August 27, 2010

Northern Colorado’s Great Print-Media Era

By August 2001, I’d been editing the alternative monthly newspaper the Rocky Mountain Bullhorn for over a year. The staff consisted of four to five full- and part-timers and dozens of contractors producing, selling and delivering 32 pages of content largely driven by our own interests, without as much as a nod toward industry trends or popular culture. Even the calendar listings had a point of view, and many residents in what was then a very politically red region took issue with it.

Some of our columnists’ politics bordered on radical, and our stories didn’t always have a local connection. We were reading The Nation and Mother Jones, and we wanted to be just like them – whoever they were. We didn’t bother connecting with media organizations or professional groups. They were too stodgy and mainstream – exactly what we rallied against, raising a middle finger to the “official” take on current events whenever we could.

Then Tom Hacker knocked on our dingy office door. The editor of NCBR was curious about how our fledgling paper was doing at the one-year mark. Until then, we’d nearly dismissed the Business Report as a close relative of daily chain newspapers. Had it not been for the oddly compelling Book of Lists, NCBR would have been outside our purview entirely – and detrimentally.

But then Hacker’s article was published, and we were enlightened.

“The Bullhorn has arrived,” a friend yelled, bursting into our office with NCBR opened to the story. A night of double bourbon Cokes and packs of Camel cigarettes later (we adopted Hunter Thompson’s health as well as journalistic standards), we realized our friend was right. The Bullhorn had suddenly assumed a legitimacy previously foreign to us – and it was incredibly motivating.

We made another important discovery at that time: A lot of our readers – and many others we wanted to reach – also read the Business Report. Prior to that time, we’d taken our readership to be a mirror image of our contributors: idealistic, academic, activist, fringe-culture-loving 20- and 30-somethings who didn’t give a flip about what the conservative/moderate majority of Northern Colorado thought about us. Somehow, Hacker’s article helped us to see that perhaps pissing off everybody wasn’t such a good business strategy.

We subscribed to NCBR, studied it closely, and turned our obsessive natures toward local culture with a ferocity that propelled our little paper into the far reaches of Larimer and Weld counties. Our publisher even made it into NCBR‘s esteemed group of 40 Under 40 in 2004.

That’s not to say we pandered. After all, we flaunted Joseph Pulitzer’s quote, “A newspaper should have no friends.” The Bullhorn received cease-and-desist letters from NCBR over two consecutive years for using some formation of the words “Best of Northern Colorado” in our annual local-awards packages. Still, to a startup business, the attention was empowering.

Newspapers start downward spiral

Something equally powerful yet out of our control was happening to the newspaper industry at the same time we were starting to tip-toe into it. As the next issue of NCBR hit the streets in 2001, the Twin Towers fell, then markets tumbled, and George W. Bush’s administration began to show some deep cracks. Reporters and editors became increasingly dependent on Google yet very few of us were computing the benefits of truly being online.

Indeed, at a time when the newspaper industry was being sucked into its now-notorious downward spiral, we turned the Bullhorn into a weekly newspaper. Various niche pubs and spinoffs sprouted in our wake, including so-called “faux-alts” produced by the corporate dailies throughout Northern Colorado. Local print media was flourishing as the industry crumbled.

Eventually, The Bullhorn caved, too, but it wasn’t long before its spirit was revived in the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, thanks to a new owner and a handful of former staff members. Despite dire warnings (an alt-industry veteran likened starting a print publication in 2006 to “putting your money in a basket and burning it”), we wanted to prove that the region would support an alternative newsweekly.

Again, Hacker wrote about us, this time pointing out the challenges of operating in a small market that felt almost overburdened with print – the oversized green newspaper condos dotting Old Town sidewalks are the scars of this competitive era. His skepticism panned out. With a historical economic collapse around the corner, most of the papers fell, the Chronicle included, leaving local newsstands much as they were back in the summer of 2000.

But from dearth to glut and back again, NCBR has held on, documenting a great print era of Northern Colorado. To this day, it remains an example of what business publications do best: Reflect the possibilities within a community, no matter how long they last.

Vanessa Martinez is currently the online editor of 5280 Magazine, covering Denver and Colorado. Her dozens of contractors back in the day included Kate Hawthorne.

By August 2001, I’d been editing the alternative monthly newspaper the Rocky Mountain Bullhorn for over a year. The staff consisted of four to five full- and part-timers and dozens of contractors producing, selling and delivering 32 pages of content largely driven by our own interests, without as much as a nod toward industry trends or popular culture. Even the calendar listings had a point of view, and many residents in what was then a very politically red region took issue with it.

Some of our columnists’ politics bordered on radical, and our stories didn’t always have a local connection.…

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