Reimagining the public square: What's happening in Colorado's information ecosystem right now
These are some of the players trying to strengthen and transform local journalism, battle misinformation and disinformation, bolster democracy, and help communities solve real-world problems
Over the past decade or longer it’s been increasingly clear that our online and public conversations have become polluted and polarized. How did we get here? And what’s being done right now to try and remedy it? Colorado provides an interesting place to look.
In 2019, PEN America released a powerful national report called Losing the News that sounded an alarm about the “existential threat” facing communities as local newsrooms struggle. In its assessment, the group looked to Denver as a case study for a fractured “new media environment ecosystem.” It wouldn’t be the first or last time Colorado would be a stand-in for the problems and potential solutions in national trends.
Like elsewhere, in Colorado’s capital and throughout the state, a broken business model for local news has meant traditional newspapers have folded, fewer reporters are on the beat, and residents might know less about what’s going on in their local communities. A body of research shows a decline in local news has negative impacts for democracy. When independent local news organizations go dark, residents can become less engaged, corruption can flourish, and municipal bond rates have even gone up.
In this vacuum, misinformation can spread. During the 2016 election, an analysis of social media data showed hundreds of thousands of Colorado voters were exposed to “misinformation and propaganda through media outlets and social networks,” The Denver Post reported.
More recently, in 2020, media reported how more than a dozen websites “made to look like newspapers in Colorado” have popped up and “come from questionable backgrounds.”
Throughout that period, the former U.S. president aggressively fomented distrust of the press. Last year, 38% of Colorado residents told a credible polling firm they had “no trust at all” in state and local media “to report news and information in an unbiased and objective manner.”
Creating questionable content can be cheap and easy, and those who produce it do so at a time when some large and credible news organizations are keeping their content behind digital paywalls and out of reach for non-subscribers. At the same time, nonprofit, public media, and public benefit media models – which rely on voluntary support from members to ensure free and open access to high-quality content – are a fast-growing segment of Colorado’s local civic news media ecosystem, proving that many Coloradans do believe in paying for local news as a public good.
Residents might be getting their news and information more quickly and from more sources than they used to, but plenty still struggle to understand what’s legit and what isn’t on a phone or computer screen. Algorithms can exacerbate the problem. As one Colorado journalist recently put it, news organizations don’t own the means through which they communicate to their audiences anymore and are merely “renting space” from technology and telecom monopolies just like everyone else. “Some journalists still think we’re the public square,” he said. “We’re not. We’re just another voice hollering within it.”
Now seems as good a time as any to try and get a sense of the swarm of people and projects in Colorado confronting this new information reality.
The Ecosystem Builders
Many of the problems that exist throughout the nation are aggravated in Colorado for one reason or another, and some of the potential solutions are taking root here, too. These are some of the players and their playbooks.
Colorado Media Project
In 2018, Colorado Media Project launched as a “broad-based coalition of civic leaders, students, academics, philanthropists, journalists, business leaders, librarians, technologists, and other local residents to better understand the market forces behind the decline in local news.” They have conducted surveys, issued reports, and are seeking to “understand new opportunities and threats introduced by technology and social platforms; and to prototype and test new ways to engage a broader range of residents in the future of local news and civic information.”
In a recent update looking back at the past four years of work, Colorado Media Project director Melissa Milios Davis wrote:
Since 2018, CMP has incubated a number of path-leading projects. These include the #newsCOneeds campaign and matching grant program that helped 24 nonprofit and locally owned Colorado news outlets raise more than $578,000 from 5,277 individuals in 2020. We stood up the Informed Communities Fund and provided $135,000 in responsive grants to newsrooms serving communities of color during COVID, and this January announced nearly $1 million more to support journalists, newsrooms and innovators who are advancing equity in local news. And CMP joined with the Colorado Press Association, The Colorado Independent, and eight other founding partners to incubate and launch the Colorado News Collaborative.
In 2022, the project is entering what it’s calling “Phase II” of its work as a funder, catalyst, and advocate for “innovations that make Colorado's local news ecosystem more sustainable, collaborative, trusted, equitable and accountable to the public it serves.” CMP leaders have collectively pledged at least $3.5 million over the next three years to the effort, and are inviting peers from across Colorado and the nation “to join us in forming a Funder Table to share knowledge, opportunities, and learning about grantmaking, impact investments, and collaborative efforts that can support informed and engaged communities across our state.”
Colorado News Collaborative
While COLab was beginning to take shape in late 2019 as a loose coalition and shared workspace in Rocky Mountain Public Media’s new building before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, impacts from the virus accelerated the group’s efforts. “It heightened the feeling of the greater good, which made it all the easier to collaborate,” COLab Executive Director Laura Frank told Columbia Journalism Review in 2020.
The Associated Press, a founding member of COLab, helped catapult collaboration early in the pandemic by launching its StoryShare tool in Colorado, where COLab partners of all sizes, business models, and formats can share their content for free and re-publish for audiences across the state, in the name of public interest.
“It was a way to signal properly that the Denver Post wants to work with the other media organizations around the state—that we don’t imagine ourselves as the lone wolf,” Lee Ann Colacioppo, the paper’s top editor, said about the Post’s participation in one early COLab project. “It was a way to say, ‘We’re part of this ecosystem,’ and to get a story that touched on something that we’d been talking about but weren’t able to do ourselves.”
Working closely with the Colorado Press Association, COLab has three key pillars for helping bolster the state’s information ecosystem: Better news, more trust, and faster evolution.
“Every Coloradan should have access to strong local news. News that is fair and accurate, that informs and educates, that holds power to account and illuminates the life of a local community,” the organization says on its website. “COLab exists to help make that access a statewide reality through collaborative journalism, authentic community engagement, and innovative business models.”
COLab’s Voices Initiative, which began in partnership with Free Press and Colorado Media Project, convened working groups of Black and Latinx and community members, and produced two groundbreaking reports in 2021. They are “‘The Time is Right Now:’ A Call to Action from Black Coloradans for Anti-Racist and Just Local News,” and “Think Big Act Now: A call to action from Latinx Coloradans for equitable and just local news.” This year, COLab convened a public virtual panel “to discuss the importance of engaging with news media on how it portrays Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities and community members in the news.”
COLab also does original reporting itself, almost as a state-level version of ProPublica in the way it partners with local news organizations, typically in small towns, on large, impactful investigative and accountability projects. These have included a series about the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health, and police killings.
Colorado News Conservancy
In 2021, the National Trust for Local News and The Colorado Sun joined in a “first-in-the-nation effort to keep newspapers locally owned and thriving.” Backed by local foundations, the Trust purchased Colorado Community Media — a chain of two dozen weekly papers in eight Front Range counties from a couple who had been looking to retire — and formed the Colorado News Conservancy as an ownership vehicle dedicated to keeping local news in local hands..
Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro, co-founder of the National Trust for Local News, told The New York Times that the model being established in Colorado might be replicated elsewhere. She told the Times that roughly $300 million “would be enough to preserve nearly all the independent community papers” across the country that are currently at risk.
Alongside these players, often with their help or in collaboration but also on their own or with national partners, are individual local media initiatives aimed at reimagining the public square.
Support for ethnic media and equity initiatives
In the spring of 2022, the Aurora-based African lifestyle magazine Afrik Digest, along with the City of Aurora’s Office of International and Immigrant Affairs, hosted what it called the Colorado Ethnic News Media Exchange at the local municipal center. The goal was to “begin a dialogue between the African media organizations and the numerous ethnic media outlets in Colorado.”
That same year, Colorado Media Project offered nearly $1 million in grants to strengthen and advance equity in local news. Several of them went to news organizations that serve communities of color, including Denver Urban Spectrum, El Comercio de Colorado, Entérate Latino, Afrik Digest, Mile High Asian Media, and Hablemos Hoy. Other grants went to news organizations and nonprofits to bolster efforts around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) at outlets large and small and aided Colorado newsrooms, journalists, and media entrepreneurs “in launching new projects and strengthening existing efforts to serve communities across the state.”
Other projects included a COLab survey of diversity of Colorado newsrooms, and a collaboration with eight local newsrooms to “explore solutions for meeting information needs of Spanish speakers in the Roaring Fork Valley.”
A newspaper’s answer to Facebook and Nextdoor
On the Western Slope, a Wick Communications-owned newspaper became the first in its Colorado chain to test out a way to try and bridge a gap “between local news and social media.” The Montrose Daily Press newspaper instituted a platform it calls NABUR, standing for Neighborhood Alliance for Better Understanding and Respect, and Neighborhood Assisted Bureau Reporting.
Begun last February and backed by a Google News Initiative Challenge fund, the effort seeks to “help provide an alternative social media platform where the journalists can help facilitate dialogue,” according to Sean Fitzpatrick, digital director for the Press’s parent company Wick Communications.
Dennis Anderson, publisher of The Montrose Daily Press and Delta County Independent, calls NABUR “basically a safe place to have a conversation.” He has described it as a combination of a Facebook group and Nextdoor. “If you look at the site,” he says, “it kind of feels a bit like Reddit.” (NABUR users cannot be anonymous.)
Here’s what the local newspaper’s NABUR project is up against locally: On Facebook, a group called The Montrose Message Board has racked up 21,500 members in its near-decade in existence. For context, that’s about half the size of the population of Montrose County, according to 2020 census data. When unveiling the project to the newspaper’s audience, the Press’s managing editor said, “We think that this will be a really good way that we can fight misinformation within our community.”
Tribal Media in Southwest Colorado
Understanding the powerful ability for native people to control their own narrative, Rocky Mountain Public Media and KSUT Tribal Radio in Southwestern Colorado created a platform to do just that. Called Native Lens, the effort helps indiginous storytellers create and share mini-documentaries.
“Holding a platform for Native and Indigenous people to tell their own stories, we can create discourse about how to address systemic issues we face as individuals and as Native nations, which will also allow us to exercise visual storytelling as a medium that can increase respectful growth and ethical change,” student Charine Pilar Gonzales told the Tribal College Journal of American Indian Higher Education.
Meanwhile, in a first-of-its-kind collaboration between KSUT and KSJD Community Radio in Cortez, the two stations created “Voices from the Edge of the Colorado Plateau” that seeks to “elevate voices from underserved communities. The multi-year project will cover Native, Indigenous, Latinx, and other communities across southwest Colorado.”
Backed by a $135,000 Colorado Media Project grant over three years, KSUT, which runs a Tribal Media Center, and KSJD will hire and share a full-time Indigenous affairs reporter to develop and produce “citizen-driven enterprise journalism.” A multi-year grant from The Colorado Health Foundation will support a news director for the new center.
Statewide prison radio
Colorado is home to the first statewide prison radio station in the United States. Inside Wire, started in 2022, “beams music, stories, news and entertainment into prisons across Colorado—and broadcasts its sounds to listeners outside facilities as well, across the U.S. and beyond.” The initiative is a collaboration between the state’s department of corrections and the University of Denver’s Prison Arts Initiative.
“This is one more stake in the ground on our mission of transforming prisons to be a place of humanity, to have purpose, intentionality and to bring the men and women behind the walls not only on that mission, but to have them lead the mission of making prisons more intentional,” Colorado Department of Corrections Director Dean Williams told The Colorado Sun.
Prison journalism “provides a window into the concealed world of mass incarceration, gives a voice to the incarcerated, and sheds light on the politics of the carceral state,” reported the magazine Jacobin. “Free and uncensored prison journalism is essential to criminal justice reform.”
Rocky Mountain Public Media’s ‘Colorado Voices’ and The DROP
With a mission to “help build a Colorado where everyone is seen and heard,” Rocky Mountain PBS uplifts the stories of Coloradans from underrepresented stories through a series of broadcast programming.
Since 2020, RMPBS has produced more than 500 episodes including what it’s like being Black in Denver, high-school artists confronting issues like guns and climate change, inequalities in the state’s cannabis industry, immigrants taking sanctuary in churches, racial bias in transportation, homelessness and housing in mountain towns, native students helping heal “generational wounds left by Indian Boarding Schools,” Latino craft brewers, and how houses and ballroom culture is “more than just ‘glitz and glam’ for LGBTQ+ and BIPOC communities.”
Meanwhile, the state’s largest membership organization is also expanding its reach into Denver’s radio space with the launch of The DROP, which is “one of just five ‘urban alternative’ public radio stations in the country” and where Program Director Nikki Swarn is “the first female African American radio station general manager in Colorado history.”
Local news startups
Because of its size, location, and demographic makeup, Denver has become an attractive city for local news innovators to test out experiments and start pilot projects. If it can work in Denver, the thinking goes, it might work elsewhere.
That was the case in 2016 when some publishers and investors launched Denverite with no business model. At the time, Columbia Journalism Review reported Denverite was a “test market for a potential string of for-profit news sites in other cities.” Three years later, after it struggled to make money, Colorado Public Radio bought the site in a deal facilitated by the Colorado Media Project.
In 2021, Axios launched a daily newsletter in Denver, choosing the Mile High City as one of a handful of test markets. Since then, Axios has decided to expand its local newsletter reporting enterprise to several other cities. When the national podcast outlet City Cast was looking to launch in select cities to test out the market for sustainable local news in that format, it chose Denver. States Newsroom, perhaps the fastest-growing national network of nonprofit news outlets, funded the creation of Colorado Newsline in 2020, staffing it with Colorado journalists, and now has newsrooms in more than half the states.
In 2022, NewsBreak quietly hired a local Denver editor and staff as the California-based company that calls itself “the nation’s leading local news app” sought to test out whether the aggregator could build an audience with originally reported local news. The company later expanded to other states with a focus on news deserts.
Homegrown local news startups, and their role in communities
Across Colorado, journalists and community members are starting local news organizations where they see a gap. Sometimes national organizations have taken note and seeded their growth.
The Colorado Sun, a public benefit corporation that launched in 2018 when 10 journalists from The Denver Post defected in protest of deep cuts instituted by its hedge-fund owner, has become a national local news startup success story. Within four years, the Sun had doubled its staff, relying on reader support, underwriting, and philanthropy. A 2021 report conducted by the University of Colorado stated the Sun received about 80% of its revenue from paying members.
In Boulder, a former reporter for the local daily newspaper started Boulder Beat to fill in gaps in local government coverage and recently launched an opinion section. “Modern social media allows more people than ever to comment on the news,” the outlets’ founder, Shay Castle, wrote. “But readers still want trusted sources for both news and opinion to challenge one-sided narratives and inform the community on key issues.”
Also in Boulder is the new Boulder Reporting Lab, backed by The Google News Initiative’s Local Experiments Project and founded by Stacy Feldman who previously founded InsideClimate News.
In Northern Colorado, Kelly Ragan, a former daily newspaper reporter there, founded The NoCo Optimist to report on local government, small businesses, and community interests, while in Estes Park, a reformed former Oathkeepers spokesman, Jason Van Tatenhove, runs Colorado Switchblade, a local news Substack and podcast.
In the Southeastern part of the state, Adrian Hart created SECO News in 2019. “I built a news platform to fill the need for a marketing gap in my community,” he said. In ski country, David O. Williams runs Real Vail offering “an independent view of the events and people shaping the Vail area, the state of Colorado and the Rocky Mountain region.”
Calling itself the city’s “first community-owned, not-for-profit news publication” and “not your grandma’s evening newspaper,” The Pueblo Star Journal launched in the fall of 2021.
In the San Luis Valley, the Alamosa Citizen launched as a nonprofit newsroom along with the Rural Journalism Institute of the San Luis Valley to add reporting capacity to a part of Colorado that’s roughly the size of Delaware and has a thin local news scene.
In Longmont, local leaders and media innovators launched The Longmont Observer in 2018 as a hyperlocal, volunteer-run digital startup to counter the cutbacks experienced by the hedge fund-owned daily newspaper. Since then, a Google-backed experiment absorbed the Observer and renamed it The Longmont Leader, which is now owned by Village Media but has retained its local staff and flavor and expanded with a sister site in Broomfield.
Meanwhile, civic leaders have doubled down on the city-supported Longmont Public Media, which is housed in the original Carnegie Library in Longmont and includes a digital media makerspace, podcast studio, and resident-run programming on multiple digital channels.
Colorado News Mapping Project
The above startups are merely a small sampling of a new and emerging information ecosystem across Colorado.
To put that universe into perspective, a group of journalists, academics and nonprofit news leaders are working on a statewide interactive map to research and show where citizens are getting relevant news and information in each of Colorado’s 64 counties.
This project, which involves Colorado College’s Journalism Institute, the University of Denver, COLab, the Colorado Media Project, and others, seeks to help Coloradans identify existing outlets, potential partners, innovators, and individuals who can play new roles in supporting community information needs. That could be anything from local libraries to universities, nonprofit organizations, community centers, schools, or other information hubs we don’t know about.
The project, currently in a map-visualization development stage, was supported by a grant administered by the Online News Association with support from the Democracy Fund, Knight Foundation, the Inasmuch Foundation, and Scripps Howard Foundation.
Coloradans can help by taking five minutes to fill out this survey we created if you think the creators might miss a local news or information source in your county.
Civic dialogue and democracy
Outside the local media sphere, academics, civic groups, and others in Colorado have begun initiatives to try and bridge divides and promote civic dialogue. Some of these include:
The Northern Colorado Deliberative Journalism Project
This effort formed at the end of last year in partnership with the Coloradoan newspaper and an academic program at Colorado State University. The American Press Institute, a national organization that seeks to help sustain local news, is helping the project by providing grant support.
“The concept of ‘deliberative journalism’ focuses on a particular form of journalism focused on helping communities engage their shared problems more effectively,” wrote Coloradoan Editor Eric Larsen in November. “It will focus both on engaging local issues, as well as building civic capacity to address issues better through public lectures, workshops and learning exchanges.”
The project hosted recent panels with titles like “How to Tackle Wicked Problems in Local Communities,” and has focused on concerns about “how to react to growing misinformation, as well as how claims of misinformation can be used to simply dismiss points of view.”
Martín Carcasson, who founded and directs CSU’s Center for Public Deliberation, offers updates in a living document about the project here.
A movement for public policy that supports healthier civic news and information
In recent years, conversations about whether to increase public-sector support for a struggling local news industry have been taking place among Coloradans perhaps more than anywhere else. The issue is on the agenda for high-profile press advocates like the Colorado Media Project and PEN America and the Rebuild Local News Coalition. They’ve drafted policy papers with specific recommendations for Colorado and held public events about the topic.
This year, lawmakers have given preliminary approval to a proposed new law that would give a 50% tax credit — capped at $2,500 — for small businesses that advertise with local media. (The hope is that more local advertisers will support their struggling local news organizations at a time when ad dollars are flowing to large tech platforms like Facebook and Google.)
In 2019, community members in Longmont made national news when they floated an idea of a local library taxing district to help subsidize a local news outlet. (It didn’t happen.) In 2020, for the first time ever, the Colorado Office of Economic Development & International Trade offered a $100,000 Advanced Industries Accelerator Grant opportunity to a local news publisher.
At the federal level, Colorado’s Democratic U.S. Senator, Michael Bennet, introduced The Future of Local News Commission Act, which could, in part, “explore the possible creation of a new national endowment for local journalism, or the reform and expansion of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or another appropriate institution, to make public funds a part of a multi-faceted approach to sustaining local news.”
The Colorado Unify Challenge
Started by Democratic Attorney General Phil Weiser and former Republican Secretary of State Wayne Williams, the Colorado Unify Challenge is a local effort of the national Unify America that seeks to encourage individuals to sign up for conversations with those who don’t necessarily agree politically.
“Hundreds of people across Colorado have signed up for Colorado Unify Challenge sessions later this month at the same time people across the country will be paired in virtual talks,” The Colorado Sun reported this April.
Building a Better Colorado’s ‘Colorado Conversations’
This statewide nonpartisan project has convened conversations and recommended policy proposals like opening up partisan primaries so unaffiliated voters can participate.
The group says it convenes “politically-balanced panels of subject-matter experts to discern the facts about a given policy challenge, defines a range of potential policy options to address that challenge, and then engages citizens in a constructive conversation to evaluate the merits of those different policy options.”
In 2015 and 2019, the group held what it calls Colorado Conversations in nearly 40 communities across the state with roughly 3,000 residents.
“By giving control of the outcome to those whom we engage in our statewide conversation,” the group says, “BBCO puts YOU in the driver’s seat for charting the pathway forward for Colorado.”
Restore the Balance
In Mesa County, a hotbed for right-wing conspiracies and extremism, a group called Restore the Balance has been holding public meetings, conducting surveys, and organizing around bridging divides in the community.
“Call it decency, civility, respect or plain good manners. We think it is something worth bringing back,” the founders of Restore the Balance wrote about their guiding principles, according to an April profile of the effort in The Colorado Sun.
Media fluency efforts taking root
In the digital era, so much responsibility is increasingly falling on readers, viewers, and listeners when it comes to processing information and determining whether media they are consuming is trustworthy and legit. In recent years, groups beyond the usual suspects of journalism organizations have taken up the cause.
Colorado might be doing more to help on this front than other states, at least in some respects. When the group Media Literacy Now released its first report on media literacy among younger people in 2020 and listed Colorado as “the second-best state in the U.S. for tackling media illiteracy in students.”
That was largely because of a state law legislators passed and the governor signed in 2019 that began a process for the state education department to incorporate media literacy, and in 2021 a law to implement the programs. The law requires the department of education “to create and maintain an online resource bank of materials and resources pertaining to media literacy. At a minimum, the resource bank must include the materials and resources recommended in the media literacy advisory committee’s report.”
Have we missed something you think should be included? Email me at coreyhutchins[dot]gmail[dot]com.
I’m Corey Hutchins, interim director of Colorado College’s Journalism Institute. For nearly a decade I’ve reported on the U.S. local media scene for Columbia Journalism Review, and I’ve been a journalist for longer at multiple news organizations. 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. Follow me on Twitter, reply or subscribe to this weekly newsletter here, or e-mail me at CoreyHutchins [at] gmail [dot] com.
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