InDenver Times Misses Sub Target, Fractures

Yesterday the Denver Post reported that the InDenver Times, failed by a long shot to get the 50,000 subscribers it needed to survive. The InDenver Times is an online news service started by30 journalists who lost their jobs after the Rocky Mountain News closed its doors at the end of February. The online replacement for the 150-year-old print publication was backed by three businessmen who are now stepping away from their original plan since only 3,000 subscriptions were sold.

So, there is now a split in the staff. Some, like the print paper's former editor plan to keep going with the original plan for the site (with fewer staffers). Meanwhile, the backers, who own the InDenver Times name and site, plan to continue with another online venture that will, doubtless, compete with the splinter site.

This is bad news on a number of fronts.

First, 3,000 subscriptions is a poor showing. The fact that the InDenver Times crew asked for subscriptions prior to actually producing any news didn't help their effort (I donated anyway, softie that I am). So, it doesn't suggest that a local subscription model is complete folly, just partial folly.

Second, having two competing online organs in a town with no print product isn't smart. Neither will probably do well as ad rates will diminish as the two race to the bottom. Without a print Goliath to pit themselves against jointly, they'll become enemies instead of allies.

I was hoping InDenver Times would succeed. It's failure isn't a death nell for online local journalism. But it certainly is not any reason for celebration.




The New Cost of News

What does journalism cost? That’s a question that’s being batted around a lot lately as the economic case for and against traditional newsrooms gets made in the press, on the Web, and certainly across well-polished boardroom tables.

Recently on J-Source [] Kirk LaPointe, the managing editor of the Vancouver Sun, argued that when the cost of news is sliced and diced a lot of pricey items like infrastructure, IT, HR, salespeoples’ salaries, legal fees, marketing etc. aren’t tossed into the mix.

He’s right, running a regular old school newsroom is expensive and goes far beyond journalists’ pay envelopes. The Globe and Mail’s cleaning staff wages, for example, are probably the same as the salaries of everybody at THIS magazine, twice over.

But, to me, LaPointe isn’t making a case for how expensive news gathering must be. He’s just itemizing the upper limit. So, to balance that model out, let’s examine the lower limit:

I’m on the board of rabble and get to see the balance sheets, which I will share with you now. Last year rabble ran its entire national news operation on a budget of $203,140.41. That’s all in: salaries, travel, marketing, IT, redesign - the whole nine yards.

The nine folks who get paid, most often get paid for just one day of work per week. They all get the same salary, from editor, to podcast network producer to publisher. And, they all work a ridiculous number of volunteer hours and, more often, days per week. Many more folks across Canada volunteer serious time each week posting to blogs, consulting, doing graphic design or the hundreds of other tasks that make an online news site tick, day after day, year after year. All that effort doesn’t get counted in the our balance sheet. If it did, it would be on the tab marked “Gift Economy” or perhaps the one marked “Cognitive Surplus”. Neither of those categories, I’ll wager, appear on the spreadsheet Mr. LaPointe used to calculate the costs of doing the news business, old school.

It is clear that the model outlined by LaPointe is failing and is not sustainable - for all sorts of reasons, only some of which roost with the newsrooms themselves. A centralized, non-virtual newsroom with infrastructure, delivery and production costs isn’t cutting it in many markets. It just can’t generate the kinds of return on investment shareholders want to see these days.

It’s also clear that the model isn’t sustainable, or, at least, fair and scalable. Staff and volunteers contribute willingly to the gift economy that makes rabble run. But, that is a fragile well to drink from for a sustained period, especially during an economic drought. And, while we have depended upon the kindness of non-strangers, the gift/reward ratio needs to tilt a little more in their favour.

So, there are sustainability issues on both ends of the economic scale: traditional newsrooms at one end, rabble at the other. But, I’d argue the sweet spot, that marvellous, magical mix of altruism, recognition, ego-satisfaction and cash-for-effort that can sustain a news venture is much closer to the rabble end of the spectrum.

So, if you want to find a model for a workable future news organization, its probably in our neck of the woods. And, I think it’s going to be far easier for rabble and its supporters (and future supporters) to slid rabble up the scale a bit towards the sweet spot than it will be for newspapers with all their baggage to become frictionless enough to slide down.

I don’t argue with LaPointe’s view of the true cost of traditional newsrooms. But, there is a big difference between what news has cost and what news has to cost.

And, biased though I am, I think rabble and other news organizations that depend on the power of the crowd, the gifts of the like-minded and which have harnessed and focussed the renewable energy of concerned citizens are closer to a modern media model than anything else I’ve seen. I think we need to think about news the way some of us have come to think about produce. We should grow our own, and think local. We should cover ourselves, take civic responsibility to inform ourselves and our neighbours and not depend on large, expensive and unwieldy newsrooms to do it for us. Many of them have clanked and bellowed ungently into their good nights.

It is time for the small and agile. We’re cheap, but, goddammit, we’re worth it.


Mike Brcic of Bikes Without Borders

Yesterday I met with Mike Brcic, the communications guy at the Centre for Social Innovation. I was discussing the possibility of doing videos for rabbletv about tenants at CSI. Mike and I then got talking about his charity, Bikes Without Borders. Here's a short interview I did with Mike about the great work he does in Africa.


Video of My Talk "What's Wrong With Our Newspapers?"

Last week I had the honour of speaking at event "What's Wrong With Our Newspapers?" with Linda McQuaig and Peter C. Newman. Here's a video of my remarks that evening. Thanks to rabble's ace volunteer, Tor Sandberg for recording it.


A Little Bit About Webcams

A short discussion of a couple of webcams I like and some pointers about using webcams in general. I shot this in HD using a simple studio setup.