By Steve Outing
Hmmm. InDenverTimes, the digital-only “replacement” for the dearly departed Rocky Mountain News, to be staffed by about 35 former Rocky journalists and funded by three non-publisher entrepreneurs, wants to get by on paid subscriptions (at least initially). If 50,000 noble people sign up for monthly subscriptions by April 23 (which would have been the 150th anniversary of the Rocky), then the venture will launch. Online (and at some point mobile) readers will pay $5 a month if they sign up for a full year (that is, $60 up front; pay more per month for shorter subscription terms).
Can they make it?
Well, first off, there’s the challenge of getting people to pay for something that doesn’t exist yet. That’s unlike ponying up when your local NPR station begs for money, since the station is operating and broadcasting and podcasting content, so that’s a challenge. Paying in advance to get InDenverTimes.com is an altruistic act to keep journalism from at least completely falling apart in Denver. (If the group doesn’t get at least close to the 50K goal, none of the donors will get charged.)
Of course, the InDenverTimes staff is a known quantity; it’s not quite a start-up, since the site is being hyped as staffed by former Rocky journalists, and intended to replace the Rocky, minus the paper part and with less news. (The group couldn’t get the Rocky Mountain News brand or URL because owner E.W. Scripps is keeping it tied up; one of InDenverTimes.com’s co-founders told me he’d be interested in bidding on it if it became available. And the Denver Post grabbed about 10 of the Rocky’s top journalists.)
I’m not going to get into the argument of whether charging content will work or not. But briefly, the InDenverTimes model is that news is free, but some set of “premium” content is behind the subscription pay wall, and the ability to post comments and interact with the journalists is part of the pay plan, too.
There’s already skepticism about hitting the 50,000-subscriber goal in a little over a month. For comparison’s sake, I looked for stats on NPR station pledge drives. WBUR in Boston during a recent pledge drive had 7,770 people participating, with an average gift of $105 per donor. Boston is a much larger city than Denver. That’s $815,850. Other drives have brought in as much as $1 million. And NPR outlets do two pledge drives per year.
I couldn’t find stats on Denver’s NPR station and its membership drives. But if that Boston station is bringing in less than $2 million a year from memberships (equivalent to InDenverTimes.com’s paid subscriptions), then the news website’s goal for raising $3 million in a short time is overly ambitious and probably unreachable.
Founding managing editor Steve Foster admits that the initial subscription drive is very NPR-like, in that InDenverTimes is asking the community to support its start-up. But after that, he expects that continuing subscribers and new ones attracted down the road will pay because of the content. And advertising sales will be added later on (no ad sales people at launch).
I wish them luck. They’ll need it, because the odds are against reaching that goal. I’m all for experiments like this, but the business model doesn’t look achievable. I hope they’ll prove me wrong.