Life, online, after the Rocky Mountain News

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 I helped our sports cartoonist, Drew Litton, get settled in a blog for himself at I launched, 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, 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 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 since we have begun publishing news there in the last few days. 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: 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, and and the others I’m working on launching are as long-term as the contributors want to contribute. In all but, 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 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 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 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.

Someone's going to get rich in Denver next week…

…and then, someone else will get rich later this year in San Francisco, Seattle, Philadelphia, Miami and Minneapolis if papers in those cities close, as they are rumored.

By now, you’ve heard that the Rocky Mountain News in Denver is publishing its final edition today. Owner E.W. Scripps is closing Colorado’s oldest newspaper, two months shy of its 150th anniversary. I write those words with a deep sigh, as I used to work for the Rocky, and consider my experience there essential to my development both as an online journalist and online entrepreneur.

For a little over three years I edited the Rocky’s website, and I remain darned proud of the work a tiny staff did during that period. But what does the Rocky’s closing have to do with someone getting rich? Hundreds of journalists just lost their jobs!

Yes, and hundreds of local advertisers just lost the publication that they were using to connect with local readers. Those advertisers have budgeted the money they would have spent, some have even written checks and will await reimbursement from the Rocky for ads never run.

With the economy tanking, some of those advertisers, I suspect, will just bank the money and forget about the ads. But smart businesses will not. They still need to reach local consumers.

Like lottery money falling from the sky, that advertising cash will land somewhere. The Denver Post will pick up some, I’m sure. So might local TV, radio and direct mail vendors.

But with thousands of now-former Rocky readers looking for a new daily news source, there’s a huge opportunity here for someone to get rich. Just put some of those readers together with some of those advertisers, using a fresh new online publication, and without the capital and corporate overhead, JOA obligations and debt that’s weighing down so many newspapers across the country.

Perhaps Scripps could have done that with But, according to Rocky website editor Mike Noe’s Twitter feed last night, JOA partner MediaNews (owner of the Denver Post) wouldn’t let them, undoubtedly eyeing a newspaper monopoly in Denver for itself. Still, Scripps retains its ownership of the Rocky’s masthead, archives and URLs and is offering them for sale to any interested third party, without the entanglement of the JOA that bound Scripps.

A new online news publisher need not capture all of the Rocky’s former readers, or advertisers, to do well. If a former Rocky reporter, or a small group working together, managed to claim just a few advertisers and a few thousand daily readers, they easily could clear more money than they did working at the Rocky. (Heck, I’m making more from my websites than I ever did working at the RMN.)

Yesterday, on Twitter I urged the Rocky to run today in print the URLs of its reporters who will maintain their own blogs and websites, so that Rocky readers can continue to follow their favorite writers, and to help these former staffers start building the readership that they’ll need to create profitable websites. I don’t know yet if they did that or not. But I would urge Guild leaders at other troubled newspapers to think about getting that into their contracts – if the paper goes down, you print our members’ URLs on the last day.

Unfortunately, I fear that most Rocky staffers will not build or become part of profitable Denver-area news websites. But long odds are not impossible. The Rocky has a long history of online innovation, and with Noe’s assistance and the leadership of editor John Temple, that attitude has spread throughout the newsroom, in ways that it wasn’t allowed to when I worked there.

The Rocky was one of the first newspapers in the United States to embrace user-generated content, with reader-driven interactivity in entertainment, features and opinion sections as far back as 1998.

In the late 1990s, the Rocky had what might have been the industry’s first proto-“podcast” – a local studio recorded voice actors reading the paper’s top stories before dawn each weekday, which we made available as an MP3 download on the site. There was no RSS back then, so people had to come to the site each day to download the file. And there were no iPods, either, in fact, we promoted that people could “listen to the paper on their Diamond Rio.” (You may consider yourself a true Geezer Geek if you remember that early MP3 player.)

And in 1999, we live-“blogged” the aftermath of the Columbine school shootings, before we, or anyone else, knew what a blog was. We just posted fresh line-by-line updates to the site’s homepage as we got them from any sources we could find, not waiting for a staff writer to flesh them into a traditional, narrative story.

In the years since I left, the Rocky’s developed rich, reader-driven prep sports applications, as well as gorgeous interactive narratives, driven by a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo staff that has embraced multimedia. (Click around “Best of the Rocky” on And it helped build one of the industry’s first large-scale efforts at reader-driven “hyperlocal” news coverage.

There’s a hell of a lot of online talent at the Rocky Mountain News. And a healthy amount of advertising dollars to support it. And readers who want to follow that talent. Just because Scripps, cut loose from its cash-cow cable networks and outmaneuvered by MediaNews in its JOA, couldn’t make enough money off that combination does not ensure that some enterprising Rocky staffer (or staffers) can’t make a go of it.

I’m rooting for them. Someone’s going to land that former Rocky advertising money. Why shouldn’t it be a Rocky alumnus?

And journalists in Seattle, San Francisco and those other newspapers on the brink – ask yourselves this, looking ahead to the day when your paper might close: Why can’t *I* be the one to get a piece of those ad dollars in my community?

Why not?

The most important blog on your newspaper's website

It’s been a smoky spring here in the Los Angeles area. Last week, wildfires burned both the city’s Griffith Park (one of my favorite places on Earth, by the way) as well as the resort island of Catalina. In both incidents, I watched TV coverage, listened to radio reports and hit up news websites. But I kept finding myself coming back to the breaking news blog on

How many acres have burnt now? How much of the fire is contained? Where’s the worst threat at this hour? For those essential questions, which readers wanted immediate answers, the Times’ breaking news blog delivered. managers, take a lesson. If you do not have a breaking news blog ready to go on your website, get started on building one. Today. The blog is the ideal format to deliver information in a breaking news situation. There’s no reason to continue relying on traditional newspaper narrative formats online when editors could better serve their readers with the far more online-friendly blog format.

I discovered the power of breaking news blogging during the Columbine High School shootings in April 1999. At the time, I was the executive producer of the Rocky Mountain News’ website, in charge of its editorial operations. Despite the fact that the Rocky then sold more papers in the Denver metro area than any other publication, we were a small staff, as was typical at newspapers at the time, usually with only one or two online editorial employees on the clock at any given moment.

When the shooting happened, as with any major breaking news story, the demand for information was immediate. The Rocky was preparing a extra edition for that afternoon, but we couldn’t wait for those stories to clear the copy desk. So I blew up our hand-built, flat-file website home page and started using a bullet-point list to provide the latest facts and data we could find, in reverse chronological order.

I was blogging, though no one I knew had ever used that term yet. Nor did we have blogging software; I wrote our updates in HTML and FTP’ed them to our server. But I loved the format. We got updates from Rocky reporters via a helpful newsroom editor (remember back when union issues at many papers precluded reporters from producing work directly for their websites?), watched televised sheriff’s press conferences, listened to police scanners, scoured the wires, made calls to neighbors and I posted every piece of information we found, attributing it to the source where we got it and noting where it conflicted with other information that had been reported on our site or on TV.

When the paper’s extra edition stories were ready, we posted those to the site, but by then, our news blog had even more up-to-the-minute information. Without having to take the time to do a write-through whenever we had new information, we could get that information online faster. And readers did not have to wade through a write-through to find the newest facts and data.

“Using blogs to cover breaking news can be a great benefit to the reader, especially on fast-moving stories,” editor Meredith Artley wrote in an e-mail when I asked her about the Times’ recent efforts. “With the Griffith Park and Catalina fires, the developments were coming in so quickly — percentage of the fire contained, evacuation information, anecdotes from people living the experience. In an article format, some of these developments may be lost somewhere in the 3rd, 4th, 5th paragraph of the story. With a blog, it’s crystal-clear what’s fresh.”

With blogging software now so widely available, there’s no excuse for newspaper editors not to turn to blogging when major news breaks. Nor should editors have to invent a reporting process on the fly, like I did eight years ago. Here are some steps that editors should take to prepare their newsrooms to publish a top-quality breaking news blog the next time a major story breaks in their community.

1) Select a blogging tool and have it ready to go.

This step might seem obvious, but there’s more to it than one might envision. Ideally, your blogging tool should support tagging or categorization, so that you can have a unique URL for each breaking news story. What happens if you have two stories that break close enough to each other that they overlap? Or if a person Googling for information about an old breaking news story finds your URL? Tagging or categorizing each post should enable you to create an unique URL for each story, rather than sending all readers to the same URL. You might not think that you’ll need this functionality now. But if you take a little extra time to build it in now, you will thank yourself later.

Part of having your tool ready to go is to decide how the blog will be linked to from your front page, as well as the rest of the site. “A reader… seemed to misunderstand that the posts were from reporters, not readers,” Artley wrote e about the Times’ fire blogs. “And there were a couple of comments from folks who seemed unpleasantly surprised to be clicking on a headline or photo and getting a blog instead of an article. So we’re considering ways to signal that better, but I don’t want to get into overlabeling the site.”

2) Identify and train your bloggers.

It’s not enough to have one or two people assigned to blog breaking news. You need to identify and train enough bloggers so that one of them will be in the building at all times. You also need to ensure that someone else can cover the bloggers’ “normal” routines, since the bloggers will be too busy during breaking news.

You’ll also need a plan for how information will get to the bloggers. Establish a central e-mail address, phone number and/or instant message account to take bulletins from staff reporters and make sure everyone in the newsroom knows them. In a breaking news situation, off-duty reporters and even those not on the metro desk often have the first reports from the scene.

Artley suggests testing your blog reporting process in a controlled environment, such as during a trial.

“We had a test drive with the Phil Spector trial blog,” she wrote. “We knew we would have reporters with Blackberries in the courtroom. We got to set it up and plan. We also tried the breaking news blog again with the immigration march downtown, and, again, we planned how that would work — who would file, who would post, who would approve comments, and who would take care of images. Of course it doesn’t all go smoothly, but if you can plan a little bit, you’ll be much more prepared for when news breaks.”

This is also the time to make an organizational decision on what sources you will report in your blog. Will you cite what TV stations or other competitors report?

3) Have a plan to backread and edit the blog.

You should not insist on posts going through the normal newspaper editing process before hitting the blog. You won’t ever beat TV, radio or other blogs that way. But someone should be assigned the task of reading posts as they go live, to immediately correct typos, misspellings or other obvious factual errors. (I found a few lingering goofs on the Times blog last week.) Don’t assume that someone in the building, or some reader, will tip you to errors. Make sure someone specific is charged with this important duty.

4) Go for broke.

Once you have this system in place, why reserve it for infrequent occasions?

A newspaper reporter at an industry seminar last fall asked me what her organization could do to improve its front page design. I told her, “Make it a breaking news blog.”

I think one of the reasons that Kevin Roderick’s enjoyed such success with his LAObserved site is that many people prefer reading a blog-style narrative to picking their way through the mess of hyperlinks that compose the typical home page. Roderick reads dozens of stories from local Los Angeles media each weekday and selects the best of them to summarize and link on his blog. It’s a broadcast news writing model, really. But it works.

Why not assign sharp editors to be your “anchor” on each shift through the day, blogging your paper by selecting and summarizing the best stories, as they become available? (Readers who want to drill down to other information on the site may still use the site’s navigation to find specific sections’ story archives and other features.) And in a breaking news situation, the front page blog can morph into the breaking news blog.

Either way, the readers in your community will come to see your paper’s home page as the place to go for a friendly, authoritative voice that provides the very latest news about their community. And after all, isn’t that what a newaspaper website’s home page ought to be?