The Colorado Sun, one of the nation’s brighter spots in digital local news sustainability, has been a few things in its five years since launching.
First, it was an LLC backed with seed money from a (now defunct) cryptocurrency company. Then it became a for-profit public-benefit corporation. Then it got into the newspaper business by linking up with a string of two dozen print papers in the Denver suburbs. All along the way, its founders said they were open to doing whatever they thought was best for public service journalism and being whatever Colorado needed them to be.
Now, the outlet is converting into an entity its founders said might one day be a possibility.
“Today, we’re announcing that The Sun intends to chart a new course as a nonprofit news outlet,” Editor Larry Ryckman wrote this Sunday.
The move marks the latest in a recent rush of Colorado news organizations that have pivoted away from a for-profit business model. And the development is quite well-timed as the national philanthropic community that supports local news is joining forces to spend some serious cash and might look favorably on nonprofit newsrooms.
Earlier this month, a network of roughly two dozen big-money organizations led by the MacArthur Foundation joined an initiative called Press Forward and announced they would spend half a billion dollars to support local news and information over the next five years with a goal of doubling that figure in the future. The Sun being a nonprofit might put them (my opinion) in a better position to receive some of that largess.
Ryckman said the timing of The Sun’s announcement was coincidental — the outlet had planned its big reveal around its fifth anniversary — and acknowledged that being a nonprofit could open up some opportunities coming down the pike.
“There are some funders, some individuals, that won’t fund for-profit media outlets,” he said over the phone this week. “And it just didn’t make any sense to me or to us to have any doors closed that don’t have to be.”
He said that wasn’t the main reason for the change.
Explaining what a public benefit corporation is — a rarity in the local news scene — had been confusing, the Sun founder said. He called the nonprofit news model a “cleaner story” to tell. (Indeed, over the years I’ve heard people on journalism panels refer to The Sun as a nonprofit seemingly because they just assumed it was.)
Writing about The Sun’s next chapter, Northeastern University journalism professor Dan Kennedy wrote this for Harvard’s Nieman Lab:
Nonprofit status will also solve a problem Ryckman was wrestling with two years ago: what to do about a news organization that had nine co-owners — the 10 former Denver Post reporters and editors who started the project minus one who’d left — and a burgeoning number of staff members with no ownership stake. The Sun now has 27 employees, Ryckman said, and the co-founders will no longer have to figure out how to manage what had morphed into a two-tiered system.
Ryckman told me The Sun’s founders voted unanimously to go the nonprofit route and also that they all chose to donate their ownership stakes toward the new nonprofit.
“It underscores that this was the reason all along that we created The Sun. It was not to line our pockets,” he said. “We have put every penny that’s come to The Colorado Sun back into our journalism, which is how we’ve been able to grow.”
Because the Colorado Sun is the Colorado Sun, it apparently couldn’t just do the normal nonprofit newsroom thing, either. The outlet has applied for tax-exempt status from the IRS to become a “self-directed nonprofit,” Ryckman said, calling it a kind of structure that allows its employees to have more of a voice than it would with an outside board of directors who don’t work for the organization.
The Sun envisions an initial five-person board (it could grow) with three Sun employees on it and two from the outside. “We want a nonprofit that represents Colorado,” Ryckman said.
Those board members wouldn’t set their own salaries, he said, but would elect an executive committee that would, as well as handle employee reviews. In turn, those who sit on the board would set salaries of the executive committee and handle employment reviews for them as a check and balance.
“It allows employees to have a voice and a vote,” Ryckman said. “I believe the self-directed nonprofit structure really allows us to maintain that.”
The Sun also plans to bring in an outside auditor each year to ensure salary levels are in line with the industry market.
Asked whether the new nonprofit will fully disclose its donors, Ryckman committed to being “as transparent as we can possibly be.”
Denver Gazette touts 3 years of watchdog impact
This week, the Denver Gazette’s editor, Vince Bzdek, celebrated the outlet’s third birthday with a column that touted the impact of its newsroom since landing on the scene as a billionaire-backed digital “interactive newspaper” in 2020.
Here’s a roll-call of some of it:
- “For the first time in Colorado history, a Supreme Court justice was censured for unethical behavior, behavior that was uncovered in a stream of stories on problems with Colorado’s justice system by investigative reporter David Migoya. Six investigations were launched because of David’s work, and new legislation overhauled how judicial discipline is meted out.”
- “In Denver, our biggest commitment in the newsroom this year has been our Kids in the Crossfire series digging deep into the roots of youth violence. We’ve published seven major pieces and plan at least five more through the end of the year dissecting the reasons behind a spike in violence involving children as both perpetrators and victims.”
- “Our Gazette investigative team took on the troubled assisted living centers around the state, and a four-month investigation by Jenny Deam detailed more than 110 suspicious deaths, with miniscule fines for those deaths and hardly any state oversight. We expect some major repercussions to this coverage in the months to come.”
- “Reporters Chris Osher and Julia Cardi’s award-winning coverage of a shocking string of unqualified parental evaluators in the government’s broken child custody system has prompted a state audit to stop the evaluators from continuing to put Colorado children in peril. A legislator vowed to push for new laws as well.”
- “We continued our aggressive reporting on the fentanyl crisis in 2023 and were able to document that after a 150 percent rise in fentanyl deaths in 2020 and a 70 percent rise in 2021, deaths rose less than 1 percent in 2022. Public health scientists attribute Colorado’s leveling off of deaths directly to public awareness. And no one raised public awareness more than our publications.”
- “The Society of Professional Journalists recognized our publications with 44 awards in a contest among four states: Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.Denver Gazette reporter Carol McKinley was honored as Colorado’s Journalist of the Year by the Colorado chapter of SPJ. Colorado Politics reporter Marianne Goodland was also honored with the Keeper of the Flame Award for lifetime achievement in journalism.”
Bzdek also praised the paper’s robust sports coverage, a multiple-award-winning series about the Colorado River, granular attention to the Public Utilities Commission, and “a series of in-person and online town halls.”
Read all of the accomplishments here.
Newsline counters local media reporting of ‘rising crime’ with data showing otherwise
Colorado Newsline reporter Chase Woodruff authored a story this week headlined “Rising crime rhetoric persists in Colorado. Data tells a different story.”
Parts of it takes aim at local media coverage.
Here’s the nut:
Though little notice has been taken by leading political figures and the media, Colorado’s reported crime rates appear to have peaked in 2022, and are now trending downward again.
And here are some choice excerpts from the piece focusing on local media:
“Are we in the throes of a new Summer of Violence?”
That was the question posed by a town hall on youth violence hosted by the Denver Gazette and 9News last month, referring to the name given by local media to the city’s infamous summer of 1993.
In fact, the summer of 2023 is similar to the “Summer of Violence” in one respect: Homicides and other violent crimes are down, just like they were in 1993, when, despite an 80% year-over-year increase in newspaper headlines about the violence, Denver’s homicide and violent crime rates fell slightly compared to 1992.
Decades of research has linked media coverage of crime with distorted public perceptions of crime trends and risks. In annual surveys conducted between 2001 and 2019, a majority of Americans consistently told Gallup pollsters they believed national crime rates had risen over the previous year, even as data showed those rates falling to their lowest levels in a half-century. Consumption of local TV news, especially, is associated with “significantly elevated perceptions of risk and fear of crime,” studies have found.
Since its launch in 2020, the Denver Gazette, one of several Colorado-based news outlets owned by Republican megadonor Phil Anschutz’s Clarity Media Group, has positioned itself as the most aggressive chronicler of Colorado’s “crime tsunami.” Nonstop news coverage of violence, drugs and homelessness is accompanied by commentary denouncing, in the words of one recent editorial, the state’s “abundance of gullible, weak-willed, soft-on-crime elected leaders.”
The backlash among Colorado conservatives to criminal justice reform mirrors a return to tough-on-crime rhetoric by Republicans across the country — with one notable difference. While red-state governors have placed blame for rising crime rates on big-city liberal mayors and “woke” prosecutors, in Colorado — where two of the state’s three largest cities, Colorado Springs and Aurora, have had conservative-leaning city governments and Republican DAs during the surge — Republicans have largely sought to frame criminal justice as a state-level issue.
And as recently as last week, a headline on a Gazette news story described Boulder municipal leaders mulling less punitive policing strategies “amid rising crime,” a characterization that Boulder Police Department data shows is no longer true.
Rad the whole thing at the link above.
The Intermountain Jewish News is ‘very much on the both sides spectrum’
Last week, Colorado Press Association President and CEO Tim Regan-Porter invited on his “Local News Matters” podcast Rabbi Hillel Goldberg and Shana Goldberg. Together, the pair reflected on the “legacy of the Intermountain Jewish News” as the newspaper marks its 110th anniversary.
“We try to cover both sides,” Rabbi Hillel Goldberg said. He added:
We are very much on the both sides spectrum these days. It’s often considered bad journalism to do both sides because obviously only one side is right and it’s my side. Everybody knows that, right? We don’t subscribe to that. So we try to get both sides out there. And I think that’s one of the reasons we’re respected where we’re read is because people can see their own selves of the paper, but see other selves, too. That’s important.
Some more nuggets from the conversation:
- “The Intermountain Jewish News is the place where the diverse parts of the community talk to each other,” Rabbi Hillel Goldberg said. “Our community, like communities everywhere, unfortunately become more polarized, more divided. So we like to believe that our opinion pages are not predictable. And certainly we like to keep our opinions out of the news stories very consciously.”
- “We have two full time reporters and then other people, such as myself, my father, and our associate editor, who write as well not as frequently, obviously, as those full time reporters,” Shana Goldberg said. “Then we rely on a couple of different wire services. With the wire services, we do put a lot of effort into making sure it’s high quality.”
- “People have commented that they like the way we remember people,” Rabbi Hillel Goldberg said. “There was a man who was the editor of the paper in Kansas City, and he always used to say, when I die, I want to die in Denver. And so how come? He says, well, because nobody does obituaries like the Intermountain.”
- “What I’ve noticed going to the annual meeting of the Jewish press is that the independent newspapers have actually done a little bit better than some of the newspapers that were community funded and produced, which was sort of surprising, especially during the pandemic,” Shana Goldberg said. “So a lot of them did have to switch to other models.”
Listen to the whole podcast at the link above.
Details of a spiked Gazette story emerge … 7 years later
“Ryan Maye Handy knew she was taking a risk when she decided to write a story that an executive at the Broadmoor hotel, which is owned by Republican donor Phil Anschutz, had told her not to publish.”
That’s the lede to a compelling story by Jason Salzman of the progressive Colorado Times Recorder digital news site. The story includes on-the-record comments from Handy, for the first time, who details what happened in 2016 when her local community journalism crashed into ownership issues at The Gazette in Colorado Springs.
The story is the second in recent weeks that illuminates for the many what is known by a few about how things worked at a newspaper owned by a politically active billionaire with business interests that are well within his news outlet’s coverage area.
The stories, including this latest that came to light seven years later, started bubbling up after the Denver Gazette launched a cringeworthy attack-ad campaign against the Denver Post. Salzman has said people started reaching out to him after the ad blitz, and his first story stemmed from that.
Salzman’s latest involves a story a young female Gazette reporter wrote about the Broadmoor hotel that Gazette management spiked. She resigned, published it in a different form at the Denver Post, moved out of state, and then out of journalism.
Jack Healy, the Rocky Mountain correspondent for the New York Times, called it a “great story about censorship in local media when you’re owned by a powerful billionaire.”
Here’s how Salzman ends his piece after he quotes me and others about media dynamics in Colorado:
Whatever the reason, Colorado media outlets don’t dig into each other’s business much. But with a Republican billionaire creating a Colorado media empire (Colorado Springs Gazette, Denver Gazette, Colorado Politics), and calling it even-handed journalism when it’s not, it’s time for Denver media outlets to make sure collaboration or misplaced priorities don’t stop them from informing the public about the trustworthiness of local news platforms.
If Handy’s story repeats itself today, news outlets should descend on it together — as they might a political scandal — and give it wide attention, please. And do so immediately, not seven years from now.
Read the whole thing here.
More Colorado media odds & ends
⏰ Last week I wrote about why Colorado Public Radio isn’t yet publicly disclosing the identity of a wealthy couple that gave the station $8.3 million for a new headquarters. Now I’m curious if another outlet will break that story before CPR does, and how long it might take. Consider this the start of the clock.
💳 City Cast Denver, the local news podcast, is launching a membership program. “It’s no secret that local journalism in Denver has struggled significantly over the past two decades, and while we’re off to a great start, the only way we’ll be here for years to come is through the support of our readers and listeners,” lead producer Paul Karolyi wrote in an email to subscribers.
👎 Megan Schrader, the opinion page editor of the Denver Post, criticized a recent story in Politico about Republican Congresswoman Lauren Boebert as “really bad journalism.” Schrader pointed out how the author allowed Boebert to “say the election was stolen from her with zero evidence.”
🪂 That same Politico Boebert profile, promoted by the outlet as “Rabble-rouser in D.C., public servant back home,” couldn’t have dropped at a worse [checks notes: better?] time. The same day the Beltway crowd was reading it in D.C., the state’s local press were reporting that Boebert had been kicked out of a Denver performance of “Beetlejuice” for disruptive behavior. (Some Colorado journalists had thoughts about the profile’s timing.) Boebert’s office denied she was vaping at the show — but local media obtained video surveillance footage that clearly showed her putting a device to her lips and puffing out a visible cloud.
🙏 Northeastern University journalism professor Dan Kennedy gave this newsletter a shoutout in a recent piece.
❌ The emailed version of last week’s newsletter misstated the months the Longmont Leader and Broomfield Leader launched in 2021. They were March and December, respectively.
🦬 “Five national media outlets are broadcasting live from the University of Colorado Boulder this weekend in anticipation of Saturday night’s Rocky Mountain Showdown between the CU Buffs and Colorado State University Rams, and the university is taking extra steps to prepare,” Olivia Doak reports for the Boulder Daily Camera.
🔥 The Gazette’s downtown newspaper office in Colorado Springs had to close this week when a “unique” underground fire sent flames shooting up through manholes and blew one manhole cover into the air.
🇨🇦 After the layoffs reported in this newsletter last week, the Longmont Leader is looking for freelance writers. The Canadian-owned outlet is willing to pay “12 cents a word up to 600 words and increased pay for original photos” and says “freelance writers work as independent contractors.”
🍄 Now that Colorado has effectively decriminalized magic mushrooms, at least one local journalist isn’t too worried about publicly sharing how she tried them to help her write.
🤖 If you recall a recent item in this newsletter about how Colorado USA Today journalist Trevor Hughes (who is very much alive) read his own fake-news obituary, look what just happened with the possible use of AI at the national level.
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I’m Corey Hutchins, co-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. Colorado Media Project 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.