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Before you click that donate button, time to think long and hard about newspaper business models

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April 4, 2020, 3:05 pm

There’s been some grim news in the local news industry lately following the mid-March shutdown of Colorado’s economy in response to the growing COVID-19 outbreak. So allow me to lead with some good news on that front.

On Feb. 21, Vail Daily editor Nate Peterson informed me that a three-part series of articles I reported and wrote for the paper in July on water-quality issues and other problems at the Eagle River Village mobile home park in Edwards won three Colorado Press Association awards (placing at least in the top three in each category).

The O Zone by David O. Williams
The O. Zone

“Punching up,” as he put it, against Colorado newspapers with higher circulations such as the Boulder Daily Camera and the Fort Collins Coloradoan, the articles won awards for best series, sustained coverage and public service. In total, the Vail Daily won 10 CPA awards for editorial content and seven more for advertising, design and photography. That’s an impressive haul.

I’m particularly proud of the series because of the time and persistence it took to earn the trust of the mostly Latino residents who are rightly leery of telling their stories out of fear of retaliation from park owners and even federal immigration officials. It helped inform the debate over tougher state regulations, and led, in part, to a statewide media collaboration in September called “Parked: Half the American Dream” that, unfortunately, did not include the Vail Daily.

I’m grateful to the Vail Daily for having the courage to fund and publish the original series in July – a peak tourism season in resort towns that’s typically reserved for less thought-provoking news – and to Peterson for submitting the series to the CPA contest (a rarity for freelancers such as myself). It also led to a follow-up in February funded by the nonprofit Aspen Journalism, which Peterson also steered my way.

Then came March … specifically March 6.

That was the day the first Eagle County case of COVID-19 was confirmed, and it was also the day the Vail Daily switched a ski gathering to celebrate those CPA awards (and 1 million pageviews in February – a Swift Communications first) from Vail to Beaver Creek due to coronavirus concerns. It turned out a man who had been in Italy had recently skied at Vail.

Just 11 days later, on March 17, the Vail Daily published this story I wrote at Peterson’s request on overwhelmed testing capacity creating a logjam for Vail Health, and I also tried to sell him a story on Mexican businessmen and Vail property owners spreading COVID-19 from Vail to Mexico. But I was told the Vail Daily was no longer buying any freelance.

So I turned around and sold that article, with its strong local angle on a national story (quotes from an East Vail homeowner on the beach in Mexico) to the Colorado Springs Gazette. Over the next two weeks, I sold three more stories to the Gazette, including the first interview with Vail Mayor Dave Chapin on his own COVID-19 infection and his thoughts on the first death of an Eagle County resident, Rod Powell. I also got the first interview with Jill Hunsaker Ryan, the state’s top public health official, on her husband’s infection and isolation at home in Edwards.

Reportedly, revenues for the Vail Daily’s parent company, Nevada-based Swift, are expected to plummet by 75% — not surprising given a business model that relies heavily on restaurant, retail and real estate advertising (all businesses largely shuttered by the virus).

Longtime, loyal and dedicated staff members are taking pay cuts of 20% and several staffers at the Vail Daily have been or will be indefinitely furloughed. So I understand why a freelance writer with a small monthly budget line would be the first to go.

But let’s be clear about a couple of things here. I was a very affordable source of good, reliable reporting and information for the community. I am not as excited to have my stories about Vail appear in a Front Range paper. And I was willing to adjust my prices given the circumstances.

On March 24 I checked back in with Peterson and offered him an important story on a looming crisis at the mobile home park, with neighborhood advocates concerned about COVID-19 and a lack of internet connectivity in the densely populated park. I told him he could have it for $50.

The answer, once again, was no.

As you can see, my motivation in sticking with this profession is not great personal wealth. Having just completed my taxes for 2019, I can share that my 1099 for Swift Communications’ subsidiary, Colorado Mountain News Media, was $5,875 for 50 stories, many of which landed on the front page and three of which won CPA awards. That’s $117.50 per story.

To put that in some perspective, that overall $5,875 is less than the cost of five full-page ads during peak season, pre-COVID-19. Those same full-page ads could probably be had for less than half that price now. And the pre-tax amount I made from CMNM covered a little over three months of my family’s $1,600-a-month health insurance premium. Again, not doing this to get rich.

By comparison, the clearly much more deep-pocketed Gazette, owned by billionaire businessman Philip Anschutz, paid me $5,000 for 11 articles in 2019 – many of them in-depth cover stories for the Gazette’s Colorado Politics weekly.

I’m equally grateful to the Gazette for funding my work and submitting some of it to various awards competitions. In 2018, my story on illegal marijuana grow operations on public lands won a second-place Marijuana Enterprise Reporting award from the Society of Professional Journalists.

And in 2019, a story I wrote on mental health in mountain towns that ran on the front page of the Gazette was part of a series that made a list of top 10 finalists (out of more than 400 submissions) for the National Institute for Health Care Management (NIHCM) Health Care Research and Journalism awards. Other finalists include The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal and PBS News’ Frontline. Talk about “punching up.”

In 2018, I wrote a blog for RealVail.com with the incendiary headline of “To hell with vulture capitalists like Alden … and newspapers that screw freelancers”. It was aimed primarily at the Denver Post — which many years ago shut me down as a freelancer in the wake of the JOA and shuttering of the Rocky Mountain News — and the Post’s slow gutting by Alden that continues to this day. I clearly harbor distaste for papers that treat both staffers and freelancers shabbily.

Still, I recently posted on social media that we should all try to support our local paper of record in these trying times, and I directly asked for donations to the nonprofit Aspen Journalism, which funded my story on COVID-19 in local water supplies that ran in the Vail Daily on March 27 and then several of the other CMNM papers from Aspen to Steamboat Springs.

I got some blowback from longtime critics of Swift who feel the chain’s buyouts and shuttering of competition, aggressive (bordering on predatory) sales tactics and overall monopolistic bullying tactics – which I detailed for the nonprofit Colorado Independent in 2008 – make it an unlikely subject for our sympathy now.

This marks the third time I’ve been kicked to the curb by the Vail Daily, first in the late 90s in a dispute with a truth-challenged editor, then again when Swift bought up and later closed Vail’s first paper – the venerable Vail Trail – and now as a lowly freelancer. In between, I went 17 years with just one byline in the Daily, and you’d think by now I’d have received the message.

But all I’ve really learned is that if someone else pays for it, they’ll still run my stories, and that’s not nothing. Ink, paper and distribution cost a lot these days. Also, I was starting to genuinely like where the paper was headed – from Vida Latina to a new editor I mostly respect and support in his efforts.

Still, the Daily’s new donation button on a for-profit paper’s website has given me some pause. As a rule, I generally only subscribe to or support papers that support freelancers, and I don’t even have a donate button on my own website, RealVail.com (clearly time to add one).

And there’s a growing school of thought that the old business models just don’t work in the newspaper industry anymore – even in resort markets like ours with captive audiences – and that public, private and nonprofit institutions no longer should be looking to bail out old-school newspaper chains but rather the individual journalists those chains marginally employ.

Given my brutal past experience working for more than 50 different publications over the last 30 years – including virtually every kind of publishing model there is – it’s hard for me to argue against that approach.

As for the free, seven-day Vail Daily, I really do hope it survives to inform the community in these terrible times and can continue to publish my work under a different funding model, but I can’t say I’ll be donating anytime soon. That would require a commitment from them that my money would go to a specific writer or ad campaign for a local business that I want to support and not to executive salaries, businesses or writers I don’t support.

Perhaps that’s a donation model they can pursue as they at long last join the hellscape of modern media sustainability, or lack thereof, that the vast majority of journalists have been forced to navigate for the past 20 years.

2008-05-Jabba-McPaper-Sidle
This illustration by Don Sidle once depicted the voracious acquisition of local media by Swift.
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David O. Williams

Managing Editor at RealVail
David O. Williams is an award-winning freelance reporter based in the Vail Valley of Colorado, writing on health care, immigration, politics, the environment, energy, public lands, outdoor recreation and sports. His work has appeared in 5280 Magazine, American Way Magazine (American Airlines), the Anchorage Daily News (Alaska), Aspen Daily News, Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Times, Beaver Creek Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, the Colorado Independent (formerly Colorado Confidential), Colorado Politics (formerly the Colorado Statesman), Colorado Public News, the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Colorado Springs Independent, the Colorado Statesman (now Colorado Politics), the Colorado Times Recorder, the Daily Trail (Vail), the Denver Daily News, the Denver Gazette, the Denver Post, the Durango Herald, the Eagle Valley Enterprise, the Eastside Journal (Bellevue, Washington), ESPN.com, the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, the Greeley Tribune, the Huffington Post, the King County Journal (Seattle, Washington), KUNC.org (northern Colorado), LA Weekly, the London Daily Mirror, the Montgomery Journal (Maryland), The New York Times, the Parent’s Handbook, Peaks Magazine (now Epic Life), People Magazine, Powder Magazine, the Pueblo Chieftain, PT Magazine, Rocky Mountain Golf Magazine, the Rocky Mountain News, Atlantic Media's RouteFifty.com (formerly Government Executive State and Local), SKI Magazine, Ski Area Management, SKIING Magazine, the Summit Daily News, United Hemispheres (United Airlines), Vail/Beaver Creek Magazine, Vail en Español, Vail Valley Magazine, the Vail Daily, the Vail Trail and Westword (Denver). Williams is also the founder, publisher and editor of RealVail.com and RockyMountainPost.com.

3 Responses to Before you click that donate button, time to think long and hard about newspaper business models

  1. Richard Brooks Reply

    April 4, 2020 at 5:05 pm

    As long as the Vail Daily publishes Butch Mazucca’s musings of a fool column I won’t donate anything to the Vail Daily. Their masthead ” bringing communities together” might more accurately be “cheerleader for stupidity”.

  2. Scott Proper Reply

    April 5, 2020 at 6:46 pm

    Excellent piece, David. I’m working on a letter to the Vail Daily regarding their “Donate $” button that I will subsequently post here. I have to first overcome the severe nausea it’s caused me.

  3. Patrick Brower Reply

    June 17, 2020 at 10:55 am

    Good piece David.

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