality publications that can make a business model based on online ads work. But they will be national ones, with enormous reader pools to draw from. Local publications don't have that advantage.

And the hedgefunds taking over local media don't care. They want revenue. If that means fewer stories about the local city council and more about celebrity sideboob, that's what it means.

So what's the solution?

We need to join our community values as journalists with a business model for which those values are rewarded. We need to be able to make money *because* we (and you) care about our city.

And this is where you come in.

This isn't a charity pitch. If you pay for a Denver Post subscription, you're getting more than symbolic value in return. You'll be getting articles that help you make more knowledgeable decisions and be a more informed voter.

But you'll also be making a statement that the people and the stories in your community matter, that they're worth hearing. That you want someone watchdogging city council meetings. That you care about the consequences of state policy.

And because you're paying for everything together, your money is supporting ALL of our work. Some months you want to read about the Broncos. Others about groundwater pollution. Either way, we'll have you covered, and a reporter's beat won't depend on a few clicks here or there.

This also, frankly, gives you greater power to shape the news coverage in your community. You don't like something we did? Great, because you're not just a click on the website, you're a subscriber! Call us up and give us an earful and demand that we listen.

There are a lot of great news organizations in this state, and all of them are worth supporting. This isn't an either/or. Watch the TV newscasts. Contribute to public radio. Read the alternative publications. Everybody is out there for sincere reasons.

But I can't state this any more clearly: If you want to see a future where there's a Denver Post in Denver, buying a digital subscription now is the best idea we have to make sure that happens.

I hope you agree, and, at the very least, I appreciate you humoring me for this tweetstorm. Thank you for reading over the years. Thank you for caring about Colorado.

Thank you for thinking about subscribing.
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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