When Denver’s Rocky Mountain News closed last month, hundreds of journalists found themselves looking for work. Some of them, though, aren’t waiting for another newsroom to call. They’re busy building their own, online.
OJR talked this week with Steve Foster, up until last month the Rocky’s assistant sports editor for interactive, who has launched his own effort [America’s Fish] to provide an online home for several other former Rocky reporters and columnists. Foster is a graduate of the University of South Dakota who has done stints at the Longmont (Colo.) Daily Times-Call and Chicago Sun-Times, in addition to the Rocky Mountain News.
Foster has helped build a collection of WordPress-powered sites that are provided a new home for the Rocky’s former sports cartoonist and major-league baseball beat staff, among others. His efforts provide one blueprint for other journalists who soon might be facing the same situation, as other newspapers around the country slip toward closure.
OJR: Tell us about America’s Fish, what sites you are involved with publishing and what other former Rocky staffers are involved.
Foster: America’s Fish is a small publishing company I’m in the process of starting to help my friends and former co-workers make the transition to online publishing. I’m new to Web design myself. While had some basic HTML and CSS experience, I had never worked in Web design regularly before last May [when Foster rejoined the Rocky]. I wanted to do this because I hadn’t learned everything I wanted to learn. I believe totally in online publishing as the direction where media and news is going, but I had only about six months experience when Scripps announced it was going to try to sell the Rocky. I needed to keep doing new things because I had plenty to learn. So I started a blog for myself (which has been woefully neglected by me) called AmericasFish.com. I helped our sports cartoonist, Drew Litton, get settled in a blog for himself at DrewLitton.com. I launched http://www.insidetherockies.com/InsidetheRockies.com, a Colorado Rockies news site, with baseball writers Tracy Ringolsby and Jack Etkin, and am working on a handful of others at the moment.
OJR: When did you start planning these websites? Who sought out whom around the Rocky newsroom?
Foster: The initial idea was borne of panic. What do we now? My initial concern personally was what happens if the Rocky website shuts down? I have spent most of my career as a news designer and I have boxes in my closet full of pages I designed. If the website I had been working on for just a few months shut down, I would have no clips. I started building sites to have something to show around. Drew Litton is a close friend and we had talks about what he would be doing after and I volunteered to build a site for him. In the days before the announcement that Scripps was closing the Rocky, Tracy Ringolsby approached me about starting a site together. We launched that site just seven days after he approached me.
OJR: Did you get any publicity from the Rocky in its final days: e.g. URLs in the paper, redirects, links in Rocky e-mails or from the website? How are you publicizing the sites now?
Foster: No publicity. In fact, up until the e-mail arrived saying to meet in the newsroom for an important announcement, I deeply believed that it was going to end fine, and the Rocky would live on. I believed that what I was building on the side would never be needed and so I didn’t think of publicizing them. I believe Drew added a link to his Rocky blog telling readers they could find him at his new site, but that was all. Most of the linking was done through IwantmyRocky.com, a website I set up with some co-workers in December after the Scripps announcement.
OJR: What is the typical workflow, both for you and the other former Rocky staffers, to operate these sites? How does that compare with what you were all doing on a day-to-day basis before the Rocky closed?
Foster: Oddly, my first week of unemployment was one of the busiest weeks of my life. The site IwantmyRocky.com is being operated all day by former members of the Rocky copy desk, a group organized by my wife Alex, who was a part-time copy editor on the staff. With one exception, that group has primarily dealt with news in the traditional workflow, reporter files, editor reads, copy editor reads, slot reads, proof, publish. Now it’s more backreading copy that has already been posted, or read and post. The workflow doesn’t compare at all, really.
Inside the Rockies is generally handled by whoever is writing for that day. Tracy worked up a schedule for who is responsible for game recaps, and Tracy and Jack post their stories whenever they have them. I do some backreading as a copy editor. The biggest change I suppose is writers need to be more vigilant about their own copy.
OJR: One of the prominent complaints from print-side journalists who get involved in the Web is that they have to work for two publications – the print paper and the website. Obviously, with the print side gone now, that creates at least the opportunity to try some new things on the Web side. Tell us about what former Rocky staffers are doing now, if anything, with these websites that they might not have had the time to do when they had to get the paper out everyday.
Foster: That’s a common complaint and one I was dealing with daily up until a few days ago. Despite the relative success of what we have started here, I wish I was still dealing with that complaint. But it is the fundamental problem with online news production by a traditional newspaper staff. On the Web, the news needs to be there as soon it happens. In the newspaper, the news is there when it’s gone through the traditional workflow, gone to the plateroom and the press, and the delivery trucks to the front door. The immediacy is new for a lot of people. I can’t speak for how they feel about it or how they are approaching it in a new way, but the daunting issue I had to deal with when I moved to the Web a few months ago was that every mistake I made was visible as soon as I made it.
OJR: What’s the initial traffic on the sites look like, and how does that compare with what the equivalent sections on the old Rocky website were getting before it closed?
Foster: Traffic is good. We’ve seen a dramatic rise in traffic on IwantmyRocky.com since we have begun publishing news there in the last few days. InsidetheRockies.com has been really steady since it launched and compares favorably with Colorado Rockies coverage on the old website.
OJR: What’s your long-term plan? Do you and other former Rocky staffers see these sites as long-term publications, or more of a way to keep your names out there while you look for work elsewhere?
Foster: IwantmyRocky.com is not a long-term publication in its current incarnation. It is placeholder, a place to gather while we figure out the next step. Those who have been contributing to the site believe as I do that Scripps greatly undervalued their brand names and talent when they put a price on the newspaper. Gathering here allows us all to continue to report and not be forgotten. For some, it is therapy if nothing else. This is the second straight year I’ve been laid off from a newspaper and keeping myself busy that first week felt good.
The other sites, InsidetheRockies.com and DrewLitton.com and the others I’m working on launching are as long-term as the contributors want to contribute. In all but InsidetheRockies.com, I am merely the designer and hoster.
OJR: What’s the revenue model at this point? I’ve noticed Google AdSense. Are direct ad sales part of your plan? If so, who is working on that? Did you bring anyone from the Rocky’s sales team to help you sell ads on these sites?
Foster: There actually was no Rocky sales team to speak of. Advertising for the Rocky and the Denver Post was handled by the Denver Newspaper Agency under the Joint Operating Agreement, and those in ad sales still have jobs for the moment. We put AdSense advertising on IwantmyRocky.com just to recoup some of the money we spent on the domain name and hosting and some costs associated with our movement to save the newspaper. It has no revenue model because there is not intention to make money from that site. What develops after that, well, who knows? It’s probably too early to speculate. But I believe absolutely that the right model exists to support aggressive reporting on the Internet.
As for the other sites, we are looking to partner with sites in revenue-sharing deals, and if we get big enough look for ad sales help from someone willing to work on commission.
OJR: What do you wish you could have gotten in place before the Rocky went under, but weren’t able to?
Foster: Nothing, really, other than the things I didn’t finish on the Rocky Mountain News website. Up until the day we got the word, I was building out parts of that site and that was all I was focused on. The disappointment for me was that we had really big plans for RockyMountainNews.com this year that just dissipated.
OJR: Who else from the Rocky’s staff (if anyone) do you know of who’s also publishing their own websites, but with whom you are not working?
Foster: I know Ed Stein, the paper’s editorial cartoonist has a blog. [There are] a handful of others — we’re still collecting those addresses for the IwantmyRocky.com site.
OJR: What kind of support (links, coverage, advice, etc.) would you like to see from other journalists, both at surviving newspapers and independent online sites, to help you and the other former Rocky staffers who are publishing online?
Foster: I think this is going to be a brutal year in our industry. More papers will go through exactly what we are going through now. We’re not asking for help other than to keep reading, and if you like what we’ve got, when the time comes, subscribe. We’ll do the same for you. I want to see more reporters not be afraid to try this. And not just reporters. The copy editors and designers who work behind the scenes who are experts, too. This is the turning point in journalism. This is where it all changes, one way or another, and we either take control or lose control.