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‘Platform agnostic’: Team Swift is King of the Mountain

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What is a Swiftie, you may ask?

Well, if you look at many Swift Communications employees’ social media accounts that’s how they refer to (and hashtag - #swifties) themselves, denoting more of a teamwork lifestyle than just a job.

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One of the core values at Swift – a privately-owned media company operating in several Western states – is “apply fun to our work,” and at Swift’s largest operating unit, Colorado Mountain News Media, having fun while working hard as a team seems to be the way of life.

CMNM publications are in the middle of Colorado’s ski county, in world-class designations like Aspen, Vail and Steamboat Springs. The communities CMNM covers are known for their epic skiing and snowboarding — you’ll often find boards, bikes and other outdoor adventure gear inside CMNM offices and even next to staff desks.

CMNM communities are also famous for festivals, concerts and fine dining, so all that outdoor adventure and indoor accommodations can make living and working in those communities a lot of fun.

But what has made CMNM publications successful is much more than just a fun work and lifestyle environment. Talk with employees and you’ll hear that teamwork, professional development and a “platform agnostic” approach to disseminating content is what makes the different CMNM operations stand out against its peers.

John Stroud, a reporter at The Glenwood Springs Post Independent who was recently named that CMNM publication’s editor, has worked in the Glenwood Springs and Carbondale area for nearly 30 years and for CMNM the past 21.

“I always tell people I moved to the Roaring Fork Valley for the natural beauty and the lifestyle. The job came second,” said Stroud. “Fortunately, I quickly found a job in my field, and have had little desire to relocate.”

Since moving from Illinois after college, Stroud has experienced five different newspaper owners.

“What I really like about Swift, and especially the CMNM group, is the team approach to covering our communities,” Stroud said. “Instead of operating as separate newsrooms, it’s more like one big newsroom covering the north-central mountain region. It’s nice to be able to share stories and share ideas that have regional appeal, and to collaborate on covering some of the bigger issues that impact all our communities.”

Jim Morgan, CMNM’s outgoing general manager, also cited teamwork when describing what he’s most proud of in his 14-year tenure at CMNM.

“It’s not the awards or the financial success or the innovations, but the truly amazing team of very talented people we’ve brought together,” said Morgan, who is retiring at the end of March but will remain a consultant with the company. “We’ve focused on bringing on board the next generation of leaders and as I look across the CMNM landscape we have terrific talent in every operation. Our past success has been the result of their very good work, and our future success will likewise be the result of their very good work.”

Team members include Matt Sandberg, Swift’s director of marketing and innovation, and Ed Stoner, director of content. Both worked at CMNM publications before moving into their roles with the parent company. Sandberg began as an advertising account manager at Summit Daily in 2003, eventually serving as publisher for five years before moving to a Swift-wide role late in 2016. Stoner started with the company as a staff writer at the Vail Daily in 2003 and was promoted to managing editor before moving into his current role a year ago.

Stoner is focused on “breaking away from our print-oriented habits and workflows and being audience-first and data-driven in everything we do.

“We are meeting our audience when and where they are, using all of the digital storytelling tools that we have at our disposal,” Stoner said, pointing to the “On the Hill” video ski report series as an example. The popular series puts a reporter on the slopes daily, capturing ski conditions with a GoPro camera.

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He highlighted the company’s Newsroom of the Future initiative as an example of how CMNM publications are adapting to meet readers’ needs. The NOTF added personnel who serve as digital producers, product managers and digital coaches in each daily newsroom.

“We established company-wide engagement goals that each newsroom strives to meet. In the first year, our article page views increased 35 percent company wide,” Stoner said. Since 2012, digital as a percent of CMNM’s total revenue has grown from 8.5 percent to 17 percent and is on pace to reach 20 percent in 2018. Morgan said the greater engagement from the Newsroom of the Future initiative is driving that.

While Stoner focuses on getting news content to consumers via a variety of modern platforms, Sandberg’s focus is growing and diversifying revenues. This includes targeted digital ads, contests, video, and most-recently, voice-activated applications such as Google Home.

“We are doing a lot of testing around personalized content,” Sandberg said. “We are using AI to understand the customer, what their interests are, and creating a comprehensive picture of each individual to deliver products, services and content unique to that individual.”

Sandberg said Swift focuses on loyal customers – with the strategy of converting passive content users to more frequent, loyal users.

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“Our print readership remains very strong, online readership is growing at a tremendous rate, and we’re building out our audience through newsletters and emails, and we’re seeing tremendous growth there, as well,” he said.

While Sandberg and Stoner have been with the company for more than 15 years, Meg Boyer, publisher of Summit Daily, has been with CMNM two years; Lisa Schlichtman, editor of the Steamboat Pilot and Today, which was acquired by Swift in 2016, less than 18 months.

Last year, Boyer was one of Editor and Publisher’s national 25 Under 35, a feature highlighting “leaders guiding us into the future of publishing.” In that article, Boyer also mentioned teamwork as the most rewarding aspect of her job.

“I’m fortunate to work with an incredible team of people,” Boyer said. “We are committed to the news industry and to the community. We’re similarly committed to learning and growing every day, to taking risks, and to meeting our readers where they are — on their phones, tablets, computers and in print. Working with talented journalists, passionate marketing experts and a committed leadership team is by far the most rewarding aspect of my job. I’m the luckiest.”

With Morgan soon retiring, Boyer and Samantha Johnston, publisher of the Aspen Times, will take on additional responsibilities – Boyer as general manager CMNM-East and Johnston as general manager CMNM-West. Additionally, Bob Brown, who is the president and COO of Swift but who has always lived in the Vail Valley, will have a direct role with the Vail operations.

While she’s only worked at CMNM a few years, Boyer said it’s clear it’s where she belongs and where she will stay.

“There’s an emphasis on people and on professional development that I haven’t seen in my career,” she said. “Swifties truly care about each other, support each other and challenge each other. We’re a team.”

Schlichtman is a Swiftie who grew up in Missouri and served in various newspaper roles there before moving to Steamboat Springs five years ago.

“For the first time in my journalism career, I don’t feel I’m on an island trying to figure out this constantly changing industry on my own,” she said. “We now have shared resources, new technology and training that helps our team do their jobs better and sets them up for success. … And Swift through various initiatives has challenged me to be more innovative and audience-focused than ever before.”

Schlichtman points to the many digital innovations the company is testing and incorporating as a sign of positive things to come. Some of those innovations include 360 videos and a focused social media strategy that includes Facebook Live. The digital initiatives, according to Schlichtman, give the publication a daily reach of more than 50,000. Not too shabby, considering Steamboat Springs’ population is around 15,000.

“We used to say that we are a digital-first publication, but I think a better term is platform agnostic,” she said. “Thanks to detailed analytics and a new digital engagement editor we are able to closely track engagement, and we are hyper-focused on digital growth. … The strength of our audience is what positions us for success and provides an undisputable value proposition for our advertisers, so we are always looking for new tools and strategies to build audience on all platforms.”

Both Boyer and Schlichtman have introduced community engagement events. Boyer’s monthly community meeting hosted by Summit Daily has grown from a small gathering to a popular event that typically draws more than 150 local and part-time residents. And Schlichtman, among other community activities, instituted Coffee and Newspaper events that are well attended by the Steamboat Springs community.

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While Swift and CMNM are testing and embracing new platforms, technologies and strategies, their core products remain print. In some ski resorts like Vail or Aspen, where the saying goes that “billionaires are pushing out the millionaires,” providing higher-end products through targeted distribution has worked well in marketing the community’s businesses – be it real estate or art or fine dining – to wealthy residents and tourists.

CMNM’s free-distribution business model allows for greater flexibility in managing circulation, taking advantage of seasonal fluctuation in visitor traffic, and positioning products to target very specific audiences, Morgan said. Across the Colorado markets, the company publishes five daily newspapers, 11 non-daily newspapers and has more than 50 lifestyle and regional magazines titles.

“Too often, I think people equate innovation in our industry as moving away from print and that simply is wrong,” said Morgan. “As it relates to products, our focus should be on diversifying but recognizing the best way to diversify is create new products that are related to our core print business.

“Yes, digital provides opportunity and innovation, and we have embraced digital in a big way across all our markets,” continued Morgan, “but the reality is our business is simply to create content, including marketing and advertising content, and disseminate it in the best and most efficient way to reach and engage the largest audience. Doing that is not exclusive to either print or digital. I preach to our teams that we must always be platform agnostic.”

In some areas and with some publications across the industry times are tough. Some metro daily publications have folded, some newspapers are cutting the number of editions published, and others have whittled staff. CMNM publications, on the other hand, remain profitable while providing quality, award-winning journalism for their communities.

Morgan said one of his biggest challenges was facing down the harbingers of doom and recognizing whether they’re saying “print is dead” or “news is fake,” none of that is new.

“A recent trade publication piece had a headline along the lines of ‘Industry in Crisis,’ and I thought that a bit overly dramatic,” he said. “Certainly we are an industry in the midst of change, and we can’t expect the past to provide the answer to the future, but even if one buys into the notion of it being a crisis, I believe new thinking, innovation, better strategies, better products and better execution will win the day.”

Boyer agrees.

“Across Colorado Mountain News Media, our print products continue to be exceptionally strong,” she said. “They are well-read and beloved, but the nationwide message that ‘print is dead’ doesn’t have an asterisk next to it that says ‘except in Colorado resort markets where papers are distributed at no charge.’ Marketing is also becoming more fragmented every day with new options for advertisers popping up left and right. The notion of ‘fake news’ isn’t helping our cause either. To overcome those messages, we have to be active in our communities, telling our story and proving our effectiveness. We have to earn our advertisers' business more than ever, but we’re up for the challenge.”