📲 🗞️ A new newspaper ownership model emerges in Colorado. Here's what that means.

A special edition of the Colorado Local News & Media newsletter

All Eyes On Colorado Again

Colorado is once again the center of the universe for those who think about the future of local news — or at least pay close attention to it.

Yesterday, staff at Colorado Community Media gathered for an announcement from their owners and publishers, Jerry and Ann Healey. In recent years when newspaper managers have called a staff meeting the news has been grim. This one was different.

The Healeys, who have been planning their retirement for about a year, revealed they had sold their chain of two dozen hyperlocal suburban newspapers that serve eight Front Range counties. The buyer was unexpected to say the least.

Here’s how I framed Monday’s announcement in an “Inside the News” column at COLab, distributed through the Associated Press’s StoryShare:

On Monday, a newly-formed group called the Colorado News Conservancy announced it will buy the company in a unique arrangement that involves the National Trust for Local News and the Denver-based Colorado Sun. 

The news is a welcome twist on the typical newspaper takeover. Across the country, and here in Colorado, newspaper consolidation has resulted in journalist layoffs and newsrooms suddenly zapped of their institutional memories. Meanwhile, cost-cutting private equity “vultures” circle newspapers in cities around the nation. Typically, when a hedge fund gets its claws in a newspaper, it eviscerates staff (see: Denver Post). Fewer reporters means less local news, which can lead to unchecked accountability on institutions and more. 

You can read the full column here.

The news generated national headlines

Because of a twist on the typical local-newspaper-gets-bought storyline, the news made waves in media circles outside our state’s borders.

From David Folkenflik at NPR:

The idea of a new digital start-up acquiring old-fashioned print newspapers might seem illogical: Many launch precisely because they do not see a sustainable path in print.

An Associated Press news wire story landed in The Washington Post and featured a photo of Colorado Sun reporter Jesse Paul. (Paul didn’t like it.) From the piece:

The project is an ambitious new chapter for The Sun, which was created in 2018 by journalists who left The Denver Post amid budget and staff cuts made by the newspaper’s New York-based hedge fund owners. The Sun’s newsroom has grown steadily ever since — and Larry Ryckman, its editor-in-chief, wants the nation to take note of the new venture.

The AP item also included this line from Ryckman: “The fact is we all know who’s first in line to buy struggling newspapers: hedge funds and the occasional billionaire. But waiting for a billionaire to come to the rescue on a white horse isn’t much of a business plan. It’s not a business plan at all.”

Some details about the deal

The Healeys had been thinking about retirement for about a year, and had put out some feelers. They got a couple of offers, but nothing that felt right.

This fall, the couple reached out to Laura Frank, director of the Colorado News Collaborative, known as COLab, and said they were looking for the right kind of buyer.

Formed a year ago, COLab is one of a handful of entities in Colorado that exists to help sustain the local news ecosystem, and works with the Colorado Media Project, which also facilitated the deal.

Here’s how the financial arrangement works: A newly created public benefit corporation called the Colorado News Conservancy, which is jointly owned and operated by The National Trust for Local News (a nonprofit that ensures local news organizations remain in local hands) and The Colorado Sun, bought the network of Colorado Community Media newspapers from the Healeys.

The terms of the deal weren’t disclosed. All of the company’s roughly 40 staffers who work for the papers, including about 20 reporters and editors, will keep their jobs, I’m told.

Funding for the deal comes from a public charity called FJC, which makes nonprofit loans. Guaranteeing that loan is the Denver-based Gates Family Foundation, The Colorado Trust, and the American Journalism Project.

From David Gilbert of Colorado Community Media, who was tasked with writing up the deal:

A grant from the Colorado Media Project, a grant-funded initiative that advocates for journalistic innovation, supported a portion of the legal costs and connected NTLN to local funders. Operational support is being provided by the Knight Foundation, a national arts and journalism philanthropic group; the Google News Initiative, which partners with local news organizations; and the Democracy Fund, a nonpartisan foundation that seeks to strengthen civic engagement. None of the foundations will have any say over CCM's content or editorial direction, [NTLN’s Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro], said. …

Though some newspapers have been preserved by local “angel investors” or billionaires who take them on — as is the case at the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Colorado Springs Gazette — that model is not replicable on a large scale.

NTLN draws inspiration in part from public radio, which in recent decades has built a diversified funding model built on grants, foundations, underwriting and listener support, while still retaining local control.

“The new business model is 'all of the above,'” Shapiro said. “It's advertising, philanthropy and small-dollar giving. We're pragmatists — let's get the news funded as many different ways as we can. Multiple revenue streams preserve independence.”

The Sun will now run the newspaper network, which includes papers like The Canyon Courier in Evergreen, The Castle Rock News-Press, and Elbert County News. (It also includes my favorite print title, 285 Hustler, which is known as a “shopper,” or an advertising vehicle.) Some of the newspapers in the chain are more than 100 years old.

From Sun editor Larry Ryckman in a note to readers Monday:

This is a bit of a departure for The Colorado Sun, which has been an all-digital news site since our founding in 2018. But our entire staff has extensive experience in the print newspaper world, so we’re confident we still remember how it’s done. And the preservation of these newspapers is absolutely part of our mission of public service.

From Denver’s 9News:

Their publications reach 330,000 people in the Metro Area at their doorstep or mailbox under the banners: Littleton Independent, Englewood Herald, Clear Creek Courant, Elbert County News, Fort Lupton Press and Parker Chronicle.

Ann Healey, who is also a local teacher, published a first-person goodbye piece about their history with the publishing business. “Jerry and I are leaving for a few reasons: We are nearing retirement. We would like to spend more time with our children and granddaughter,” she wrote. “We would like to see what else is in store for us. But we also felt it was time for new energy and vision for our papers and the communities they serve.”

The Colorado Media Project, which underwrites this newsletter, put the deal in context with others in the past three years. From a write-up at the CMP site:

In 2019 CMP helped facilitate Colorado Public Radio’s acquisition of the digital startup, Denverite, and in 2020 we helped launch the Colorado News Collaborative (or COLab), now an independent nonprofit resource hub uniting a coalition of journalists from more than 100 newsrooms statewide. CMP leaders also have come together to support innovative new ventures like The Colorado Sun and Rocky Mountain Public Media’s THE DROP.

The process of putting together the CCM deal was, frankly, complex and arduous and took a small village to pull off. But we now have the result we all worked towards: These 24 newspapers will stay in local hands with a strong future focused on expanding their journalistic legacy and service to local communities.

A PDF version of a press release about the sale ran eight pages long. The Denver public relations firm SE2 sent out a version of it via email.

Big picture: It’s a first-of-its-kind kind of thing

Take it from Jim Clarke, who is managing director of local markets for The Associated Press and is based in Denver.

“This is a big deal in my business,” he said on Facebook. “I don’t think it overstates it to say a new ownership model is being invented here.”

Here’s what I wrote for “Inside the News”:

This unconventional newspaper transaction in Colorado also marks the first purchase of a newspaper company by the National Trust for Local News, says its CEO Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro. She framed the deal, which has been in the works since around Thanksgiving, as one of a kind.

New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, a national thinker about the future of news, had a take:

On its new website unveiled Monday, the Colorado News Conservancy was explicit on that front. Some language from the site’s homepage:

We are creating an alternative to national consolidation of local news outlets. We believe this can serve as a model for other regions. We invite you to learn more about how this points a new way forward for the future of local news.

In a statement, Jason Alcorn, vice president of learning and impact for the American Journalism Project, said this Colorado newspaper purchase “will offer a national model for how local newspapers held in the public trust can continue to serve their communities through organizational collectives and the backing of philanthropy.”

Big move for the Sun as it approaches its third year

The development is also a boost for the Sun.

The site that began with 10 employees and proved itself in its first year, has grown to 15 and has plans to add five more by the end of the summer, Ryckman told me over the weekend. (Note: The last names of two of its newest journalists are “Bright” and “Sun.”)

The Sun, you might recall, launched with seed money from a New York-based blockchain-backed company called Civil that wanted to cultivate a thriving cryptocurrency market to sustain local news startups. While that effort collapsedThe Sun currently relies on reader support from more than 12,000 paying members, Ryckman said, and is also supported by underwriting and grants.

“It’s still early days for us … we’re not quite three years old so I don’t want to be too cocky, but we’re in a much stronger position financially than we were three years ago,” Ryckman says.

So how might this new relationship benefit both the Sun and its new newspaper network? One way might be if someone from, for instance, Littleton, signed up to become a Sun member, the Sun might say for an extra X-number of dollars they could become a subscriber to The Littleton Independent. Or the other way around.

On the digital side, last week I wrote how the Canadian local news company Village Media is eyeing another Colorado news site, but also is in talks with organizations here about licensing a platform for local news publishers that it calls “one of the fastest, most responsive, and stable platforms in the industry.” 

Asked if that’s on the table for this new network of sites that will need a digital upgrade, Ryckman said it could be.

“We’re evaluating a number of options,” he said. “This is a different ballgame for us. We have been operating a digital-only news site for the past three years and now we’re going to be helping to oversee a print and digital operation and we want to make sure that we’ve got the right software to do that, and do it in the most efficient way.”

A 5280 magazine writer got his start at one of those small papers as a kid

It turns out Robert Sanchez, an eloquent writer Denver’s 5280 magazine, worked as a teenager for two Colorado Community Media’s newspapers growing up in Parker.

On Tuesday, he published a first-person piece about what the job meant to him. From the magazine:

My high school English teacher, Mr. Stump, got me the work. It was 1993, the Chronicle was new to town, and the newspaper needed cheap labor to fill its pages every week. If I remember correctly, the application bar was pretty low. I may have used a sophomore-year essay to get the job. My mom answered the phone when the publisher called to say I was hired. I don’t think I’ve seen her happier.

For my work, I received $250 each week and had personalized business cards. Truth be told, I would have done the work for the business cards. “Robert Sanchez Staff Writer,” the cards said, which meant more to me than anything appearing in my nascent bank account. The card affirmed to me that I belonged in the working-journalist club. More importantly, it was proof that I mattered to my community. …

I wrote, I edited, I answered phones, I folded newspapers and delivered them in my 1988 Toyota 4Runner in the pouring rain. Before I was given a key to the office, I would slip my story drafts under the glass door and then call my editor from school the next morning to make sure he’d gotten the story. When I applied to college at the University of Missouri, the editors let me print at least 100 of my newspaper clips to attach to my application.

Read the whole thing here.

Oh great, so everyone’s excited about Greater Denver again, Rodriguez says

The news about local news experimentation and innovation coming out of the Front Range opened a lament from the former publisher of Pulp in Pueblo.

John Rodriguez posted on social media his frustrations about the latest good local media news for communities a couple hours north while his own minority-owned independent news magazine had to shut down within the past year.

While it’s true there are a lot of exciting things happening in Colorado around efforts to save and sustain local news — and there are efforts afoot in different regions of Colorado supported by Denver-based entities — to think that Pulp wasn’t savable somehow is a shame.

It’s worth noting on the pandemic and communities of color front, the Colorado Media Project recently announced a new round of grants to local outlets serving audiences of color and those that have “existing, trusted relationships with communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.”

The “eight Colorado newsrooms and two newsroom-community partnerships will receive a total of $85,000 in grants to support local journalism and community listening and reporting projects that address critical information needs, questions, and concerns about uptake of the COVID-19 vaccine among communities of color and other marginalized groups,” the organization says.

There is “immense need across the media ecosystem, and the business transitions/transactions CMP gets involved in are about preserving or adding scale, bolstering viable business models, and leveraging existing local investment,” says Colorado Media Project director Melissa Milios-Davis.

More from Milios-Davis:

If anything, one of the reasons we got involved in the CCM deal is that it establishes some state-level infrastructure that may prove useful for preserving local ownership of hyperlocal outlets in the future. It’s still a ways down the road, but the Colorado News Conservancy could be a vehicle for other friendly acquisitions, even with separate ownership structures that suit the needs of the local community. But all of that depends on hyperlocal investment as well. State-level and national funders can only do so much. Ultimately the local community’s readers, business owners, and civic leaders have to rally and show support. We’re hopeful that there’s this enthusiasm out there in many communities with the right local leadership.

For Pueblo,” a story in this winter’s Columbia Journalism Review by Abe Streep about the Pulp’s fate, is a heartbreaking read. (That story is one of three finalists for best profile in this year’s Mirror Awards, by the way.)

Some more local context: A third owner in five months for one reporter

This isn’t the first time in the past year Colorado Community Media was making headlines about newspaper sales.

Five months ago I reported in this newsletter how the company “announced it bought a collection of Denver-area papers from a Kentucky-based company called Landmark Community Newspapers.” (My perennial favorite 285 Hustler was part of that deal.)

From that previous story:

The purchase, which apparently caught some of the Landmark folks off guard, had a particularly interesting twist for one early-career journalist, Liam Adams, who had just put in his two-week notice at the Landmark-owned Brighton Standard Blade when he learned of the deal. He’d planned to go full-time freelance, he wrote in a social media thread. “However, due to a freak newspaper sale, that all changed in a matter of days,” he said. “So, technically, I am, ‘sticking around.’ And I couldn’t be more psyched.”

Now, half a year later, he has a new new owner.

“As a 26-year-old journalist, it’s been disorienting at times to have three newspaper owners in six months. There is a lot of shifting in a short period of time,” he told me Monday. “However, the first acquisition presented me with new opportunities, challenges and responsibilities; exactly what I needed to grow at this point in my career. I have little doubt this new acquisition will do the same.”

For COLab’s Laura Frank, who was present at Monday morning’s staff gathering of CCM for the announcement, being there brought back certain memories.

“That last time I stood in a newsroom, listening to the owners talk about transition, it was when the Rocky Mountain News was about to close,” she said. “This morning, I got to witness a very different kind of announcement. [This] is big news for local news, not only here in Colorado, but potentially across America — a way to help communities keep local control of their news sources.”

What some others are saying

I’m Corey Hutchins, instructor at Colorado College’s Journalism Institute, the Colorado-based contributor for Columbia Journalism Review’s United States Project, and a journalist for multiple news outlets. The Colorado Media Project, where I write case studies, is underwriting this newsletter, and my “Inside the News” column appears at COLab, both of which I sometimes write about here — A LOT today, obviously. (If you, too, would like to underwrite this newsletter, hit me up.) Follow me on Twitter, reply or subscribe to this weekly newsletter here, or e-mail me at CoreyHutchins [at] gmail [dot] com.