On the ground during a raucous student protest with The Colorado Sun

Colorado Sun education reporter Erica Breunlin

One of the best things about visiting local news organizations is getting a chance to accompany reporters on stories. I still look back fondly on my trips to New Haven about a dozen years ago, when I shadowed the staff of the New Haven Independent. And then there was the unforgettable experience of covering the first news conference on COVID-19 in Mendocino County, California, on March 5, 2020, while I was reporting on The Mendocino Voice.

I was in Denver last week learning about The Colorado Sun, an online-only project founded three years ago by a group of journalists who left The Denver Post after multiple rounds of cuts by its hedge-fund owner, Alden Global Capital. And on Monday, I struck gold.

I was sitting in on the morning news meeting when we learned that students had staged a walkout at Denver North High School to call for the removal of school board member Tay Anderson, who was censured last week for inappropriate interactions with an underage student. (Anderson has said he cut off all contact as soon as he learned she was 16.) I took a Lyft to Denver North, where hundreds of students had gathered in Denver Park.

Already on the scene were two young journalists — the Sun’s education reporter, Erica Breunlin, and photographer Olivia Sun (“no nepotism involved,” she quipped), who began a stint at the Sun through the Report for America program several months ago.

It was a wild scene. Students were chanting “Hey hey, ho ho! Tay Anderson has got to go!” And “Resign!” After gathering on the steps of the school, they headed off for Denver Public Schools headquarters, some two and a half miles away. The chants grew more profane, with “Fuck That Pedo” proving to be the most popular.

Breunlin and Sun, meanwhile, were hard at work. Breunlin had made the mistake of wearing red pumps, but that didn’t stop her from interviewing students and then running to keep up with the crowd. At one point she asked a student, “Do you feel unsafe?” “Yes.” “Why do you feel unsafe?” Pause. “It’s not right.”

Report for America photographer Olivia Sun

Breunlin was careful to point out to the students that the evidence against Anderson was ambiguous, but that didn’t stop them from demanding action. At one point, the students started chanting “Lock him up!”

I knew Breunlin was tweeting. But while I was scanning my phone outside the DPS building, I was surprised to see that the Sun had posted a full story. When had she written that? She later explained to me that it was pieced together by her editor, Lance Benzel, from her tweets and from phone calls.

“He was great, because he was telling me to really just focus on the scenery and talking to people and tweeting and really capturing that color,” she told me later. “And then he was embedding my tweets into the story, pulling information from my tweets to put in the story, so it was like I was doing the reporting. He was kind of finessing the story, so it really was a good team effort.”

Sun told me she had sought a position through Report for America, which places young journalists with newsrooms across the country, because she was burning out on her job as a photographer with the Des Moines Register.

“The institutional knowledge I gained from working somewhere like that [the Register] is really irreplaceable,” she said. “I really got to learn from old guard veteran journalists. But essentially I wanted to see what else was out there and how I could personally put my skills to a more streamlined use in just illustrating local issues.”

Ironically, both Breunlin and Sun said that what had attracted them to the Sun was the chance to work on in-depth stories rather than breaking news — and here they were, covering a breaking story. But that’s not typical of what they, or the Sun, do.

Finally, here is their story. It was updated later in the day, so it isn’t quite as urgent as the first version. But you’ll get the idea. Nor was theirs the only strong account. I thought The Denver Post, in conjunction with Chalkbeat, did a nice job as well.

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In the rural heartland, indie newspapers survive with a back-to-basics approach

It’s something I’ve seen over and over in tracking the state of local news for the past dozen years. Despite the very real challenges community journalism faces from technological and cultural change, news organizations that are not burdened by corporate chain ownership can continue to serve as vital, financially sustainable operations.

A new report by Tony Baranowski, director of local media for Times Citizen Communications in Iowa Falls, Iowa, makes the point. While he was a fellow at the West Virginia University Reed College of Media and the West Virginia Press Association’s NewStart Program, he studied several newspapers in the Upper Midwest in depth and surveyed more than 50 small newspaper publishers across the country.

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What he found was that, despite the narrative that local newspapers are dying, these independent papers were keeping their heads above water. Baranowski writes:

The strongest community news outlets are locally owned and managed by families or individuals with local ties that stretch back decades. That’s not an easy circumstance to replicate for a would-be publisher looking to buy or launch a news organization in a rural town, but it’s not a prerequisite, either. In fact, the common denominator is less longevity than fostering community spirit and pride within both staff-generated content and advertising in a traditional newspaper’s pages.

Among the people interviewed in Baranowski’s report is Jim Slonoff, the co-founder and publisher of The Hinsdalean, a free paper launched in suburban Chicago in 2006. I wrote about The Hinsdalean a couple of months ago to highlight its practice of signing up members of the community to write essays on a variety of topics. Although running unpaid columns is hardly new territory for local newspapers, The Hinsdalean actively recruits writers and limits them to a two-year term, ensuring a steady stream of fresh voices.

Like many of the people Baranowski spoke with, Slonoff said The Hinsdalean’s emphasis remains on print rather than digital. Slonoff said:

That’s the thing I don’t get about newspapers in general, because so many of them put so much money and resources into their websites with no return. We took the 180 degrees approach and said our money is coming from display advertising and real estate advertising. Why would we not focus on that? Facebook doesn’t bring us any money, Twitter and Instagram don’t. There’s nothing I get out of it that I know of, except we’re there. And we get a lot of likes and things and get a lot of this and comments and that feels good.

That might seem like a retrograde approach, but it’s one I’ve heard from a number of publishers who have to figure out how to break even.

The Provincetown Independent actually charges more for digital subscriptions than for a print-plus-digital combination, telling readers that “if we were to go online only, the savings in not having to print and mail the paper would not be anywhere near enough to make up for the loss of print advertising revenue.”

Last week I interviewed Jerry and Ann Healey, who sold their Colorado Community Media newspaper group earlier this year to The Colorado Sun, a start-up digital news organization, in a deal put together by the National Trust for Local News. They told me that, in many cases, when they offered a package combining digital and print, their advertisers weren’t interested — they wanted to be seen in the print newspaper. “In the community newspaper space, print is still a viable thing,” Jerry Healey said, “and the advertisers know that too.”

Then there’s Kris O’Leary of Central Wisconsin Newspapers, who told Baranowski that her readership includes Amish and Mennonite communities. Not much digital potential there.

Another of Baranowski’s findings is that newspapers with offices in the communities they cover tend to be healthier than those that have consolidated operations far from the people they serve.

If this sounds like Baranowski is recommending a back-to-the-future approach, it may be because he’s surveying local journalism in the rural heartland. A digital-first approach makes sense in affluent urban and suburban areas where readers can be persuaded to sign up for online-only subscriptions.

But in some parts of the country, technological advances have not changed the media all that much over the past several decades. It is in such places that journalism can do well by following a model that would have been familiar to our grandparents — independently owned newspapers, rooted in the community and supported by local businesses.

‘News Matters’ is now available via Kanopy and universities

Recently I wrote about “News Matters,” a documentary that tracks Alden Global Capital’s evisceration of The Denver Post and the rise of The Colorado Sun. Unfortunately, my post came just as Rocky Mountain PBS was about to take it down from its website.

But there’s good news. If you want to see it and you have a library card or university log-in, you can watch it by clicking here.

A documentary tracks the demise of Denver’s dailies — and the rising of the Sun

Photo by Brian Malone

In the documentary “News Matters,” Dean Singleton, who sold a majority share of his newspaper chain to the hedge fund Alden Global Capital in 2013, tells a gruesome story.

He recalls being sent out to a one-car accident after midnight when he was a young reporter working in Wichita Falls, Texas. The police officer at the scene told him the driver had been killed. Singleton, though, could see that the driver’s arms and legs were still moving, so he pressed the officer. The answer: the body would keep jerking around for a while, but that didn’t make him any less dead.

“That’s kind of where print newspapers are today,” he says.

“News Matters,” by Brian Malone, tells the story of Denver’s two daily newspapers — the Rocky Mountain News, which folded in 2009, and The Denver Post, formerly the crown jewel of Singleton’s empire, now being torn apart by Alden. The Post at one time had between 250 and 300 reporters; today it has about 60. As retired Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron says, that’s not nearly enough to cover a metropolitan area the size of Denver, with a population of about 2.9 million.

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Among those interviewed for the film is Greg Moore, a former managing editor of The Boston Globe, who was the Post’s top editor for 14 years before resigning in 2016 rather than implement cuts demanded by Alden. Moore recalls being grilled by Alden’s bean-counters over every issue imaginable, and some that weren’t imaginable, like “Why do you have photographers?” and “Why can’t you be the same size as some pissant paper in New Jersey?”

If there is a central character in “News Matters,” it’s former Post editorial page editor Chuck Plunkett, who wrote a searing editorial in 2018 referring to Alden as “vulture capitalists” and calling on community leaders to buy the Post. Plunkett becomes emotional when he recalls the cuts that followed Moore’s departure, saying, “I felt like I was floating out of my body, not even attached to the real world. And I just had this very clear thought — this is where The Denver Post dies.” Plunkett resigned not long after writing the anti-Alden editorial.

Toward the end of the film, we see some of the Post journalists who we’ve gotten to know — Larry Ryckman, Dana Coffield, Tamara Chuang and Jennifer Brown — starting a new venture, the online-only Colorado Sun. “The journalists you see up here today are the owners of The Colorado Sun,” Ryckman tells the small crowd that had gathered, “and we will be the ones calling the shots.”

Singleton’s retort: “The Colorado Sun has no future in my opinion … There’s no business model there.”

Well, the Sun is still shining, and it appears that it may be on track toward becoming a sustainable business. The film takes us into the early days of COVID-19. “Ad revenue has fallen off a cliff,” Ryckman says, “but it has greatly increased membership.” Earlier this year, the Sun acquired a group of 24 weekly and monthly newspapers in Denver’s suburbs.

And the once-mighty Denver Post continues to shrink.

If you’d like to see “News Matters,” you’d better hop to it. I only found out about it last week, and it turns out that Rocky Mountain PBS is taking it down on Wednesday. For the next couple of days, you can watch it here. There’s also information about hosting a screening that you can find at the film’s website.

How a group of Denver area newspapers were saved from corporate ownership

Photo (cc) 2008 by Alyson Hurt

Just before Thanksgiving last year, Melissa Milios Davis was contacted by Jerry Healey, the co-owner — along with his wife, Ann Healey — of Colorado Community Media, which publishes 24 weekly and monthly newspapers in the Denver suburbs.

The Healeys were approaching retirement and looking to sell, and they were hoping to avoid turning over their life’s work to a corporate chain owner or a hedge fund. Milios Davis, vice president for strategic communications and informed communities at the Gates Family Foundation, serves on the executive committee of the Colorado Media Project, which has been seeking ways forward for local news since 2018.

That encounter, Milios Davis said at a recent webinar (you can watch it here; background information here), led to the sale last month of the Healeys’ newspapers to a new entity whose majority owner will be The Colorado Sun, a startup digital news operation that’s run as a public benefit corporation. That means the 24 papers, like the Sun, will not be organized to enrich its owners; any profits they earn will be rolled back into news coverage and other operations.

“These are still profit-making enterprises. It’s a business,” said Milios Davis, adding it would have been a “huge loss” if the papers had fallen into the wrong hands.

Also speaking at the webinar, organized by the Media Enterprise Design Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder, were Lillian Ruiz, co-founder and managing director of the National Trust for Local News, and Larry Ryckman, editor and co-founder of the Sun. The moderator was Nathan Schneider, an assistant professor of media studies at the university.

According a recent article about the deal by Corey Hutchins of Colorado College, the papers will be owned by the newly formed Colorado News Conservancy, which in turn is co-owned by the National Trust for Local News and the Sun. Hutchins reported that the 40 employees who worked for the Healeys, about half of them journalists, would keep their jobs.

The conservancy is currently seeking a publisher, Ruiz said at the webinar, and has invested a considerable amount of attention in the process. “We didn’t want to create just a replication of who have we had some handshakes with over a highball,” she said.

The Sun itself, which was founded after the meltdown of The Denver Post under the ownership of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, is continuing to grow, said Ryckman — from a staff of about 10 when I wrote about the Sun for the Nieman Journalism Lab last fall to 15 today, with more on the way. He described the chance to save the community newspapers as something that was too important to pass up.

“At least on the Sun side, this came together pretty quickly,” he said. “This absolutely was a cause that was near and dear to our hearts…. We know who’s first in line when it comes to buying newspapers these days, and no one wants to see that happen.”

What helped jump-start the deal, said Milios Davis, was a study that the Colorado Media Project conducted several years ago in partnership with the Colorado Press Association. Among the findings: the number of journalists covering local news had been cut in half over the previous decade, in line with what was taking place nationally; and that of 151 newspapers they could identify, 93 were still locally owned.

“We saw on the horizon that a lot of these were … older owners” who lacked a succession plan, she said, explaining that there were 44 in that category. “We were looking at this as a tidal wave that would slowly crash on the shores,” which led to conversations about how to help them transition to new local ownership.

And then the Healeys came along.

One of the most important takeaways from what is happening in Colorado is that local news can still be run on a sustainable basis, and that corporate control and the gutting of newsrooms are not inevitable. As I wrote a few weeks ago, I would love to see the Colorado story replicated across the country. Ruiz said the exact model being used in Colorado might be unique to that area. But she added that her organization is looking at what might work in other parts of the country — especially in communities of color.

So how do we wrest control of local news away from chain owners? Report for America co-founder Steven Waldman, who’s been everywhere lately (it also turns out that he’s a co-founder of Ruiz’s organization), wrote an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times calling for tax breaks for newspaper owners who sell to nonprofits or public benefit corporations.

That would provide an incentive for the likes of Alden and Gannett to take their money and go home. I would add another incentive: tax penalties to be imposed on for-profit owners of newspaper chains of a certain size that are not owned locally.

Communities deserve a chance to take charge of their news and information. Three years after Alden all but destroyed The Denver Post, we’re starting to see a renaissance fueled by a new media venture and an old one that’s been given new life.

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A deal in Denver’s suburbs points the way toward a solution for local news

This is one of the most exciting developments I’ve seen in local news in a long time — certainly more exciting than the news that Substack and Facebook were going to toss some spare change in a tin cup in the hopes of enticing community journalists to set up shop on their platforms.

Earliest this week David Folkenflik of NPR reported that The Colorado Sun, a digital startup that arose from the ashes of The Denver Post, would acquire a chain of 24 small newspapers in the Denver suburbs in partnership with a new nonprofit organization called the National Trust for Local News. As Sun editor and co-founder Larry Ryckman told Folkenflik:

These are the folks who are covering school boards, city councils, county commissions that no one else is covering. They provide unique local coverage. And we’re doing this so that we can preserve those voices.

Denver is the best-known example of the damage inflicted on newspapers by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital. Three years ago, journalists at The Denver Post rebelled at Alden’s brutal budget cuts. But guess who won? That led Ryckman and others to leave and launch the Sun. Ryckman described what happened last fall at the Radically Rural conference sponsored by the Keene (N.H.) Sentinel, which I covered for the Nieman Journalism Lab:

We endured cut after cut after cut. I had to lay people off. We were under assault, really, from our own owners, and nothing that we did — not being faster, smarter, more digital — none of those things really matter when a hedge fund doesn’t really care about the community or the journalism that the newspaper it owns produces. It’s really about this quarter’s return.

At one time, Denver’s newspapers employed about 600 journalists, Ryckman said. But the Rocky Mountain News shut down in 2009, and, as of last fall, Ryckman estimated the head count at the Post as being somewhere around 60. The Sun employs 10 people. But as a public benefit corporation, it can reinvest whatever money it makes in improving its journalism.

Could such a model work elsewhere? I don’t see why not. Take Eastern Massachusetts, whose weekly and daily community newspapers are nearly all owned by Alden’s rival in cost-cutting, Gannett. Could some sort of nonprofit entity be formed that would attempt to buy back Gannett’s properties in the Boston area? Gannett does sell papers from time to time. Maybe it’s possible to make them an offer they wouldn’t refuse.

The situation is dire. And what’s taking place in Denver suggests a possible way forward.

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Bright lights in Denver

After Alden Global Capital destroyed The Denver Post, everyone assumed it was lights out. A city that had long had two vibrant daily papers (the Rocky Mountain News closed down in 2009) now barely had one.

Suddenly, though, news sources are proliferating in Denver. Today the all-digital Denver Gazette makes its debut, joining an earlier start-up, The Colorado Sun. The alt-weekly Westword continues to publish.

The lesson, as always, is that when legacy media fail, entrepreneurial journalists seize the opportunity to move in.

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