Investors Value Ex-Rocky Journalists’ Startup Site; Will Denver?

Kevin Preblud takes in a lot of news, but between Web sites on his laptop and news feeds on his iPhone, the newspapers started stacking up. So about five years ago, he dropped his subscription to the Rocky Mountain News.

Now, as the Denver businessman backs an online news venture to be staffed by ex-Rocky journalists, he acknowledges that he helped put them on the street. “I was a good reason why they failed, because I didn’t pay the freight,” he said. “I was reading the Rocky online.”

Preblud has joined with two other investors and a group of journalists — the ones who started publishing news on IWantMyRocky after the paper folded a few weeks ago — to launch a site that would require customers like him to pay for the news they value.

As described in interviews and Monday’s news conference, “In Denver Times” will have free and premium services. Local news, sports and commentary will be free. Live chats, live blogs, analysis and some other features will cost money — between $4.99 and $6.99 a month, depending on the length of the subscription.

If In Denver Times gathers 50,000 subscriptions by April 23, which would have been the Rocky‘s 150th birthday, then the site will launch on May 4. If not, no one will be charged, according to its Web site.

“You show us that you value these reporters and you value what they bring to the community,” Preblud said. “We’ll take your pledges and if we get to what we think is critical mass — for us, it’s 50,000 — then we’ll charge your credit card and turn the site on and we’re off to the races.”

In Denver Times is the answer to a question many have asked in the last couple of months. How could the Rocky simply shut down? Is there value in the name or in its journalism? Rather than ask these questions in sorrow or as hypotheticals, three businessmen posed them as business propositions.

“How can this thing just die?” Preblud, a fourth-generation Denver native, said of the Rocky Mountain News. “There’s value in the reporters. There’s value in what they do. It’s dying because they’re giving away their product. … What we’re trying to do is come up with a model that puts value on what journalists provide.”

In mid-January, when Preblud realized that no one had emerged to buy the paper, he met with businessmen Brad Gray and Benjamin Ray. They know little about the newspaper business, Preblud said. (Ray has the closest thing to a newspaper background: His father was editor and publisher of the Littleton Independent.)

Initially the trio focused on the value of the Rocky Mountain News name, but they concluded that they couldn’t buy it, and even if they could, it wouldn’t happen quickly enough. They decided that if they got the journalists, they wouldn’t need the name.

“If we meet our subscription goal, I think it’s going to be a very low investment. If we don’t, then I think we’ll be saddled with the same kind of questions the other guys had.”
– Kevin Preblud, ‘In Denver Times’ investor
They roughed out some numbers — how much content a site would have to have, how many people it would take to produce that content, how much each subscriber would have to pay to support them. And after the newspaper folded, Preblud sought out Steve Foster.

Before the Rocky went under, Foster and a group of Rocky journalists created IWantMyRocky, which advocated for the paper’s survival. When the paper didn’t survive, the journalists started posting their work on the site. Former transportation reporter Kevin Flynn planned to launch his own site, and two baseball reporters started a baseball blog called Inside the Rockies. (Flynn has signed on to In Denver Times; the baseball reporters are sticking with Inside the Rockies.)

Foster, now the managing editor for the new site, said he wants In Denver Times users to be able to customize the site with RSS feeds for other content, similar to an iGoogle or My Yahoo page. He said the site will have an iPhone app “from Day One.”

He described the difference between free and paid content this way: A news story by Flynn would be freely available to anyone. A live chat, on the other hand, would only be available to subscribers. Likewise, a story on the Broncos’ pick in the first round of the NFL draft would be a free story; an analysis of the pick, or one predicting what would happen in the second round, would cost.

Asked who would pay for this service, Foster responded, “Loyal Rocky readers. Just days ago they were subscribing to the newspaper for about twice the cost of what it would take to subscribe to the Web site. We believe they want the spirit of the Rocky back and they will subscribe to do that just as they have subscribed to the newspaper for years.”

Foster said the financial projections account for 35 full-time employees (30 ex-Rocky employees have signed up so far) as well as freelancers, part-time employees and partnerships with other news sites. For the next five weeks, those potential employees will volunteer for a subscription drive and will continue to publish news on IWantMyRocky, he said. The site will be hiring an editor in the coming days.

Westword noted that there seemed to be some disagreement about what would happen if the subscription goal isn’t met. And Preblud himself said the investors don’t know how much they’ll end up spending on the venture.

“If we meet our subscription goal, I think it’s going to be a very low investment,” he said. “If we don’t, then I think we’ll be saddled with the same kind of questions the other guys had. … Nobody has the stomach in this climate to take on a losing venture at the outset.”

As the recession has pushed already weak newspaper companies over the edge and online advertising doesn’t appear to be able to support sites entirely, more in the news industry are talking about subscriber models. Some news sites have tried premium services already, dropping them because they didn’t attract enough subscribers or because executives decided there was more money to be made with ads on freely available content.

In Denver Times, though, is a different creature. It has none of the costs of print distribution nor the substantial — though declining — advertising revenue that comes along with it.

While exploring options, the In Denver Times group reached out to VoiceofSanDiego.org, which has emerged as one of the models of online-only news. The group didn’t take Executive Editor Andrew Donohue’s advice to provide content at no cost to readers.

“Especially with a new publication, you have to get your product and the best of everything you have to offer in front of as many eyeballs as possible. As soon as you put up gates, I think you run into trouble,” Donohue said. “The Web is so competitive that your product would have to be not just better than everyone else’s, but exponentially better.”

But he noted the many differences between the new site in Denver and his own, including their subject matter and the size of their staffs. (He has just 12 employees.) “I think as many different people need to try as many things as they can,” he said.

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