Durango Herald striving for excellence, innovation reflected in company motto

 A national story broke in late summer 2015 within the Durango Herald’s coverage area as an estimated three million gallons of contaminated runoff from Gold King

Mine was released into Cement Creek, making its way to the Animas River.

Herald Photo Editor Jerry McBride’s stark image of the once-blue river tainted a putrid orange left an impression — it made the New York Times, ran on the Denver Post’s front page, and was shared across the world online.

As Herald Senior Editor Amy Maestas said, “If ever there was an example of a picture worth a thousand words, that’s the example.”

The Gold King spill was a disaster, declared as much by the governor, and reignited vigorous debate about the role of government, regulations and environmental cleanup. But simultaneously, the coverage it required represented an opportunity for the Herald to own the story, with numerous outside eyes watching.

+1 

In this, the daily newspaper in a town of about 18,000 residents, established since 1881, didn’t fail to deliver to readers in its own backyard, as well as those across the globe. Its coverage, Ballantine Communications CEO Doug Bennett said, equaled that of a major metro.

Durango, Maestas said, is out of the way, almost isolated, closer to Albuquerque than Denver. It sometimes feels forgotten among Colorado cities, an outpost on the edge of the state. Minus a competitor, it was left to the Herald, the only source of local news in La Plata County, to tell the story across multiple platforms.

“That was a really important time for us on a really big issue,” said Maestas, who has been with the Herald for almost 20 years, rising through the ranks from reporter to senior editor.

It’s not unusual, she said, for a story out of the area to go national. But, what separated Gold King from other occasions was that it came about two years into a reboot of the newspaper, a direction coinciding with Bennett’s new leadership.

He was named Ballantine CEO in 2013. Other company properties include The Journal, covering Cortez, Dolores and Mancos; The Pine River Times covering Bayfield; and DGO, a free weekly covering Durango’s entertainment, arts, food and events scene.

Bennett said he wasn’t brought in to transform Ballantine properties as much as he was to “re-engineer” them by improving digital operations and opening new channels of revenue.

Bennett, along with Maestas, who he promoted, has guided Durango through an effort to “meet the audience where they are,” transitioning to a mindset that emphasizes digital at least as much as print.

The efforts seemingly converged — and paid off — on the Gold King coverage. Website traffic, Bennett said, was 10 times greater for two weeks straight. McBride’s photo went seemingly everywhere. A before and after video was shared more than 8,000 times.

The Herald posted stories regularly to social media and the website, sent text alerts, and even streamed town hall meetings live, among other strategic editorial decisions.

“We had this thing covered from every aspect — from the impact to people, the community, businesses,” Bennett said.

“I think it’s what we are set up to do, if needed. And yes, we worked a lot of long hours, but I wouldn’t call it above and beyond. We’re set up to be a source of information for our communities.”

Audience, Bennett said, is one of the primary considerations at the Herald, reflecting today’s technology and the current state of the industry.

“If we’re not pushing things out to Facebook, Twitter, we’re missing an opportunity to engage with our audience,” he said. “One big conversation here is always around audience. We don’t focus on print or digital or mobile, we focus on audience. The format shouldn’t matter — it’s where is our audience? How do they consume information? How do we reach them?”

Changing up the news operation didn’t come without a healthy dose of skepticism from inside the Herald, however. Some in the newsroom took convincing.

“There was still a mentality with some — I’m not going to say all — of the newsroom that this was going to hurt print readership,” Bennett said. “… There was still that mentality. Living in a metro area prior to Durango, that was kind of the way people thought four and five, even six years ago. That had pretty much gone away because people understood if you really want to grow your audience, you have to grow it online, you’re not going to grow it in print.

“We still had to go back and do a lot of proving to the staff on why it was important.”

He recalled a meeting early in the process with the news staff. He displayed a graph on web traffic that showed the sites busy at 8 and 9 a.m. but tailing off throughout the day, without new content to keep readers refreshing.

“Most of the more progressive digital content organizations recognize the importance of keeping the traffic steady all throughout the day,” Bennett said. “So we started to post a few stories, and I was able to show them through statistics they were actually able to hold the audience. … The more people expected it to check out the web, the more they would come through.”

“We did it all through continuing to measure everything that happened, and then showing them, basically, in a graphical sense, as to why that’s important and how that’s impacting our audience. Over time, they started to understand.”

Maestas said she understands cultural changes within organizations sometimes take years to mature, but the Herald’s progression has been accelerated. It’s still a work in progress, but important strides have been made, she said.

“What we’ve been able to do is to get a team in place of people, reporters, editors, who are understanding that we need to move forward in this digital world, we need to respond to the way readers are now consuming us and that we have to put fully our efforts into that,” the senior editor said. “Part of that requires educating them, that requires a constant discussion to see where people are feeling anxious about any job changes they’re going through. By and large, we’ve had very good success. We’re not done, we still have a lot more to do.”

Maestas compared her newsroom’s new direction to how the Associated Press has historically operated.

AP “gets news out as soon as there is news, and then comes back and does write-throughs, does follow-ups on the stories, and it does not diminish the quality of journalism,” she said.

“We may not do that with every single story … but by and large the daily stories we can write-through and operate the same way that AP does.”

If newsroom staffers needed an example of a convert to the new approach, they didn’t need to look beyond Maestas, a veteran journalist who came up in the industry when it was still print centric.

“What are our options? Our options are either to leave or to get on board with it and find a way,” she said. “… I don’t think they (quality journalism and a digital approach) cannot exist together.”

“I’ve adopted the mindset because I understand that is where our industry is going and I’m committed to a family-owned, community newspaper that cannot rest on its laurels of being the main source of news in this town. … If we want to remain relevant, like Doug said, we have to meet (readers) where they are. That is enough information for me to understand we have to evolve.”

Of course, journalism is a business, and like any business, the bottom line tends to have final say on whether change was worth the investment.

Bennett said he couldn’t get into specifics about finances of the last couple of years, but in general, he believes the Herald is in better shape today than it was a couple of years ago, and reflects the Ballantine motto, “Business without borders,” an ode to excellence and innovation.

“Some of the things we’re doing, especially in online video, those are still in what I call the investment years,” he said. “We’re trying to make sure people understand we can create videos built for millennials. We’re building an audience, but it takes time to get advertisers to understand the importance of millennials, let alone the importance of video, so that’s one thing.”

The CEO said the company has seen declines in print advertising, “like everyone else,” but double digit growth in its digital efforts.

“Is it enough to replace the decline in print dollars? Not yet, but it’s a heck of a lot closer than we were a couple of years ago. So I think we’re getting there,” he said. “We’ve actually had a couple of months (in 2015) that we’ve actually exceeded prior years’ revenues, and we’re doing that because we’re selling a lot of additional products, too.”

“We’re reinventing the business. We’re in the advertising business and we’re in the content business. We’ve got to be good at both.”