At Galvanize in the Golden Triangle, a different kind of newsroom is taking shape. Launched in June 2016, Denverite is an evolving online local news website with its own distinctive voice.
"It's been amazing and exciting and challenging and all the things you would expect it would be," says Dave Burdick, Denverite's founding editor, of the publication's first 18 months. "I think that we cover things in ways that are more intimate or approachable. People write to us with questions they want answered."
Denverite isn't completely reinventing the wheel, he adds. "We are what you expect from a local news operation. We're out talking to people in the neighborhoods."
The newsroom currently employs six full-time journalists who cover local news, government and politics, food, events and real estate development in their original reporting. One staffer sends a curated 7:20 a.m. newsletter prepared mostly the night before (and often full of self-deprecating humor); Denverite also has a 3:03 p.m. edition.
Denverite assistant editor Erica Meltzer in the field. The online publication tries new things but solid reporting remains the core of its local journalism. Photo by Denverite's Kevin J. Beaty.
Burdick has tweaked the coverage areas several times. "We're very lucky in that we got to build from zero and decide what we wanted to cover," he says. "At the beginning, we decided what our beats were going to be, and after a few months we had to make an adjustment."
Business coverage moved away from initial focus on startups and healthcare. "We didn't find audiences for those early on, so we adjusted to a more general business model," says Burdick.
Sports was another tough beat to crack; coverage ended in October 2017. "We moved away from it, because it is such a challenge," says Burdick. "The people who live in Denver don't always follow the same teams. More than half the people who live in Colorado weren't born in Colorado."
Burdick has an fitting background for the job. His career has included stints at the Huffington Post, Boulder Daily Camera, GOOD and the Denver Post. "I have a sort of weird alternating experience of online-only startup then print newsroom, then back to online-only," he says.
And he comes from a newspaper family: "Both parents are retired journalists."
How is Denverite different than his experience at the Post? "I know how challenging it can be and what the responsibilities can feel like if you think you are the paper of record, and we don't have that. We have a bit more flexibility in what we're going to focus on."
But it's also different from the digital startups he worked for in the past. "It's different from HuffPost at the time I was there, which was really early 2008 and '09, it was a really small operation," says Burdick. "The editorial staff was less than 10 people. You were pretty much just sitting in your chair."
He says he sees Denverite hitting a sweet spot in the market that spans from policy wonks to news newbies. "Early on, we were writing a lot of political stuff, and we had people who were really plugged in, city employees who read all kinds of briefings and research, they would say to us, 'We love your stuff, because it's so approachable and kind of funny.' And then we had people who were first-time local news readers saying to us, 'I love your stuff because it's so comprehensive and I feel so much smarter after reading it.' We were hitting that middle place where it was helpful to people in two different ways."
Dave Burdick left the Denver Post to lead Denverite. "One of the best parts of this job is being able to try things that are a little adventurous," he says. Photo by Eric Peterson.
The site's core readership includes "early adopters who are big news hounds, and people who come in via social," says Burdick. An unexpected audience: "people who have never read local news before and are being converted."
While Burdick won't disclose pageviews or traffic data, he says real estate news and neighborhood coverage tends to do the best.
But the stories that contribute to big, ongoing conversations in Denver draw the most eyeballs. He highlights an October 2017 story about gentrification by Erica Meltzer. She spoke with more than a dozen sources and got in-depth perspectives from a wide range of Denver residents in the 6,000-word story.
"It was a reader question, and it was possibly a sarcastic reader question, which is: 'What's so bad about gentrification anyway?'" says Burdick. "It's really thorny. You see how many different ways there are to talk about gentrification incorrectly. She did a really wonderful job with that. It was a really thoughtful, challenging story that performed very well."
He says the story continues to draw a big audience months after it was first published. "It kept getting shared by people who thought that story had been told incompletely or incorrectly in the past," says Burdick.
Meltzer says Denverite offers a great platform for similar long-form, in-depth features with a point of view. "We have the opportunity to speak frankly about things or connect the dots for people in a way newspapers feel constrained doing," she says. "I'm trying to take a step back and take more of a magazine approach."
It all comes down to time and resources, Meltzer adds. "Post-gentrification story, the conversation Dave and I had was: 'Can we do more stories of this scale and scope?' The answer is yes, but not if I'm at city council meetings on Monday nights."
For the first 18 months of Denverite's existence, the focus has been on building an audience. It's recently moved into monetization in a turbulent time in the media business. The three-pronged revenue model is based on some display advertising; ticketed and sponsored events; and a membership program (but no firewall or premium content).
In early 2018, Denverite will launch the last of the three. "People have been emailing us, asking, 'How can we support you? Do you have a tip jar?'" says Burdick, comparing it to the model for public radio. "They'll be able to support the work we do monthly, or annually, or by a one-time payment. For the most part, it's about supporting journalism."
Reporter Andrew Kenney reports on residences for the homeless. Denverite started up about 18 months ago. Photo by Kevin J. Beaty
A ticketed election night party in 2016 was "a trial balloon" for events, says Burdick. "We were expecting 100 and 250 showed up," he notes. "What we ended up learning was we could bring in curious and engaged audiences and they would enjoy each other's company. That has informed how we look at events moving forward."
Events also give readers an opportunity to continue the conversation with Denverite's journalists. "We did a birthday party for ourselves a year in, and at that event there were a bunch of people there who clearly wanted to talk to an individual journalist," says Burdick.
Denverite made its first non-journalist hire in September 2017: Kendall Smith, VP of sales and events. After working in manufacturing finance, Smith spent seven years at the Denver Post Community Foundation spearheading the annual Underground Music Showcase (UMS).
"What ultimately drew me was the mission: local journalism and thinking outside the box a little bit," says Smith. "The amount of engagement from the audience has been a welcome surprise."
Smith says he hopes to establish two to three big annual events. One might have a socially minded take on real estate, and another might be "eccentric and offbeat," he says, with local music and art. "The main thing is to leverage the good journalism they're already doing."
"Our audience is continually growing," says Smith, while noting that he's not interested in selling based on sheer volume of impressions. Display advertising will typically be paired with event sponsorships.
A different model
"One of the best parts of this job is being able to try things that are a little adventurous," says Burdick.
Dailies have operational silos, but the dividing lines are not as bright at Denverite, he adds. "In the other newsrooms where I've worked, nobody ever talked to me about user experience. It wasn't something that ever came up. It wasn't a focus for the newsroom, but it feels like it needs to be."
Denverite is headquartered in the Galvanize co-working space. Photo by Eric Peterson.
He continues, "I get to have an impact on revenue and survival of the business that is really meaningful, as opposed to simply trying to generate pageviews. That's not exciting and motivating, and the stuff we do is exciting and motivating."
It's also challenging. Denverite laid off three staffers in November. Parent company Spirited Media, which acquired Denverite in March, also has publications in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and layoffs hit those newsrooms as well.
And the newspaper industry continues to cut jobs in Denver and beyond. The Post went through yet another round of layoffs in November and cut 26 newsrooms jobs in the last year.
After writing for dailies in Illinois and Arizona, Meltzer moved to Colorado right around when the Rocky Mountain News folded. "I could have been a competitive candidate for the News and the Post," she says.
Meltzer instead landed at the Boulder Daily Camera, where she met Burdick. "We stayed in touch and he reached out to me when he was first getting Denverite rolling," she says. Meltzer liked the idea and joined when the site launched in spring 2016.
After "many rounds of layoffs, pay cuts and benefit reductions" at local dailies, she was ready for a change. "It's certainly concerning that we are seeing contractions at every level, and it's not just Denver."
"It really underscores the value of having multiple outlets [in a city]," adds Meltzer. "The more cuts there are, the harder it is to be out there doing the journalism that matters."
She recites the billion-dollar question: "How do you make the business model work?" Smaller, nimbler operations like Denverite might be a better fit for the information age. "Will that make it easier to survive?" asks Meltzer. "Hopefully, the answer is yes."
Echoes Burdick: "As a citizen of Denver, what I would hope is you would see, 15 years from now, a handful more newsrooms kind of like ours, so that people can assemble a healthy news diet. If one is troubled in one way or goes under, it's not totally devastating to the city."
In an era when many people rely on social media for news, Burdick says he firmly believes there's still a huge need for a curated experience. "The nice thing about having a newsletter delivered by email in the morning or a newspaper delivered to your doorstep in the morning is that there is necessarily a sort of well-rounded news experience," he says. "Trusting the algorithm is not healthy. It's such a black box that you don't know what is being advantaged and what is being disadvantaged."
At Denverite, human beings curate the news, not algorithms, and that's a differentiator. "People respond surprisingly well to a little personal touch," says Burdick. "If you reply to one of our newsletters, it goes to most of us, and most of us will see it."
Burdick says someone recently asked him about "the weird green pole" that went up outside his house. He was able to send the inquirer a link to a story Denverite published a few weeks before the encounter. ”It's one of these new 30-foot cell towers," says Burdick.
In this day and age, that kind of hyperlocal focus matters. "It's really easy to go through life right now only reading the Washington Post and New York Times," says Burdick. "You could read 100 stories about the Trump administration a week and they would all be different and you would feel you understood what was happening in the world, but you wouldn't have any idea what the green pole outside your house was."