There are enough reasons not to launch a newspaper right now. The COVID-19 pandemic has rattled the local and national economy, and even before the pandemic hit the United States, the American media industry was facing daunting challenges.
This moment, however, has provided perhaps more urgency for quality journalism than ever before. As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to spark change in Denver, and as one of the nation’s most consequential elections looms, the leaders of the newly formed Denver Gazette saw this as the best time to test a new product. The Gazette, which is born out of the Colorado Springs Gazette family, is the latest publication launched by conservative billionaire Phil Anschutz’ Clarity Media Group—which also owns the Washington Examiner and Colorado Politics.
The Denver Gazette, which began publishing on September 14, is aiming to be among the preeminent news sources for the city. And while it offers readers a unique, digital-only format, it enters an already competitive media market. We recently caught up with Gazette editor, Vince Bzdek, and publisher, Chris Reen, to discuss their goals and what type of media product want to bring to Denver.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
5280: With a pandemic, social unrest, and a looming election, this is a difficult time to launch any business, let alone a newspaper product. Why did you choose now to do it?
Chris Reen: There are a few reasons. We had long been interested in starting a newspaper in Denver…it’s always been a news-hungry and news-savvy city. And we think it’s currently underserved in local news and missing a voice…As you said, there’s a lot going on in the world right now and we want to add to those discussions. I would also say, COVID-19 has changed a lot of things and one of them is digital adoption. It’s really accelerated digital usage, online learning, remote working—and launching a fully digital, interactive next-generation newspaper at this time is leaning into that technology curve.
Vince Bzdek: As we were prototyping this—and we’ve been working on this for six months—we thought it would be good to have this up and running in time to cover the election and in time to add our reporting. So many people are dialed into the news. We have a lot of political reporting already with Colorado Politics that augments this and contributes to this…We felt like we should try to time this when people are really paying attention to the news and that may help us get some momentum.”
In your first editor’s note, Vince, you talked about the days when Denver was a two-paper town. But in the years since the Rocky Mountain News stopped publishing [Clarity Media Group owns the rights to the Rocky name and archive], a lot of other publications have launched. Denverite. The Colorado Sun. Colorado Newsline. The news ecosystem is so much different than it was a decade ago. Is there something in particular you thought you could bring that’s different? Something that isn’t being covered right now?
VB: What we’re hearing from readers right now is that they’re really liking the quantity and quality of balanced coverage we have every day. They were hungry for coverage that’s down the middle. That’s one of the sweet spots we’re looking for right now. Also a lot of these products you’re talking about are more niche products and verticals, where ours is more general interest. Anyone and everyone in Denver who wants to know what’s going on, we want them to come to us and we feel like that differentiates us from some of the other products that have launched.
CR: We come from the camp that the more local news the better. And we’re trying to contribute to that entire ecosystem, and you’re right. There’s been a lot of alternatives. Now there are a plethora of choices. We’re focused on producing high-quality local journalism and by that we mean straight and fair and balanced and non-agenda driven journalism. On the other side of that, we’re producing commentary and opinion on a daily basis that’s both local and national.
Is there any particular story that you’ve covered so far that stands out as a different type of coverage?
CR: Because we’re a digital product…we have later deadlines. So our report in the morning tends to be much more updated. The [presidential] debate comes to mind.
VR: One story that stands out to me is a piece we did about how drug overdose deaths are surging during the pandemic. We really took a statewide approach to that with some Denver voices in there and voices from other parts of the state. We really want to do those statewide impact stories.
How much statewide coverage do you expect to do?
CR: Our focus is Denver right now. We’re primarily focused on local news, but we’re covering the state, as well.
VB: We also have, every day, two state pages. We have a dedicated presence everyday to what’s going on in the state. We also have a dedicated suburban page in addition to six to eight Denver pages. We try to offer something for readers who are interested in what’s going on in the wide world of Colorado and the metro area.
You’re saying “pages.” I want to ask about the format, because your product feels unique—at least in the Denver market—in that it is digital, but it still looks like a newspaper. And the newsletter you send, it’s presented like the front page of a newspaper rather than a traditional newsletter. How did you decide on this format, and what are your readers saying about it?
CR: We’ve had a lot of feedback on it. One of the things we like about the digital newspaper is that it gives us the ability to incorporate multimedia in a traditional newspaper format. As you’re paging through our product, we’ve augmented it in a very interactive way with videos, with photo galleries, with direct links to documents and other things we might make reference to in the stories themselves. This product also has what we call “finish-ability.” It has a beginning, middle, and end, unlike a website that has just cascading breaking news all day. This gives you the ability at 5 a.m. to have a complete package of local news, opinions, and commentary, state news, etc. You get the complete package in the morning and you can step away from it. Our audience still has the opportunity to use the website, so it’s the best of both worlds.
VB: Part of what we’re doing as well is seeing if we can build the future of the newspaper a bit. We’re trying to experiment with a model that’s sustainable and that will take us forward into the future of journalism.
The newsletter, though—it’s the front page of a digital newspaper. What does the audience think? What’s the feedback?
CR: We have had feedback, but just that it’s unique. We haven’t had people say: This is a great newsletter but send me to the website and not the product. What we’ve been having is feedback saying this is really interesting. One of the reasons we’re bringing people directly to the digital newspaper is because it’s brand new and we want to expose as many people to it as possible to encourage them to subscribe.
How big is the Gazette team in Denver?
CR: We don’t get into specifics when it comes to personnel, but we’ve already hired reporters, page designers, news editors, digital editors. We’re going to continue to hire more.
Should we expect the Denver Gazette to have a more conservative editorial board than other Colorado newspapers? (After this interview was conducted, the Gazette editorial board released its list of endorsements, which include an endorsement for Republican Sen. Cory Gardner for U.S. Senate and Republican Lauren Boebert for U.S. House District 3.)
CR: We’ve already been producing editorials for a couple weeks now so I’d let our editorials speak for themselves. We’re going to present very strong, well-reasoned and well-researched arguments every day about the issues that are impacting Denver. I’m not sure anyone else in Denver can say that right now. We’re going to present the issues and we’re going to debate them.
VB: And we’re going to have a lot of them. We’re generally going to have four or more pages a day and we think that’s a good platform. We think that’s been missing in Denver. A real substantial place where opinions can be exchanged….We’re trying to solicit stakeholders and prominent players in Denver to write for us in this platform….We want to include a lot of voices.
As for the business model, are you under strict pressure to prove your viability? Are there any specific goals you’ll have to meet?
CR: We’re committed to the long haul. We have always been very financially focused in this company. We have goals for the size of the audience for subscription and revenue and benchmarks, and we’re really less than three weeks into this and we’re already ahead of our projection. This not something where we’re going to say a couple months in, ‘this is not something we’re sure is working.’
We are a consumer-revenue driven model, so we have a lot of experience in whether people will pay for a subscription to journalism [the Denver Gazette is free until after the election]. And we think that if you provide quality local journalism, people will pay for it. But we’re still not convinced that people will pay for just a website. We wanted to give them a product that the market and our potential subscribers saw great value in.