Hardly a day goes by anymore without more bad news about the news business. Layoffs. Budget cuts. Once proud companies dismantled. Wall Street analysts predicting more gloom ahead. It’s gotten to the point that even The New York Times is worrying that “Muckraking Pays, Just Not in Profit:”
Investigative reporting can expose corruption, create accountability, and occasionally save lives, but it will never be a business unto itself. Reporters frequently spend months on various lines of inquiry, some of which do not pan out, and even when one does, it is not the kind of coverage that draws advertisers.
Things are so bad that, increasingly, we’re seeing nonprofits such as ProPublica and MinnPost put forth as the last refuge for serious newsgathering.
While I applaud high-quality journalism by any means necessary, let’s not pull the plug on for-profit journalism just yet. Four years ago, I made a commitment that 5280—Denver’s city magazine, which takes its name from our mile-high elevation—would do more, not less, long-form and investigative journalism. It hasn’t been cheap, but I’m here to tell you to forget the conventional “wisdom.” There’s good money to be made in good journalism.
A bit of background. Fifteen years ago, I started 5280 in my second bedroom. It was a classic bootstrap launch, funded by personal savings, a few small family loans, and a lot of credit card debt. As a former reporter at the Chicago Tribune, I fully intended that investigative and long-form narrative journalism would be an important part of our editorial mix. And in our early years, we made a few noble attempts, including the first in-depth interview with the principal of Columbine High School following the 1999 shootings and the first profiles of the jurors selected in Timothy McVeigh’s Oklahoma City bombing trial. But reality quickly set in. Those kinds of stories were expensive, and we were barely keeping our heads above water.
To survive, we instead turned our focus to that mainstay of city magazines, service journalism. If you could list it, rank it, or rate it, you’d find it in the pages of 5280. Admittedly, this was not the kind of glamorous reportage that most of us went to journalism school to pursue. But for a small staff with limited resources, our lists of doctors, restaurants, neighborhoods and schools offered a cost-effective way to build an audience. Over time, we were able to translate that audience into ad dollars and, by 2003, we were turning a healthy profit.
However, as Denver grew and the Internet began to offer readers new sources of information, it became clear that simply being a good magazine wouldn’t be good enough for very long. So I decided to take 5280’s financial success and reinvest it in creating a great magazine, one that was the equal of any city magazine in the country. Since the start of 2004, we’ve tripled the size of our editorial staff, bringing on journalists from national titles like GQ, Red Herring, Sports Illustrated, and Skiing as well as some of the very best city magazines. At the same time, we doubled the budget for our freelance writers, photographers and illustrators. All told, we’ve increased our total editorial expenditures by nearly one million dollars a year.
Returning to Investigative Journalism
Our magazine has a ways to go before we reach our ultimate goal, but we’ve been doing a lot of important investigative work, including the following stories:
We documented the holes in the first case brought against an Air Force Academy cadet accused of rape, in the article “Conduct Unbecoming.” When those charges were later dismissed, the cadet’s father credited 5280 with saving his son from a life sentence.
We revealed that the Army’s flagrant physical and psychological abuse of its recruits during basic training was driving some mentally troubled trainees to suicide in the article “Private Stites Should Have Been Saved.”
We uncovered serious conflicts of interest in the mediation system set up to protect veterans who illegally lose their jobs when returning from Iraq in the article “Nobody’s Hero.”
We told the story of sick and dying workers at the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant who are being denied promised health benefits, despite the government’s unprecedented admission that the workers had been recklessly put in harm’s way, in the article “Out in the Cold.” Following our report, the workers’ cases were reopened and are now being reviewed.
At the same time, we’ve also increased our emphasis on narrative storytelling, offering readers such compelling reads as a two-part profile of Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, “And on the Eighth Day, Dr. Dobson Created Himself,” and the gripping tale of a woman left for dead by a serial rapist who terrorized Denver in 2005, “Undefeated.”
Other costs have come our way from pursuing these kinds of stories. We’ve had to fight off a subpoena from the Department of Defense and, in another case, we sued the federal government when we discovered evidence that an order had gone out to destroy records we were seeking under a Freedom of Information Act inquiry.
But we’ve also experienced a tremendous return on our investment—financially and in terms of recognition from our peers. We’ve been nominated for two National Magazine Awards and received a flattering number of other awards, often being recognized alongside entries from publications such as The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, and The Wall Street Journal. Two of our stories became segments on ABC’s “20/20” and the “NBC Nightly News.” Recognition from our peers is gratifying, of course. On the business side, the returns have been just as gratifying. In the past four years, 5280’s paid subscriptions have grown by more than 50 percent, while the number of magazines we sell on the newsstand—already strong for a city of Denver’s size—has increased by a similar amount. Though Denver is the nation’s 22nd largest market, only five other monthly city magazines sell more copies on the newsstand.
Last, but certainly not least, we’ve more than doubled our ad revenue during this same time. This means we continue to generate a very healthy profit margin, even as we continue to reinvest in the magazine’s editorial product. I’m guessing that Wall Street wouldn’t endorse our strategy. After all, 5280 is a small magazine in a relatively small city. But there’s nothing about our business model that shouldn’t be valid elsewhere. To sell ads, a publication needs to attract a worthwhile audience. To do that requires compelling content. All of which convinces me that good journalism can be good business.
Daniel Brogan is the editor and publisher of 5280 magazine, which he founded in 1993. He has a journalism degree from Indiana University.