Five years ago, had you walked through The Gazette’s offices in Colorado Springs and talked with staff, you probably would have come away thinking the paper was in dire straits. The owners had recently gone through bankruptcy, revenue was down and morale was low.
Fast forward to today, and the scene is different. Talking with staff, you'll hear a different story — a story filled with positive buzz.
That story is also a different narrative than many metro and larger news publications around the country, many of which face budget cuts and layoffs. The Gazette, meanwhile, is utilizing engaged local ownership and cutting-edge innovation to significantly expand.
Before digging into the present and future at The Gazette, a little history: The Gazette first printed in 1873, and in 1946, the publication merged with the Colorado Springs Evening Telegraph. Today it is the second-largest newspaper in Colorado, with a circulation nearing 100,000 on Sunday.
Autumn 2012 marked another transformation. Publisher Dan Steever was hired, and Clarity Media Group, which is owned by Colorado-based entrepreneur Philip Anschutz, purchased The Gazette from the now defunct Freedom Communications.
Steever is not your typical publisher, with no prior newspaper experience before taking the reins at The Gazette. What Steever does bring to the table is decades of experience in business and marketing, having held leadership positions at ADVO, Marketing Force, Broderbund Software and PromoWorks.
"For the first couple years, we had to stabilize the business. We had to turn things around," Steever said.
One of Steever's first hires was Stephanie Weber — VP of audience, digital development and IT — who is also not your typical newspaper person. Weber's background is computer programming, and she began her career as a software engineer. She brings years of experience in increasing digital growth through knowledge and technology.
Weber, who heads up the Gazette's innovation lab, describes her role as bringing a Silicon Valley approach to the newspaper business.
"I'm driven to innovate through developing products that provide content in a variety of different media spaces," she said. "We hire from outside of the industry for our innovation lab, bringing in fresh perspectives and coming up with different ideas. We then build prototypes, see if the public finds it palatable, and if so, build the larger products out from there."
Another hire Steever is particularly proud of is Executive Editor Vincent Bzdek, a Colorado native whose distinguished career began with "sweeping floors and developing film" at the Brush News-Tribune in Brush, Colo., which his parents owned and his grandparents before them. He spent years as the news editor at The Denver Post, before taking a job in D.C. at The Washington Post, where he worked for 18 years as a features writer, news director and front-page editor, among other roles.
Bzdek said he brings to The Gazette the digital innovation that The Washington Post is known for, including video production, producing content for the web and expanding social media platforms and engagement.
"We are trying to be a multi-media company and be digital first," Bzdek said. "We try to get the stories up on the website, then develop those stories further for print, but it's the website first. Our mandate is when a story breaks, we get a couple sentences up on the website, email an alert to our subscribers, and then build out the story throughout the day. A different editor works the article for print, and the paper provides more in-depth coverage."
Bzdek also brought a new marketing campaign.
"Trends change, governments change, but good journalism doesn't," he said. "The Gazette's been doing this for 110 years. We have traditions and standards that we adhere to. Good journalism has real value when there is so much fake news. We firmly believe journalism can have a resurgence, and that we are at the forefront of that resurgence in Colorado."
New mediums, experienced talent
The tech-savvy, digital-first strategy at The Gazette includes hiring experienced talent and buying or creating new platforms.
Clarity Media — the owner of The Gazette — recently purchased the weeklies The Pikes Peak Courier, The Tri-Lakes Tribune, The Cheyenne Edition, and The Woodmen Edition, all of which provide hyper-local news for their communities.
When announcing the purchase of the latest two weeklies, Stever said in a September 2016 Gazette article, "Localized news, down to the neighborhood and school district level, is in demand now more than ever. While national and international news sources are plentiful, high-quality and reliable news from individual neighborhoods is scarce, and we are happy to be making another investment to help residents."
Another recent purchase was The Colorado Statesman, a weekly publication first started back in 1898, which has now merged into Colorado Politics. And speaking of hiring talent, Colorado Politics is brimming with it.
The first hire for Colorado Politics was Editor Joey Bunch, a 30-year veteran reporter whose stints include 14 years at The Denver Post. Bunch brings a wealth of knowledge and contacts, not to mention a Pulitzer Prize and a few more Pulitzer nominations.
"There is a lot of enthusiasm for this (Colorado Politics) project; the reception has been phenomenal," Bunch said. "We are breaking stories and people are coming to us for breaking stories."
Colorado Politics' focus is online content, but they also produce a print newspaper, which will soon transition to a glossy magazine. The audience is politically-engaged people in the state — everyone from the governor to concerned residents seeking information on what's happening at the state capitol. And Colorado Politics is growing; website visits doubled in the past year.
"Our mission is to be fair," Bunch said. "A lot of folks thought we would be partisan, but that's not what we do. There is no push to be conservative, no push to be liberal. People see credibility in journalism that is fair, and that's what we provide."
Other top-talent hires made by The Gazette or related properties include experienced, respected names in Colorado journalism, including Woody Paige, Jim Trotter, John Boogert, Earnest Luning and Dan Njegomir, to name a few.
Another new brand for The Gazette's parent company is OutThere Colorado, which is an online resource for outdoor adventure in Colorado. The OutThere Colorado staff works in the same Colorado Springs office as The Gazette, but it's a different kind of media experience, focused solely on Colorado's outstanding outdoor adventure opportunities and offering that in formats as diverse as 360 video and virtual reality.
OutThere Colorado is Weber's baby — she's the president and responsible for hiring.
"I am immensely satisfied in the progress and momentum we've achieved," she said. "It's invigorating."
As most everyone in the news business knows, revenue is key, and The Gazette is no exception. Vice President of Sales Wanda Artus-Cooper was brought on to spearhead advertising efforts.
Three key initiatives Artus-Cooper is in charge of implementing are:
- pay for performance
- targeting messages beyond The Gazette's print product to include highly-targeted digital advertising
- hosting events from small community conversations to large fundraisers
"Selling efforts today need to be much more polished and fact-based strategic than even a few years ago," Artus-Cooper said. "We are employing much more sophisticated vertical platforms to help advertisers increase their ROI and target market to the best potential audience."
Targeted marketing is a top priority for Steever.
"The thing that local newspapers have that can sustain them is the knowledge of local customers," Steever said. "We provide more knowledge of segments of people in our market so we can develop content they value and enjoy enough that our content becomes a daily routine in their life. We want our content to be habit forming, and it's habit forming when targeted to the needs of our customers."
Benefit of local ownership
Despite growth, the Gazette has faced criticism. They were accused of blurring the line between editorial and news reporting in a four-part marijuana series in March 2015, along with concerns that the publication's owner, Philip Anschutz, may have controlled content on a notable story or two.
Steever would like to set this record straight.
"There is zero involvement with ownership on the news side of the business. Vince (Bzdek) will tell you that. (Former editor) Joe Hight will tell you that," said Steever, who noted that he does rely on the expertise of Ryan McKibben, a career newspaper professional and former Denver Post publisher, who is now the president and CEO of Clarity Media Group. "That's the only interaction with ownership there is."
The owner's son, Christian Anshutz, is on the editorial board of The Gazette, and does have a voice in editorial decisions, but as Steever puts it, he is one voice among several on the editorial board.
The criticism The Gazette has faced has been due to a handful of specific instances, and as Steever points out, local ownership by someone who cares about the community has benefits.
"Local ownership will preserve this industry," Steever said. "Local owners want the industry to survive. Since the Gazette has local investors willing to invest in good, local journalism, we have a path to not just strive, but maybe also thrive.
"We strongly believe there is a solution for our business," Steever continued. "Many people believe as we do that local market newspapers have never been needed more by their communities, for our country, and for the preservation of democracy. There are solutions to the issues and challenges we face that are being worked on right now that will transform this business."
This article was originally published in CPA's quarterly magazine PressNext. Click here to subscribe and have your print copy delivered.