In 1833, The New York Sun revolutionized journalism as a pioneer of the penny press. In 2018, a new startup called The Colorado Sun is hoping to do the same as a pioneer of the blockchain/cryptocurrency press.
On June 18, eight former Denver Post journalists held a news conference in Civic Center Park and finally spilled the beans about what they’ve been up to since voluntarily leaving the paper amid the fallout from its disaster masters at Digital First Media/Alden Global Capital. Two senior editors, Larry Ryckman and Dana Coffield, will lead a star-studded writing team of Jason Blevins, Kevin Simpson, Jen Brown, John Ingold, Eric Lubbers and Tamara Chuang.
In the last newsletter, I noted how these folks all left on their own following the latest round of Denver Post layoffs and I wondered if they had a plan. Turns out they do. Supported by Civil Media, a New York-based platform with a background in cryptocurrency and blockchain technology, The Colorado Sun becomes the latest digital startup to try and crack the code of a sustainable business model to produce local journalism long term. What the Sun brings is a well-known and well-respected writer stable and the benefit of something new at a time when Denver readers are burned out on bad news about what’s happened to their newspaper of record. It also comes with a swirl of fairy dust because of its cryptocurrency and blockchain backers.
For some with long memories, though, a gathering in a park of recently departed newspaper journalists to unveil a new digital alternative brought about some deja vu. It was less than a decade ago when 30 former journalists from The Rocky Mountain News held a press conference on the Auraria campus to launch an online outlet called InDenverTimes with the help of some investors. It did not work out.
But there is enthusiasm for this new project. A Kickstarter launched by The Colorado Sun blew past its $75,000 goal with weeks to spare. As of this writing, it had more $119,000 with about 1,930 backers. The outlet has been welcomed by editors at other outlets that also occupy the digital news space. “We all gain from news produced by professional reporters trained in this craft and adherent to journalistic ethics,” wrote Susan Greene of The Colorado Independent, where I work. “Help us build and sustain an amazing news media ecosystem in Denver and Colorado,” wrote Dave Burdick of Denverite. “The word now is to complement — not compete. Although we’ll compete when we should,” wrote Eric Gorski of ChalkBeat Colorado in a must-read Twitter thread.
I spoke with Ryckman about how his opinion of competition has changed amid the disruption of the news industry over the years. “To me the old days of getting locked in a death grip struggle with the Post and Rocky or whatever—those days are gone,” he said. “Frankly, competition is a good thing for all of us. It’s like when you play tennis with somebody. You want to play with somebody who is better than you, right, in a way that brings up everybody’s game. To me that’s what competition is about, it’s going to hopefully push us all to do good work.” And, like Gorski, he talked about “complementing” the work of others. “I see it more as … complementary than just fierce competition,” he said. “We’re about local journalism, that’s why we did this.”
The Sun has already published a couple newsletters with aggregation and updates on what the Sun is up to. They plan to launch in earnest later this summer. The journalists are working on a startup grant from Civil— it’s not in the millions— and they all own the company, says Ingold, who was at The Denver Post for nearly 20 years. “Absolutely it needs reader support to be sustainable,” he says. As for the journalism, he says they’ll be “thinking big and thematically,” trying to get away from the daily churn.
So what’s the cryptocurrency/blockchain aspect of all this? Part of it is to use the blockchain technology to make sure archives don’t disappear, and the cryptocurrency aspect could help fund the site, which aims to be reader supported and ad-free. “The most important thing is that we’re building an open media platform not unlike Twitter, Facebook, Medium, YouTube, in the sense that anyone can, in theory, contribute media to this platform,” says Matthew Iles, the CEO of Civil, the national company that’s launching more than a dozen other newsrooms outside Denver. He told me Civil got $5 million from Consensys, a blockchain venture company.
“What this means is that the relationship between readers and the newsrooms has never been more direct,” Iles says. “Because now … when The Colorado Sun comes on to Civil, what that means to the consumer is that they have committed to follow the Civil Constitution”— read it here—”which is a public document that we’ve already published that states the mission, purpose, values and ethics of the platform.”
Here’s more, from The Washington Post:
As part of its decentralized model to support journalism, Civil plans to release a digital token this summer, called CVL, according to the company’s website. Interested readers can use the tokens as currency to contribute to their favorite publications hosted by Civil. People who own CVL tokens will also be granted voting rights to make decisions within the Civil ecosystem, such as challenging a new publication’s application to join the platform.Matthew Iles, the chief executive of Civil, said the tokens will also play a part in future products and services that will support news outlets financially, such as a seamless donation system with fewer transaction costs and sponsorship programs in which token holders can back a reporter’s investigative project in their community.
(*Sigh.* I guess this is the part where I have to make an embarrassing disclosure: I got into the crypto market right about the time it went south and lost some money investing in cryptocurrency LiteCoin and the blockchain company Factom. I’m holding onto it, though, because I’m an optimist and there’s no point in selling at this point. I might even buy some CVL.)
Meanwhile, DU is studying ‘the future of Colorado media’
The University of Denver’s Project X-ITE announced it is “teaming with the Gates Family Foundation, the Boston Consulting Group and community leaders to develop a business plan and prototype for a sustainable, scalable independent statewide digital news medium for Colorado.”
Talk about timing.
“There have been numerous conversations throughout the community over the last several months. It is clear that there is a belief that a robust independent journalistic presence is important to the health of our community,” JB Holston, dean of the Daniel Felix Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Denver said in a statement. “Our goal is to add to the discussion about the future of journalism in Denver and Colorado and create more options for how Coloradans obtain news.”
More from DU:
Over the course of the next three months, a broad range of community members, including current and former journalists, will participate in what is known as an “Open Innovation” process, engaging in highly agile, quickly iterative processes to consider and develop prototypes and to test new approaches for digital journalism. “The project is designed to complement and strengthen existing initiatives to develop innovative ways to deliver important civic and investigative news content to the public,” Holston says. “The participants will ‘open source’ what is learned, so everyone in the community can benefit from the findings.” Project X-ITE has managed similar processes over recent years, including a two-day conference in May that cultivated ideas for Smart Cities and the Flight to Denver program, held one year ago, that the University ran with the United Nations, the UN Foundation, and six other Colorado universities.
Here’s a link for the latest news from the Colorado Media Project and more about how you can get involved if you’re interested.
Helen Thorpe’s lament and call to action
Thorpe, a Denver journalist and award-winning author, wrote in a Guest Post for The Indy that the recent coverage of the primary elections underscored how much Denver has lost with the shrinking of its once robust media landscape.
And because free press was limited, candidates benefited more heavily than usual from party affiliation or personal fortune. We had great candidates whose credentials were never adequately explained, and others whose reputations were savaged by negative ads without a clear rebuttal in the public sphere. As a follower of political journalism, I saw a serious impoverishment of our ability to have a civil debate and lamented the diminution of real coverage.
Thorpe praised various outlets, including The Colorado Independent, Denverite, Westword, Chalkbeat and Colorado Politics, for their efforts, saying the state is full of capable journalists, but that those journalists “need publishers to build stronger business models.”
It is time to figure out what to do about our fading newspapers, and how to fund in a real fashion the replacement organizations emerging like The Colorado Independent and the soon-to-launch Colorado Sun. And to keep funding the critical work being done by public radio and public television. So, huge thanks to all who covered this race — but next time, let’s make sure you’ve got the support you deserve.
Inside the meeting with DFM corporate at The Denver Post
On June 19, Digital First Media chief operation officer Guy Gilmore and DFM board chair Joseph Fuchs showed up at the offices of The Denver Post for a conversation with staff. It was a long time coming— on the heels of mass layoffs, the Denver Rebellion, the protests in Adams County and New York City, the termination and resignations, and accusations of censorship. And, well, just as a cadre of top editors and journalists bolt the paper to start The Colorado Sun. Naturally, journalists at the Post were itching for some face time with these corporate suits— and things got sassy.
Here are her quick takeaways:
DFM executives would not say there will be no more layoffs. The only new investment management committed to was paywall technology. The executives said DFM plans to buy up more of other investors’ shares in DFM. Often, the most challenging questions were answered with “I’m sorry I don’t have a better answer than that.“ The executives implied that DFM papers had reached some sort of financial “plateau,” but would not offer up specifics about future cuts. Considering that layoffs took place this week in Colorado and California, we can assume they aren’t done cutting. The executives acknowledged they’ve been aiming for (and getting) a 15-20 percent profit margin — in line with analyst Ken Doctor’s report that the chain earned 17 percent across all papers last year. DFM says this percentage is a “middle” figure for newspaper companies today, Doctor [says] it’s much higher than average.
Some more choice excerpts and exchanges:
REPORTER: Well I feel like you’ve made a decision that you cut it and ensure a certain level of profitability but it’s not good for the employees and it’s not good for product. JOE FUCHS: Well it’s not good for, unfortunately, the employee that had to go.
VOICE IN ROOM: Or the employees who had to stay! The people who are staying are dying. We’re dying. Doing twice and three times what we used to. We’re working three different jobs, four different jobs to make up for the people who are gone.
REPORTER: People are leaving voluntarily, we don’t feel valued — why should we stay? We’re all dying.
OTHER REPORTER: Why shouldn’t everyone in this room be looking for another job elsewhere right now?
GUY GILMORE: Because you can’t — because you have a better job than probably you can — I mean, as hard as it is right now, you have one of the finest journalism jobs in the country. Yes, there are better places, New York Times, but —
REPORTER: Why is it the finest journalism job in the country?
GUY GILMORE: It’s a great market to be living in, it’s a great paper to be working for, the wage scales are high here.
JOE FUCHS: You’re going to get exposure, you’re gonna get your name in print.
REPORTER: Do you work in the same newsroom as I do?
GUY GILMORE: I’m associated with about 50 newsrooms who would die to work here. Mostly.
REPORTER: Well, we’re dying right now
Jesus. That was a real conversation— not the sizzle page from an Aaron Sorkin screenplay about an American newspaper in distress.
Here’s another colloquy, this time about whether The Denver Post will ever have a robust editorial page again:
REPORTER: — … if I wanted to be rich, I would not be a newspaper reporter. If I want to make a difference in my world, I’m doing damn well what I want to do, and I don’t feel like I’m getting the support for that mission from the people in the suits. And it doesn’t feel like you guys care about Colorado, Denver, journalism, First Amendment. Because we don’t feel like we’re getting that support. So when you talk about getting rid of an editorial page, which I have nothing to do with because I’m a reporter, that’s part of what makes a newspaper… and, like, makes change and makes a difference in a community, and that’s what we are here for that’s our number one mission.
JOE FUCHS: You write about things that are important to the community. You don’t editorialize in your articles.
REPORTER: Absolutely not but they jump at our opinion page. I hear it, it makes a difference.
JOE FUCHS: Well so do we, on the other side, too.
REPORTER: So we had 30 layoffs, ripping off the bandaid, but then yesterday Loveland [Colorado] just had a layoff. So my question is are we just gonna be next — oh, and Daily Camera had a layoff. So are we just gonna continue to have layoffs or are there gonna be layoffs next year? Is the Denver Post going to be here in five years? JOE FUCHS: It better be. The plan is to have it be here, be a vibrant force in the community.
REPORTER: It’s not vibrant! You’re making it not vibrant.
JOE FUCHS: Well, it’s a definitional, yeah, that’s a definitional issue. And it needs to be.
There’s more where that came from here. And Reynolds didn’t just transcribe it, either. She annotated it with fact-checks and references to her own reporting.
A Denver TV reporter shared his mental health struggles
Earlier this month, a new report swept the headlines detailing how suicide rates are sharply on the rise across the United States. The report hit just around the time Anthony Bourdain killed himself in a France hotel room. News that the drunk-on-life CNN “Parts Unknown” host and “Kitchen Confidential” author committed suicide led to plenty of public discussions, including among some public figures, about a topic plenty of people don’t often talk about publicly: mental health.
Here in Colorado, 9News journalist Jordan Chavez went on camera to talk about his own mental health issues for the first time. “I suffer anxiety,” he said, which started badly when he moved to Denver and started at the TV station for a job in which he felt “extremely” unqualified. “It is crippling,” he said. “It’s terrifying.” He talked of his embarrassment about having a therapist. “It’s time we start really talking about the root problem that can lead to what we’re seeing on the news now,” he said. “It’s time we start talking before it happens to one of us.”
How a Colorado newspaper is handling the way it reports suicides
“Reporting on suicide is one of the toughest jobs for a small-town newspaper,” writes Vail Daily in an editorial. “There’s a real need to balance sensitivity to those who grieve with providing information to readers. There’s also the danger that reporting on suicide — especially when a young person is involved — might lead to copycat attempts. Given that we live in a region with a higher-than-average suicide rate, and that rate has been rising, news outlets also have a responsibility to help in any way possible.”
More from the paper:
To provide some guidance, public health officials in Eagle, Garfield and Pitkin counties recently hosted a training session about reporting on suicide. Newsroom staff members from the Vail Daily, as well as other papers in the Colorado Mountain News Media network, including The Aspen Times and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, attended that session. There was a lot of information presented, of course, but the session’s main topics included suggestions of how to write about suicide — and, more important, how not to write about it.
Some advice given to journalists was to avoid sensational headlines, quoting from suicide notes, running photos of the scene or writing about how someone “died by suicide,” which is the phrase Vail Daily says it will use from now on in its coverage.
A local Colorado newspaper really doesn’t need this
As if the struggles of operating a local newspaper in Colorado weren’t hard enough. “A Loveland woman says she was harassed Saturday by a man traveling door-to-door who claimed to be a Loveland Reporter-Herald employee selling newspaper subscriptions,” that paper reported. “The Reporter-Herald does not sell subscriptions door-to-door and has not for years.” The man who was hawking the apparent fake subscriptions got a hold of one potential customer’s phone number and allegedly texted her about her looks. Her friend’s fiance confronted him and cops got involved. “I want people to understand this is a real thing and it is scary,” the woman told the Reporter-Herald. “I just want to warn women and get my story out there.”
A small-town Colorado newspaper gets its hands on the tape
Speaking of scrappy outlets holding the powerful accountable, behold The Otis Telegraph, a northeastern Colorado paper with a circulation of about 900. According to Jeffrey Roberts at The Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, the little paper publishes “news and information on everything from pothole problems to high school reunions. Co-publisher Jerry Patterson is known for the live storm videos he posts on the newspaper’s Facebook page.”
More from the CFOIC:
“We call ourselves ‘The friendly voice of Washington County’ because we like promoting the community,” said Patterson, who was born and raised in Otis. “But every once in a while you have to step up and do things that papers are supposed to do. You have to ask the tough questions.”
Those tough questions, in this case, were about whether a county commission went into executive session improperly and why the newspaper couldn’t obtain an audio recording of a meeting. After some back-and-forth and the threat of a lawsuit, Patterson got his hands on the tape. And he published a column about it in which he accused the commissioners of ignoring Colorado’s sunshine laws. “I feel executive sessions are overused, misused and abused,” he wrote. “Too many times the public and the media are buffaloed and stymied when executive session motions are made.”
Patterson told the CFOIC that he and his wife Cheryl, the Telegraph’s co-publisher, “were ready to sue, even though there was no guarantee they would recover what might have amounted to thousands of dollars in legal costs.” The Telegraph is “not a wealthy paper,” he told the CFOIC. “But I’m not one for making threats and not following up on them … We felt like we had a duty to our subscribers and our readers.”
*This roundup appears a little differently as a published version of a weekly e-mailed newsletter about Colorado local news and media. If you’d like to add your e-mail address for the unabridged versions, please subscribe HERE. Photo by Corey Hutchins.