For the second time in two years, the hyper-local for-profit news site Denverite is changing ownership, highlighting a few things: the bleak nature of trying to nail the local news business model, the remarkable growth of Colorado Public Radio, and the impact of The Colorado Media Project to facilitate dialogue. This week, the Centennial-based powerhouse CPR announced it bought out Denverite whose parent company Spirited Media is trying to sell off its other two local media sites.
Denverite and CPR shared the news on their own sites respectively. “Another Denver news organization is going through a big change, but this time it’s not mass layoffs or related to a hedge fund,” was the lede in The Denver Business Journal. The Colorado Media Project, which helped coordinate philanthropic funding for the deal, wrote excitedly about the takeover, saying the news “injects a new spirit of optimism into the local news conversation in Colorado.”
No doubt all three organizations are optimistic about this. But I’m not sure the move doesn’t also underscore something more fundamental about the problems plaguing local news economics. It was in May 2016 when Denverite launched with the glittering “feel of a national startup”, and, notably, no business-side staff or monetization model. It was the test pilot for a potential string of for-profit digital local news sites in other cities across the country. That didn’t scale out, and within two years Denverite got gobbled by Spirited Media. Eight months later my editor let me get away with this headline at CJR: “‘A shitty week’: Spirited Media seeks new revenue streams after layoffs.” Now, less than a year-and-a-half later, this buyout by CPR. In the meantime, Denverite was killing it on the journalism front, and racking up memberships and audience engagement. But there just wasn’t enough time to see if all that could translate into what everyone is— still, still, still— looking for almost everywhere: That holy grail of standalone sustainability.
From NiemanLab, quoting Spirited CEO Jim Brady:
Brady said the company underprioritized marketing and hiring a chief revenue officer: “When you’re trying to build a membership program you need to put people in the top of the membership funnel.” (Newer news sites, especially nonprofits, tend to grossly underinvest in the business side of the journalism operation, research and hard-won experience have both found.) Denverite, the first membership program in Spirited’s portfolio, is moving steadily along with nearly 1,200 signed up for membership (out of about 2,500 across all three sites). In August, Brady told us 60 percent of their 1,500 total customers opted for recurring contributions, with the average annual contribution around $115. And Denverite’s membership push isn’t over at CPR: “We’ve still got to work toward building up membership to cover our journalists’ salaries,” newly promoted editor Ashley Dean wrote in the site’s post announcing the move.
I asked Denverite’s editor Dave Burdick how this isn’t just a bailout since Denverite couldn’t seem to sustain itself on its own and wasn’t able to crack that code for doing so, especially when so many people in Denver loved what it was doing. “Startups take time,” he said, adding that he rejects the idea that the business model didn’t work. Membership revenue is growing rapidly, he said, and one year—that’s how long they’ve been doing it— wasn’t enough time to show sustainability. “Denverite wants to be a member-supported news organization, and we can do that [with] the biggest and best organization at that specific thing with a whole bunch of trust and goodwill built up … and a whole bunch of expertise that’s going to help us.” (Burdick, by the way, will now become the digital managing editor of CPR News.)
In other words, as part of CPR, Denverite’s seven-person newsroom gets to do what it does under its own brand instead of going under, now with a ton of new institutional development help. And that’s what people are excited about.
How long was this thing in the works?
It was around two months ago that Spirited Media CEO Jim Brady approached Colorado Public Radio looking for a buyer for Denverite, the station’s executive editor Kevin Dale told me. He said they quickly realized a purchase was the right play. “We get really good journalists that understand their beats and have a built-in audience so it makes perfect sense,” he said.
The Colorado Media Project helped coordinate support from foundations, bringing the parties together to talk. “They facilitated conversation and then we came in and pitched our idea for how we thought this made perfect sense for Denverite and for CPR,” Dale said. The move also fits into a narrative of aggressive expansion by the public radio juggernaut that now has a newsroom of around 45. “I’ve certainly not made any secret that I’d like to have a newsroom with 60 to 70 journalists,” Dale said.
So what has allowed CPR to afford this growth as media constricts elsewhere? Public support seems like a no-brainer. “We’ve got a very strong development department that’s very good at putting the case together for why it matters to donate to CPR, and hopefully as journalists we are fulfilling that mission and fulfilling that promise,” Dale said. It’s that infrastructure, he added, that CPR brings to Denverite.
Why you’ll be seeing more health care news in Colorado
Kaiser Health News, the national nonprofit dedicated to “in-depth coverage of health care policy and politics” is coming to Colorado. KHN, which reports on “how the health care system — hospitals, doctors, nurses, insurers, governments, consumers — works,” announced this week that it teamed up with two in-state nonprofits and the Kaiser Family Foundation to fund a health care journalism squad here.
From the announcement:
Thanks to a new long-term partnership with the Colorado Health Foundation and The Colorado Trust, KFF will hire a Colorado-based KHN reporter and recruit a team of freelance journalists throughout the state to bring the same high-quality health journalism to Colorado and the surrounding region that KHN produces nationally. This partnership will also share important stories from Colorado and the region with the nation. KHN stories produced from the region will be made freely available for publication by media outlets throughout Colorado, the mountain states, and the country, and will be published on khn.org and distributed through KHN’s social media platforms.
Add this to the growing world of nonprofit niche journalism in Colorado. To recap: Chalkbeat Colorado reports on education, Empowering Colorado is raising money to report on energy issues, and now KHN is moving in on the health care beat. There should be enough to cover. Think about it: Our new governor, Democrat Jared Polis, ran a campaign focused primarily on these three sectors. He promised to push for free, universal full-day kindergarten, to get Colorado on a 100-percent renewable energy grid by 2040, and to reduce health care costs with some kind of plan, whether it’s a single-payer solution, interstate compact, statewide insurance pricing zone, reinsurance program, or something else.
KHN has about 50-plus journalists mostly based in D.C. and California, but it recently launched a Midwest bureau in St. Louis. David Rousseau, publisher of KHN, told me the move into Colorado comes from the state being a place with “a lot of interesting health issues” and “a media ecosystem that has not supported the level of health journalism that it used to in the past.” KHN’s editor Libby Rosenthal noted they wanted to move into places where “voters are going to have to make choices” about health care issues and where compelling state-based innovations might arise. Kytja Weir, KHN’s national editor, told me she sees Colorado as a state that’s “hungry for news and is not really getting as much as they should be because of all the cutbacks” and it’s part of a broader effort to fill gaps in state coverage.
It’s worth noting nonprofit health care coverage here has been done before. Health News Colorado existed from 2011 to 2016. In 2015, my Columbia Journalism Review colleague Trudy Lieberman wrote about the dogged and tough reporting the outlet did about Colorado’s Obamacare exchange. But 10 months later, Lieberman was writing about how HNC was closings its doors. And here’s an odd twist: “The site’s leading supporter, the Colorado Health Foundation, had changed its grant-making priorities,” she wrote at the time about why. “The decision was part of a ‘strategy refresh’ that included a shift away from supporting nonprofit news.” (Read more on that here.)
So now the Colorado Health Foundation is back in the nonprofit news funding game?
Taryn Fort, a CHF spokeswoman, says the nonprofit did go through a shift in 2014 that changed the way it made funding decisions to a more focused model. Funding for this new KHN project, she said, is something the CHF wants to test out over the next three or so years, gauge the impact, and see whether it wants to “go even further in the space of funding news organizations again.” She said she sees a sustainable and proven model in a partnership with KHN. (CHF also underwrites Colorado Public Radio and other public radio stations, and Fort says they’ll continue to as long as it makes sense.)
There’s a lot of talk about building sustainability in Colorado’s media ecosystem these days, which makes something Lieberman wrote about HNC in 2016 relevant today:
The site’s trajectory highlights some of the challenges faced by nonprofit sites more broadly, especially those with a niche focus. As both for-profit and nonprofit outlets struggle to identify new revenue sources, foundations can provide essential support. But in many places, the list of local foundations that might support journalism is not especially deep. When one or two change directions, it can be hard to recover.
Job opportunities to work with the new KHN newsroom are here. Rousseau told me when they hire, they’ll do so with a commitment for three years with intentions for continuing it “as long as it’s needed.”
Speaking of health care news, KUSA’s 9News reporting sees impact
After seeing reporting by KUSA 9News about “at-risk adults dumped by caregivers who end up stuck in hospitals for months, even years,” one Democratic lawmaker is working on legislation to protect the elderly. “It was also partly due to the reporting of 9News highlighting a particular situation about a man named Jerry and bringing to the attention of the community how significantly this problem is becoming,” said Jefferson County Democratic Sen. Jesse Danielson in a recent 9News clip.
Last year I noted the willingness of 9News reporters to crusade on certain issues, particularly involving health care, even testifying in legislative hearings about stories they were investigating. In some corners of the journalistic community, you might encounter resistance to a reporter openly wanting a legislative outcome from his or her reporting. But here’s how Jeremy Jojola sees his job, per a Facebook post about his journalism getting the attention of policymakers: “This is our goal. To find systemic problems that hurt the vulnerable and to get the powerful to take action. Let’s see if something can be done for people like Jerry.”
And now it looks like something is being done. Being able to show impact from such reporting— like a lawmaker on TV saying she introduced a new law after she saw the station’s reporting— sure doesn’t hurt branding, either.
Elsewhere on TV, a worker called in a tip to a Denver station’s ‘Problem Solvers’ unit. Now she could lose her public job.
After a woman who works at a public recreation center in Broomfield, called a tip into Denver’s KDVR FOX31 “Problem Solvers” unit seeking the station’s help in finding the owner of a lost necklace with a vial of ashes and a photo of a man later identified as a deceased military vet, her boss said he wanted her out of a job.
[A] disciplinary letter states, “Without first contacting your supervisor … and without any plan in place, you contacted the FOX31 Problem Solvers.” … “I spent approximately four hours of time researching the situation, notifying appropriate staff within the City and County of Broomfield including Communications and other Recreation staff who may be contacted by the media.”
Welp, after this latest clip aired about a feel-good story turing into the ‘walking definition of the phrase, ‘No Good Deed Goes Unpunished,’ you can bet the department might be spending plenty more man hours on media relations. The necklace did eventually find its owner, a 74-year-old widow who is praising the public employee for helping reunite her with her lost property, telling KDVR, “It’s very, very hard to believe that this person wants to fire such a wonderful worker.”
Just wait until someone files an open records request for all the emails surrounding this one.
What you missed on the Sunday front pages of newspapers across Colorado
A parent-led group dropped its EBSCO lawsuit that included Colorado libraries
This just in this week from The Salem Times in Massachusetts: “The accusations were startling: a North Shore firm that produces educational databases used in schools throughout the United States was purportedly seeding its product with links to hard-core pornography. A lawyer for the plaintiffs, a group of Colorado parents calling themselves ‘Pornography Is Not Education,’ couldn’t offer any explanation as to why an internationally-known firm would intentionally do such a thing.”
More from the coastal newspaper (and why it matters to Colorado):
But it didn’t stop them from filing suit against Ipswich-based EBSCO Information Services and the Colorado Library Consortium, accusing the two entities of doing just that, and claiming damages for alleged violation of consumer protection laws and conspiracy to violate state and federal laws concerning transmitting obscene material to minors.
Here’s the background on this: In December, we learned about what Jim Duncan, director of the nonprofit Colorado Library Consortium, was calling a “modern-day book-burning crusade” underway in the form of a lawsuit by a parent-led abolition effort to rid Colorado schools and libraries from content in online research databases purchased through a national contractor called EBSCO. Users of the databases, the parents and their group said, could access pornographic material. EBSCO is a company that schools and libraries in Colorado use so their patrons can access thousands of e-books, magazines, journals, and other printed material, and the company has said it “does not include pornographic titles in its databases, embed pornographic content in its databases, or receive revenue for advertising from any organization.” Multiple Colorado school districts have scrapped the database in response to the dustup.
Plaintiffs for the lawsuit say they dropped it because of a technicality, according to The Salem Times, but they stand by their allegations. Their lawyers at The Thomas Moore Society told the paper the plaintiffs didn’t want to risk rolling the dice, losing in court, and then having to pay EBSCO’s attorney fees— what the lawyer called a “peculiar and harsh” rule here.
In a statement, Duncan of CLiC said, “Money and time spent on CLiC’s legal defense in this frivolous lawsuit could have been better used to support schools, libraries, and our communities.” The Salem Times reported that figure was about $35,000. (CliC “receives approximately 90 percent of its funding from taxpayers,” the paper reported.)
The Aurora Sentinel shakes up its management
I don’t write enough about The Aurora Sentinel, a newspaper in the Denver area that produces solid work. Like, for instance, this Kara Mason cover story just this week about state and county health officials saying reporting on outbreaks at a private local ICE prison has been incomplete.
Also this week, The Sentinel rearranged its management. From an announcement:
Publisher James S. Gold is now President of Sentinel Colorado Media, owner of the Sentinel. He will focus on new product development and strategic media partnerships. Prior to the Sentinel, Gold was chief marketing officer of the New York Times Regional Media Group. Editor Dave Perry is now editor and publisher of the Sentinel, overseeing news, operations and community partnerships. … Don Federico joins the Sentinel as director of advertising. Federico, a newspaper and digital advertising veteran, has held management roles for Scripps newspapers, including the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Sentinel Operations Director Melanie Coker, has been named general manager, leading business operations and audience development. Changes will allow the Sentinel to focus efforts on expanding regional coverage and building strong journalism brands for the area and Colorado.
A preview of Sunshine Week from Grand Junction
The Sentinel request in question sought communications by city staff and councilors related to a recently declared proclamation of inclusivity. In the email not included in the city’s response for open records, Norris raised her race in a Feb. 4 exchange with resident Keira Havens. “I as a white woman do not believe the very people you claim to be discriminated against have a right to discriminate against me and to do their best to bully me because I am of the opinion that all people deserve to be respected,” Norris wrote. After initially declining to adopt the original version of the proclamation, the City Council last month adopted an amended version of it. Norris, through Kemp, said after the fact that she “apologizes for overlooking this email.” Norris declined an opportunity Friday to further explain how the alleged oversight happened.
Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition director Jeff Roberts told Sentinel reporter Duffy Hayes that state open records laws don’t specify how such emails should be handled upon request. The paper reported “the city most often relies on councilors themselves to turn over open records relevant to public inquiries.”
And remember folks, Sunshine Week is just around the corner.
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