#newspapers thrive: The Coloradoan

Coloradoan reporters spin cotton candy at a Food Truck Rally which drew more than 1,000 attendees to the Coloradoan.

Knock down walls, build a bridge.

The roadmap to innovation was certainly more challenging for the Fort Collins Coloradoan than mere remodeling, but trace the roots and the trend stands out — evolution emerged when division receded.

“We work as one team,” Publisher Kathy Jack-Romero said. “There is a very transparent and open dialogue. We moved our entire staff up onto one floor and broke down the walls so we’re all sharing one space.”

“It’s not uncommon in this building to walk into a morning news meeting and see five advertising reps. It’s not uncommon to be in an afternoon advertising meeting and see editors.”

Jack-Romero is a Fort Collins veteran, having been at the paper for 10 years, the last two-plus as publisher. She hired Lauren Gustus, executive editor for two years, to oversee the newsroom.

Together, they’ve created a Coloradoan culture unafraid to explore new ideas, and they’re seeing dividends on the investment through an improved bottom line and critical praise.

Listen to them discuss the process and the same words come up: buy-in, transformation, experimentation, teamwork.

“We have made it very clear: We are going to take calculated risks and we will not win at everything,” the publisher said. “With every calculated risk we’re going to have a learning moment from it, and we’re going to have an exit strategy. The way to be innovative is to experiment our way to success. That’s mission critical.”

“Innovation can be a little hard to grasp because we (tend to) think of these big ‘ah-ha’ moments,” Gustus said. “… What we’ve tried to do is drill down and make it applicable to the day-to-day. … As we look at innovation, our hope is that all of those things over time add up and we see measurable results.”

The results are in, and they reveal one drawback to The Coloradoan’s open floor plan: not enough space to put up new awards from this year’s Colorado Press Association convention. The newspaper will be honored May 14, CPA’s 138th annual gathering, at the Denver West Sheraton, sweeping the Innovation Awards — Editorial Innovation and Newspaper Innovation Awards.

The Coloradoan’s contest submissions outline a series of newspaper-hosted events “rooted in journalism” but designed to “create community.”

The offerings range from secret suppers with local chefs to a summer hiking series to socially-conscious programs like a community-wide poverty simulation and a Nepal earthquake fundraiser, among others.

“The Coloradoan has done a great job engaging the community in ways that not only resonate with citizens, but gives back,” the contest judge wrote, adding highlighted events have contributed new revenue, increased subscriber retention, and expanded audience.

The newspaper strived to “continually engage with the community in ways aside from traditional target marketing,” the judge concluded.

The Coloradoan’s submission also highlighted its Eat+Drink Membership program appealing to a niche audience, expanding native services, and growing paid subscribers.

“They all speak to the emphasis placed on building strong relationships with our audience, our clients and our teammates,” Gustus wrote in the submission letter.

Consider the judge impressed.

“It is evident The Coloradoan spent much of 2015 focused on the future of news and journalism and what that means to their readers,” according to the comments. “… The Coloradoan has done a great job keeping up with the changing times and offering new ways to connect with current and potential readers.”

The Coloradoan, a Gannett property, established an engagement team in 2014 to reach its audience across platforms — public events, social media and traditional editorial space.

Gustus said the newspaper doesn’t cater specifically to print or digital. Rather, quality work is the priority.

“We focus first on finding and telling good stories,” Gustus said. “We think if we do that, that’s going to work across platforms. If we can develop a story arc that is relevant to our audience, it’ll be relevant in print and it’ll be relevant online and it’ll be relevant in the social space.”

“We don’t want to do anyone a disservice. We’ve got really loyal print readers and we’re grateful for that. And if we neglect the digital space, we’re not going to be here five to 10 years out to have this conversation.”

Change, the executive editor said, is The Coloradoan constant, reflecting both its industry and the rapidly-shifting community it covers.

Fort Collins, home to Colorado State University, is routinely listed among top communities in the country on quality of life lists. The city population is about 156,000, a number that does not include 30,000 or so CSU students.

The city, Gustus said, is grappling with the prospects of major growth, and it’s a key issue the newspaper covers. There’s concern new development may eventually price people out, and a rallying cry around town is “Not Boulder, no, not Boulder,” she said.

Economy is a consideration for the newspaper when developing new ideas and programs, from profit and loss prospects to affordability for readers.

“We try to engage certainly in revenue opportunities whenever we can, but it’s also important for us to deliver on our promise to Fort Collins to be a leader in the community,” Gustus said. “… Not everything needs to have a price tag attached to it, and that’s a conversation we have in the newsroom all the time.”

Another important investment the newspaper cited in its contest submissions was the relationships it tries to foster with employees. The newspaper opened an employee cafe in 2014, a meeting spot for colleagues to gather and unwind, and also hosts monthly get-togethers, like a Super Bowl celebration with wings, or happy hour with beer and cocktails for “big internal wins.”

The atmosphere promotes unity, reverberating down the line with open communication and a better product.

“It’s important that news and advertising both understand each other’s perspectives and jobs,” Gustus wrote. “Quality time together …help us get there.”

Jack-Romero said she looks across her newspaper and sees not holdouts, but eager contributors.

“It has been a journey to get where we’re at, and I can say confidently that everyone has bought in,” she said. “… There’s not one person on my team who doesn’t have their elbows on the table, leaning in, wanting to be a part of the solution.”