The New York Review of Magazines


By Spencer Bailey

Circulation: 77,027
Date of Birth: 1993
Frequency: Monthly
Price: $4.99

The city of Denver brings to mind many things — the Rocky Mountains, John Elway, microbreweries — but journalism is not one of them. Sure, Beat Generation scribes like Kerouac, Cassady and Ginsberg spent some time in the Mile High City. Yes, there are mass-circulation local newspapers, like The Denver Post (which has won a few Pulitzers in its time) and the alt-weekly Westword. And there was, of course, The Rocky Mountain News — until it shuttered in 2009.

But let’s face it: Denver is not known for its reportorial chops.

5280 magazine, however, may be changing that. Like Colorado itself — which, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, has grown at the rapid rate of 16.8 percent annually since 2000 — Denver’s top-selling magazine, too, has seen increases over the last decade: A larger staff, a bigger budget, a greater circulation.

Launched in 1993 from editor and publisher Dan Brogan’s bedroom, with savings, loans and credit cards, 5280 — named for Denver’s mile-high elevation — started with a print run of 20,000 and a $250,000 budget. Today, the magazine has a downtown office, a circulation of more than 77,000 and, according to Folio, a budget of about $8 million.

Such growth has allowed the publication to enhance its editorial content. “We really focused on service journalism initially, and, over the years, we became more successful and were able to invest the profits in a new way,” says Brogan.

Those investments included hiring Maximillian Potter, a former staff writer at Premiere, Philadelphia and GQ, as executive editor in 2004. This coincided with 5280 publishing “Conduct Unbecoming,” a breakthrough feature story by Potter, which Rolling Stone and Men’s Journal had previously rejected. The piece, about an Air Force Academy cadet accused of rape, went on to become a National Magazine Award finalist and was the focus of a TV segment on ABC’s 20/20.

The magazine has experienced its share of troubles in recent years, too — mostly a result of the Great Recession. 5280’s advertising dollars have remained low throughout the downturn, Brogan says. And there have been cost-cutting measures, such as the laying off of two editorial employees in December 2008.

The good news: 5280 saw its number of paid subscribers grow by 10 percent in 2008. Then, last year, the City and Regional Magazine Association ranked it one of the top five city magazines in America, alongside AtlantaLos Angeles, Philadelphia and Texas Monthly.

Much of 5280’s success is attributable to its focus on in-depth feature stories. Consider “Rebound,” staff writer Robert Sanchez’s profile, in the March 2009 issue, of the famously cantankerous Denver Nuggets coach George Karl — “the guy who once booted a ball into the stands during a game; who angrily challenged a player to a game of Jeopardy! to prove who was smarter; who ripped a toupée off someone during an on-court fight.” Sanchez’s prose is clear, concise and candid, right up there with similar pieces published last year in big-name magazines (such as Mike Sager’s “Big Balls Pete Carroll” in Esquire or S. C. Gwynne’s “Mike Leach is Thinking…” in Texas Monthly).

Another factor in the magazine’s progress: slick design. 5280’s style mimics well-polished national glossies, while rivaling other top regional publications. It is colorful, full of illustrations and graphs and topnotch photography. And its primary font is eye-catching and easy to read. “People, despite all the technological changes, still like sitting down — with coffee, a drink, a beer — and a magazine with really good design,” says Brogan.

Then there are 5280’s service features to consider, such as “The Future of Denver,” in the December 2009 issue, by senior associate editor Patrick Doyle. The piece lays out a proposal for how to preserve the city’s “treasured lifestyle” over the next 25 years, during which 1.5 million people are expected to move to the Front Range. Some of the suggestions: Clean up the 16th Street Mall, add a downtown shuttle route, complete the city’s costly rail system, bolster education spending. Both practical and insightful, this kind of local journalism has kept 5280 in business for 17 years.

All of which helps explain why Brogan is confident the magazine will maintain its steady-growing status in the steady-growing city. “Whether it’s in a digital form or paper form,” he says, “people are still going to want what we do.”

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