May 25, 2016

The growing wave of local digital news startups is about to get a new player. The investors behind Business Insider will launch Denverite in June.

Like Jim Brady’s Billy Penn in Philadelphia or Ted Williams’ Charlotte Agenda, this is a for-profit venture, and, if successful, may be replicated in other cities.

Gordon Crovitz, a former Wall Street Journal publisher and co-founder of the Press Plus paywall system, said in an interview that the Denverite will aim for a mix of original reporting and aggregation.

Initially publishing in email newsletter format, Crovitz said, the outlet “will have no revenue effort for the first nine months or a year.” A staff of 10 is being hired, all journalists; a website and social media accounts will follow within a month.

If Denverite builds “a sizable and loyal audience,” Crovitz said, an assortment of revenue streams — like paid subscription products, sponsorships or events — could follow.

His fellow investors include Kevin Ryan, founder of Business Insider, and Jim Friedlich, also a former Journal executive and Business Insider investor. Its strategy will mirror Business Insider’s aggregation-heavy, traffic-rich approach.

Business Insider, edited by Henry Blodget, sold a controlling stake last year to German publishing giant Axel Springer for $343 million. It has quietly built a digital audience of 100 million monthly uniques, Crovitz said, since its 2009 launch.

Dave Burdick, Denverite’s editor in chief, was recruited from The Denver Post this spring, where he was deputy features editor. Burdick is 33 (and a onetime standup comic in his spare time). But Crovitz said he hopes Denverite will appeal to a broad audience, including older people, not just millennials. “I think there is no digital divide anymore.”

In a press release, Burdick gave this summary of editorial goals:

It’s a big city, and we don’t feel like we own it—we just know what matters…The mission of Denverite is to provide our subscribers, followers and readers with the finite amount of information that really matters right now. Sometimes that’s a fire that has traffic backed up or closes a restaurant for a couple of weeks, sometimes it’s a clear, on-the­-ground explanation of how a huge real estate development project will change a neighborhood and sometimes that’s a life­ hack for Denver commuters or parents.

Burdick’s father was editor of the Rocky Mountain News and his mother and wife are also journalists.  Charlotte Agenda is a once daily newsletter, and Burdick said in an interview, “We will begin in that same neighborhood.  It sets up as ‘here’s what you need to know today.'”

Burdick said that he cut his teeth on the concept some years ago in Boulder when he started a hyperlocal blog about the neighborhood where he lived.  It was a hobby and only drew a small audience, but Burdick said the he liked the focus on “resources for people who live there.”

A first round of newspaper contraction in the mid 2000s spawned a number of nonprofit digital news startups led by the Texas Tribune, Voice of San Diego and MinnPost.

Now venture investors are being attracted too. Brady’s Billy Penn in Philadelphia and Williams’ Charlotte Agenda are both about a year old and were self-funded. Each is now expanding, Brady to Pittsburgh and Williams to Raleigh.  Brady’s Spirited Media now has a minority investment from Gannett for new sites.

Crovitz said that his group needs to prove success in Denver as a first goal. But expansion, picking among “cities 4 to 20 (in population),” could follow.

The key differentiator from newspapers, Crovitz said, is the mix of aggregation and original reporting. That’s harder to bring off for newspapers, whose established brand is their own work.

As advertising revenues continue to decline, newspapers continue to shrink; their print and digital versions risk being ever less comprehensive and attractive. The Denver Post is a case in point. The flagship of cost-conscious Digital First Media, the Post lost longtime editor Greg Moore earlier this year and has been sharply paring down newsroom staff.

Denver, one of three news local news ecosystems studied by the Pew Research Center last year, already has a rich mix of local startups of all sizes, Pew found. Those include Rocky Mountain PBS and the Colorado Independent, which had the first report of the launch in March.

Crovitz said that he and his partners are undaunted by all that company. “Every experiment should be welcome…We think we are complementary to what is already there and have a unique approach different from the others.”

I asked Brady (a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board) for a reaction to the launch.  He replied, “As for what those guys are doing in Denver, I say the more the merrier. We need a for-profit solution for local journalism and the more of us out there mining, the better the likelihood we combine to figure it out.”

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
Rick Edmonds

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